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

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.''

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.

``We thought it was extraordinarily moving,'' recalls Mr. Hays. ``Signing is a language of the whole body and the face, not just the hands. The actors seemed to understand every bit of the [play's] language, and it deepened my understanding of the play. That's when I got hooked.''

That Broadway production never materialized, but later Hays started the company and a professional theater school as part of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn.

The company and the school split off from the O'Neill in 1984 and moved into a donated 19th-century house and barn in rural Chester, Conn., named the Hazel E. Stark Center. From that base, the company travels six to eight months of the year. Twice a year, it divides into two five-member Little Theatres of the Deaf, to perform in schools, parks, libraries, and museums throughout the world.

There are now 20 theaters of the deaf in the US, and NTD also has helped Japan, England, India, China, Australia, and Sweden set up their own. The school invites deaf actors from around the world to come look at the NDF's techniques and to adapt them to their own culture. ``In Japan, the voice is used offstage, in keeping with the Kabuki and Noh traditions,'' says Laine Dyer, director of publicity.

The NTD has utilized many theater styles in its two decades, from non-naturalistic to operatic. Their current touring production is an adaptation of Carson McCullers's novel about the loneliness of a deaf-mute, ``The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.''

Glenn Berenbeim's adaptation of this play condenses a complex plot into brief vignettes, with the abstract quality of an ``Our Town.'' Much of the action consists of townsfolk bursting into the deaf-mute's room, spilling out problems, and then rushing out. It's easy to lose track of what's going on; often one actor will be signing, another speaking, and still another acting. Men speak for women and vice versa, complicating things further.

But that's part of the point the company is making about communication: people miss others' signals, aren't there when they're needed, and don't say what needs to be said. If the fragmented nature keeps the production from having the emotional wallop of the film version that starred Alan Arkin, it has its own moving message.

When NTD travels, it often hires local actors to do the speaking roles; the signing is usually American Sign Language (ASL). ``We rely on [the audience] knowing some of it, and on the extraordinary ability of the deaf to devise meaning and not be stopped by mere words,'' says Hays. ``We find ourselves in easy conversation'' with Russian and Chinese audiences in just a short time, he notes. One grasps signing ``much more quickly than speech.''

The progress of the National Theatre of the Deaf keeps pace with that of the deaf themselves. Today, ASL is the third most-taught language in the US. Technical improvements, such as closed captioning on television, telecommunication devices for the deaf, and flashing detectors for smoke, fire, baby cries, telephones, and doorbells have bridged the gap with the hearing world.

And deafness is no longer such taboo in entertainment. Actress Linda Bove is a regular on Sesame Street. Mark Medoff's play ``Children of a Lesser God'' won three Tony Awards. Marlee Matlin, female lead of the film version, is an Oscar nominee for best actress. And though it took Julianna Fjeld, an actress with the NTD, 10 years to get a book about a hearing girl's life with her deaf parents produced as a TV movie, ``Love Is Never Silent'' won two Emmys last year.

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