Awakening Deaf Theatre in Canada by Jess Amy Shead


Reflections on Deaf theatre in our country after attending The Awakening Deaf Theatre in Canada conference in November.

I personally have this deep, insatiable need to feel known and understood. If one doesn’t have a way to communicate, that is a very hard feeling to achieve. As a hearing person in the Deaf-led environment of the Awakening Deaf Theatre in Canada conference, I sometimes felt isolated or lost in language. The truth is, I was born into speaking a language that is considered superior to most, so I got by just fine. I feel grateful to have gotten a taste of what it might feel like to be a Deaf person in a hearing-led environment. Or how infuriating it might be to show up to an event and find out there isn’t, in fact, an interpreter.

The Awakening Deaf Theatre in Canada conference took place in Tiohtiá:ke (the place now known as Montreal) this November, and I attended as part of my Early Career Development Grant through the BC Arts Council. The few hearing people there were immersed in a completely Deaf-led environment. There were three languages in the room – ASL (American Sign Language), LSQ (Quebec Sign Language), and English, and each one was interpreted in to the other two languages, simultaneously. French was also available if anyone needed it. We were joined by special guests DJ Kurs and Troy Kotsur. DJ is the Artistic Director of Deaf West, the Deaf-led company that produced the ASL Integrated Spring Awakening musical nominated for three Tony Awards. Troy is an accomplished Deaf film and theatre actor in the States. Their presence produced palpable excitement amongst the conference attendees, including myself.

DJ Kurs at the front of the Conference

DJ Kurs at the front of the Conference. Photo by Jess Amy Shead.

The first Deaf theatre conference in Canada was an opportunity for the Deaf theatre community to share ideas and resources, work on practical skills, recognize some challenges and barriers the community is currently facing, and hope and dream for the future. As a hearing ally I witnessed incredible energy, drive, and artistry in the room, as well as the strength that comes from gathering. I came away with a new definition of the words “Listen” and “Hear”.

So, what is Deaf Theatre?

Deaf theatre is Deaf-led, from A-Z. The people who have financial and artistic power are people who have a lived experience of being Deaf. There might be hearing allies involved, but the decisions will be made by Deaf individuals. Deaf theatre doesn’t necessarily need to be about the Deaf experience, but can and often will centre around that background. The creation process will have support in place for Deaf creators, and the Deaf audience’s experience will also be planned for. It comes down to who has the power, money and agency. If a production has one Deaf actor and a hearing Director – is that Deaf theatre?

What is the landscape of Deaf theatre in Vancouver, and across Canada?

Right now, there are no intensive training programs for Deaf theatre artists in Canada. Many Canadian Deaf theatre artists have had to go to the States or Europe for training and a successful career. Deaf theatre organizations are growing across the country, but remain under-resourced and underfunded. Seeing Voices Montreal and the Sound-Off Festival in Edmonton are pillars of the community, with many artist driven collectives working in different forms across the country. Translations from ASL to English or French are not currently included in any major funding bodies’ budgets for translations. Funding for ASL interpretation can also be hard to come by.

In Vancouver, Landon Krentz has founded the Artistic Sign Language Company to work on Deaf Culture Sensitivity Training, ASL Interpreter Bookings, and Deaf Theatre Consultation. He also just received funding to create the world’s first Deaf Opera in ASL.

The Deaf artists I met at the Awakening Deaf Theatre in Canada conference are eager for learning and performance opportunities. The desire for collaborations between Deaf and hearing artists was quite apparent, from both sides.  As a hearing artist who wants to expand my artistic practice and make the spaces I work and create in more inclusive, I see the opportunities to exchange knowledge with Deaf artists in a way that serves us both.

Landon Krentz and Jack Volpe. Photo by Jess Amy Shead.

What are some producing considerations for Deaf theatre?

