The National Theatre cf the Deaf (NTD) helps youngsters around the world see past the stereotypes surrounding deafness. And they do so with an unusual theater style.
Twice each year, the award-winning touring company splits into two ''child-sized portions'' of five actors, each called a Little Theatre of the Deaf (LTD), to perform for children. All but two members currently suffer frcm deafness.
They bring to school auditoriums and gymnasiums the NTD's special blend of sign language, body movement, and spoken narration. This is a performance style that lets the audience both hear and see each word.
The NTD's style and skill won the troupe an invitation to perform at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles this summer.
At the Mark Twain School, Hartford, Conn., recently, an LTD series of short pieces won steady concentration and vigorous applause from some 300 students.
''Ooh, yuk!'' youngsters shrieked as Sandi Inches, playing a spider, happily consumed a fly caught in her web. Soon they guffawed as Billy Seago, playing a moth in James Thurber's ''The Moth and the Star,'' flew around the stage with a little propeller atop his purple beanie. And when Hans Christian Andersen's ''The Steadfast Tin Soldier'' (played steadfastly by Adrian Blue) melted, many eyes were moist.
''Occasionally we worry that we'll be boring to children,'' said company member Mike Lamitola. ''They really pay attention to us, though. Sometimes we look out at the audience and see kids squirming, especially when we perform in places like gyms, where they have to sit on benches and on the floor. But even when their bodies are wiggling, we notice, their eyes are right on us.''
At one Hartford performance, actor Billy Seago recalled, ''We had to stop for a minute after we presented the sign alphabet, because we could see that the kids were applauding.''
The company includes a fast-moving introduction to sign language in its performances for young people, showing signs for places, things, and abstract ideas. They also explain ''finger spelling'' - finger placements that signify each letter of the alphabet to spell out proper nouns and other words that have no special sign.
''Often kids have been learning the language,'' explained Lizette Smith, a hearing member of the company who narrates onstage events. The finger-spelling alphabet is included in the study guide the LTD sends to teachers whose students will see its performances. An explanation of sign language in general (''visual language used by deaf people''), answers to questions commonly asked about deaf people (''Do deaf people drive? Yes, with good safety records''), and background on the LTD are also included.
At Mark Twain, the guide spurred classroom discussions on the possibilites of nonspoken language and on both the accomplishments and problems of deaf people.
''You can talk with your hands - or with your feet,'' said a third grader, who then showed clearly how she would invite a nonhearing friend to jump rope with her.
A fifth-grader described such language: ''You talk,'' she said, ''but you don't do it out loud.''
Several fourth graders wrote essays about deaf people's abilities. ''I didn't know deaf people drove and danced,'' wrote a girl named Anjanee.
Anjanee's teacher, Elaine Basch, told her class about her own deaf cousin and the cousin's deaf husband. They had held responsible jobs, traveled to all 50 states, and devised helpful devices, such as a flashing light to alert them when their baby stirred.
Several fifth graders discussed the presence of captions for the hearing-impaired and of sign-language interpreters on television shows they watched.
''And there's that lady from the Theatre of the Deaf, on 'Sesame Street,' '' observed one boy. (Linda Bove, a former member of the company, is a regular on the PBS series.)
After offering direction for such discussions, the LTD study guide adds a warning: ''There is simply no place for direct comment on handicaps.'' The LTD visits are not to preach, but ''to surprise and entertain.''
Since its founding in 1967 by designer David Hays, who is still its artistic director, the Theatre of the Deaf has traveled throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. Its productions have not only shown deaf people as skilled and handsome performers, but have also won critical acclaim - including a 1977 Tony.
The theater receives income from gate receipts and both federal and private grants. Originally based at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Conn., the company moved last year to two 19th-century buildings in Chester, Conn. These buildings were purchased and renovated with a $250,000 gift from Connecticut businessman Irving Stark as a memorial to his late wife.
Youngsters seem surprised and entertained when the actors' bodies, hands, and faces put words into motion onstage.
''The kids really enjoy the transformation of the written language into something visual,'' Mr. Lamitola noted.
''When they can both see and hear words,'' added Miss Inches, ''it's like getting a show in two different languages.''
The actors close each show with improvisations, acting out whatever challenges the audience tosses to them. At the Hartford performances, the youngsters' requests turned the troupe into monkeys, vultures, a thundering brontosaurus, a tractor, and a washing machine (plus soap and dirty laundry).
After the Mark Twin performance, the third-to-sixth-grade audience flocked to the performers to smile, shake hands, and receive autographed pictures. No one had much to say about deafness. What everyone wanted to talk about was the fun of the performance - which was just what the actors intended.