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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets, and a Classic American Musical

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Diane does not look forward to ambushing Ron, but she determines that she has no choice; he is the only other person on campus with the authority to sign her application. She locates him in his office and presents the forms. Ron, scanning the paperwork, quickly realizes that he is looking at a 60-40 style grant, with Mac left to pay for an estimated $4,580 in production costs. Any overage in the budget will also be Mac’s problem. For a financially strapped institution, $4,580 is not an insignificant sum. Diane, with a certain amount of contrition, admits that she isn’t giving him much warning. Ron’s terse reply: “No. You’re not.”

Nevertheless, he signs the proposal. In doing so, he automatically becomes a member, however tacit, of the project’s eight-person steering committee, as stated on the second page of the grant application. The active membership of the committee never rises above five.

An $11,450 budget for a Mac theater production, however worthy, would have been completely unheard of just one year earlier. Mac’s old theater building, last used as a temporary church, has been empty since 1984. The ministry that rented the building updated the electrical systems and the plumbing, but did neither to code, and when the ministry shut down, local fire marshals deemed the building unsafe and uninhabitable. Until 1997, Mac itself had not witnessed a faculty-directed theater production since 1982, when Phil Decker, professor emeritus, reluctantly allowed the Theater Department to merge with the English Department. Theater had been a three-person department for years, but attrition and budget cuts left Phil as the last man standing, and he chose to discontinue the drama program rather than soldier on with no help and little chance of living up to his own high standards. It was not until the mid-1990s that a group of students, working with minimal funds through the student-chaired Student Activities Finance Committee, began to mount their own productions, including Butterflies Are Free and Black Comedy. Noting the resurgent interest, the Mac faculty, led by Phil Decker, decided to create a position within the English Department for an Assistant Professor of Drama. Not long after filling that post, Diane clashed with the students over the student-controlled budget and over Diane’s choice of material. Antigone in New York, with its ribald language, offended many students from the outset, and several students refused to even audition. Later, with the atmosphere somewhat cooler, one student confessed to Diane, “We thought you were just here to sign our checks.”

In lieu of an actual theater, Diane inherited the dance studio, lined on two walls with full-length mirrors and a companion barre, still solidly bolted to the floor. The heavily waxed hardwood floor sported green and red painted lines left over from fencing tournaments, and the room, at first glance, had the look of a mispainted basketball court. Unpainted cinderblock walls culminated in a sixteen-foot ceiling with two lateral skylight systems. These skylights worked so well that they made daytime and matinee performances all but impossible. The studio space also included a main entrance with wooden double doors, a fire exit, a demolished drinking fountain, a bright red fire extinguisher, and two closets, one of which had been devoted to props and doubled as a minuscule greenroom (the space that actors occupy when offstage during performances). The other closet, until the late fall of 1998, held outdated audiovisual and athletic equipment, after which it became an all-purpose dump for the theater’s lumber and building materials.

Lumber has, unfortunately, been among the nascent theater’s most difficult problems. There is no place within the education complex, the facility that houses the studio, to stash it. Past student productions tended to overbuy, leaving increasing piles of unused and esoteric wood lying around the studio floor. These piles, together with a set of poorly made flats—both wood-faced and canvas-covered—joined with bulky, heavy props like a refrigerator and a dilapidated sink to completely fill one end of the studio space. The single most important factor in determining both the stage space and the seating area for any given audience has become this heap of theatrical junk, and considerable time and energy is spent rearranging it with each successive production. Throwing it out en masse is not a viable option, since there is insufficient money to tolerate any waste.

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