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The drama and art of `sculpture in the air'. `Signing' deepens meaning for both hearing and deaf audiences

By Catherine FosterStaff writer of the Christian Science Monitor / February 18, 1987

Concord, Mass.

Actress Cathleen Riddley's hands flash through the air, signing rapidly as she speaks. She's one of two hearing actors in the National Theatre of the Deaf, and signing and speaking simultaneously has become second nature to her. All of a sudden, she realizes that she's talking to a hearing person and doesn't need to sign. But her stilled hands look as if they're itching to spring to life again. ``It's an incredible challenge,'' she says in a short interview after a performance of ``The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.'' ``I'm just realizing that I can communicate in two different languages and that they're integrated as total communication.''

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Synthesizing spoken and signed language to create a heightened understanding of a play is what the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD) has been doing for 20 years. Instead of placing a signer at the side of the stage, the NTD integrates signing and speaking actors into the action. The result: physical poetry that lets the audience, both deaf and hearing, see and ``hear'' the words in a fresh new way.

This theatrical signing has been called ``sculpture in the air,'' and it's as comparable to everyday signing as Laurence Olivier is to the man in the street. It's not only efficient - the sign for ``the end'' is a short, choppy down-stroke, but also lyrical - ``universe'' is a grand embrace.

``These actors express emotion with great delicacy and change quickly from one emotion to another; it's like a kaleidoscope across their faces,'' says Colleen Dewhurst, who directed ``All the Way Home'' for the company in 1984. ``Sometimes speaking actors don't have as easy access to their emotions; whereas hearing-impaired actors have to have a quick ability to call on that, because they don't have the words, as we do. That's why hearing-impaired theater is appealing more and more to a broader and broader audience.''

The company doesn't play just to the deaf (90 percent of their audiences are hearing) nor to the English-speaking. The peripatetic NTD has travelled not only to all 50 states, but to Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and the Near East - 4,000 performances in all. NTD was the first US theater company to tour China and was one of four national theater companies invited to represent the US at the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival in 1984.

And NTD doesn't just do plays about the deaf; it has adapted works by Chekhov, Voltaire, Homer, Moli`ere, and Puccini, as well as performed original pieces. Its work has won critical acclaim and a Tony Award in 1977 for theatrical excellence.

It's been a long journey since the company's fledgling days when, although reviews were positive and audiences came in droves, booking agents were squeamish. ``We were seen as a freak show,'' says David Hays, artistic director since the company's inception in 1967.

Counteracting such stereotypes was what propelled Edna Simon Levine, then a psychologist working with the deaf, to dream up the idea of a professional company of the deaf. ``I wanted people to understand and appreciate the talents of so-called handicapped people,'' says Dr. Levine, now professor emeritus at New York University.

When ``The Miracle Worker'' became such a hit on Broadway, Levine was encouraged to enlist the help of Anne Bancroft, the play's star; Arthur Penn, the director; and David Hays, the designer. They worked together to try to develop a Broadway production that would showcase the talents of deaf people. The three went to see a student production of ``Our Town'' at Gallaudet College for the Deaf, in Washington, D.C.