As Landon Krentz has shared in presentations on ASL access versus inclusion, when interpreters are hired to interpret stage productions they are most often placed to the side of the stage. This forces Deaf audience members to ping pong their gaze back and forth between the stage picture, and the interpreter. In each moment they have to choose what to take in, and likely won’t get the full experience. Interpreters create access, not inclusion. A Deaf-led theatre production will find creative ways to integrate ASL so that it serves the creative purposes of the production, and the audience. Investing in the appropriate support will make this a reality. Some of these support roles are:

  1. An ASL Master – will translate the text from English into ASL (which takes a lot of time and skill), and will coach the actors (Deaf and hearing) on the performance of the ASL.
  2. A Deaf Theatre Consultant – will access the stage picture (the actors, props, sets, costumes, lighting, and audience placement) to maximize the Deaf audience member’s experience. They might also consult on procedures of rehearsing and producing.
  3. Deaf ASL Interpreters – will work together with hearing interpreters to facilitate communication between a Deaf individual and a hearing individual, in rehearsal and in performance.
  4. Hearing ASL Interpreters – will interpret the spoken text in rehearsal and in performance.
  5. Deaf/ASL Actors – will use ASL onstage.
  6. Voice Actors – will give Voice to Deaf Actors signing.

My understanding is that there are many nuances within these roles, and who you engage and how will depend upon what the project calls for. Most of these roles are filled by Deaf people, which not only provides employment opportunities, but ensures that the work is rooted in Deaf experience. There is also space for hearing allies who understand Deaf culture and can work in a Deaf-led environment. Hearing folks need to do the work before getting in the room. This could include Deaf Culture Sensitivity Training, learning ASL, and doing our own research and exploration.

My journey

A huge part of my personal journey of becoming an ally to Deaf artists is starting to learn ASL. My SIGN1000 Course at UBC starts January 21st, and I am so excited to have more communication skills in hand by the time I attend the Sound Off Festival in Edmonton in February.

I am also about to embark on the first creation process for Otosan with the Little Onion Puppet Company and Randi Edmundson and Shizuka Kai. Otosan means father in Japanese, in a friendly way, and follows the story of Shizuka’s strained relationship growing up with her father, a wildlife videographer. The show is nonverbal, so it could be easy to label it as Deaf-friendly. But, three hearing people can’t make that decision. Just because it won’t require ASL interpretation, doesn’t mean that a Deaf audience will get a full experience. So, we are engaging Landon’s consultation at the beginning of our process to build the production with Deaf-friendly practices in mind from day one.

Final thoughts

Post conference, I am curious about my own role in improving funding for Deaf theatre, encouraging Deaf leadership, creating healthy collaborations between Deaf artists and hearing allies, increasing training opportunities for Deaf artists, educating myself, and witnessing the work that’s already being done. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to attend the conference, and to continue questioning my role moving forward.


Resources or links to things mentioned in the post above

Artistic Sign Language – Landon Krentz’s Vancouver based company.
Cahoots Theatre’s Deaf Artists & Theatres Toolkit – an amazing resource for working with Deaf artists.
Seeing Voices Montreal
– the theatre company that co-organized the Awakening Deaf Theatre in Canada Conference.
Seen and Heard – an amazing CBC Documentary about Seeing Voices Montreal’s production of The Little Mermaid.
Deaf West’s production of Spring Awakening – This is an amazing example of how integrating ASL into a performance can elevate the experience for Deaf and hearing audiences tenfold.
Bernard Bragg – America’s first professional Deaf Actor, who passed away a few weeks before the conference.

Upcoming Events

The Tempest at The Citadel – The Citadel/Banff Centre Professional Theatre Program participants are both Deaf and hearing, and they are mounting this ASL integrated production in Edmonton from April 20 – May 12.

Prince Hamlet at PuSh 2019 – Dawn Jani Birley, a Deaf Canadian Actor who lives and works mostly in Europe, is the Keynote Speaker at the Industry Series!

An Interview with Dawn Jani Birley and Ravi Jain from Why Not Theatre

Sound Off Festival – A Deaf theatre Festival in Edmonton this February.

Otosan with The Little Onion Puppet Company – keep an eye out for updates on my process creating a new TYA puppet show called Otosan, with Randi Edmundson and Shizuka Kai!


Some of the Deaf Theatre Companies/Organizations in Canada

Artistic Sign Language
Seeing Voices Montreal
Deaf Crows Collective (Regina)
100 Decibels (Winnipeg)
Deaf Spectrum (Toronto)
Deaf Culture Centre (Toronto)
Toronto International Deaf Film and Arts Festival (Toronto)
Deaf Spirit Theatre (Kingston)
Ontario Rainbow Alliance for the Deaf (Toronto – drag ASL pride – Feb. 1, 2019 in TO)

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