NU Theatre incorporates ASL

Efforts made to make NU shows more accessible

Sarah Emmerling

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Photo Courtesy of Niagara University Theatre

NIAGARA UNIVERSITY, N.Y. – Niagara University Theatre and the ASL/Deaf Studies program have come together to create a positive change in the NU community, particularly for theatre patrons attending this season’s shows. For each show, there will be at least one performance that is interpreted in ASL, allowing those who are deaf and hard of hearing to attend and engage in the theatre.

This is not the first time that these two programs have worked together. NU Theatre Artistic Director Steve Braddock and ASL/Deaf Studies Coordinator Nanette Harmon have been discussing ways to make theatrical productions more accessible for years.

“It’s something we’ve been thinking about for a long time,” Braddock explained. “It started with a conversation a few years ago about the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening.”

The Deaf West is a theatre company based in California that regularly incorporates sign language into its productions and aims to provide deaf artists and audiences with stories and experiences they are often excluded from. Their production of Spring Awakening, which included both deaf and hearing actors, beautifully blended sign language, music and dance. The story of children growing up, facing their anxieties, and learning more about themselves in a cold and confusing world was nothing short of powerful with the addition deaf characters that provided an entirely new perspective. It was so well-received by deaf and hearing audiences that it moved to Broadway in 2015.

“We started thinking about what we could do here at NU to reach out,” Braddock stated. “All those conversations led us to what became Mother Hicks last spring.”

NU’s production of Mother Hicks took the stage during March 2017. It called for great collaboration with the ASL/Deaf Studies program as it included shadow interpreters, ASL students who translated the dialogue of the characters into sign language while also being fully involved in the action of the play. These interpreters were costumed and followed the characters around the stage. The show also included a deaf actor.

Sam Hemphill joined the NU Theatre family to portray Tuc, a young deaf man and an outsider to his community. This touching show was completely bilingual, as other actors spoke while Sam signed and shadow interpreters covered all of the spoken dialogue. It was extremely inclusive and drew people in from the deaf community, giving them the opportunity to experience an inspiring and enriching story through theatre.

As Hemphill is now loved and welcomed by everyone at NU Theatre, he expressed an interest in attending the shows of this season and reuniting with his old castmates. He requested interpretive services, and immediately, Braddock and Harmon strived to meet this goal.

“Sam formed a lot of bonds with the people in Mother Hicks,” Braddock explained. “He wants to continue to be part of the life of NU Theatre. That’s very hard for him to do without having interpretative services.”

Braddock and Harmon worked with Human Resources to find theatrical interpreters in the area. They got in touch with two different agencies: Deaf Access Services in Buffalo (for which Harmon serves as a Board member) and Service Bridges in Niagara Falls, the service that provided the interpreters for Men on Boats, the first show of the current season.

“I was blown away by their skill,” Harmon commented. “An interpreter isn’t a one-size-fits-all job. There are various specialties. There’s a big difference between interpreting for someone one-on-one and theatrical interpreting. It is extremely difficult to master, but the two women who signed during Men on Boats, Kate and Clara, were tremendous. We hope to bring them back for the next show.”

This improvement is a huge step for NU, ensuring that more people are included on the work that is being produced here.

“This has been a long, ongoing process for what we call universal design,” Harmon explained. “Universal design means making everything we do available to as many people as possible. Often, people with language differences, disabilities, and so on, aren’t even thought about. It’s not a direct exclusion of people, it’s just not in people’s mindset. We’re trying to change that culture.”

This concept is part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which legally requires institutions to provide the same opportunities for people with disabilities as everyone else and prevent any kind of discrimination.

“It’s not as much about our legal requirement as it is about our moral requirement as a Vincentian university,” Harmon stated. “Our Catholic principles call us, and we use St. Vincent DePaul as our model, to reach out to people who are marginalized.”

Hemphill was very grateful for the opportunity to see another show at Niagara, and indicated his desire to come back for more. Braddock and Harmon hope that more people in the deaf community will hear about this improvement and also attend these shows.

“It was really nice that last year’s experiment with Mother Hicks has generated interest for a deaf patron,” Braddock stated. “We want that interest to spread so that we can start including the deaf community in our productions on a regular basis.”

The next NU Theatre show will be Julius Caesar, running Nov. 2-12. Opening night will feature ASL interpreters.

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