Jill Bradbury on experiencing Shakespeare as a Deaf audience member

Audience members view a stage production

In the latest issue of Shakespeare Bulletin, Dr. Jill Marie Bradbury relays her experience as a Deaf spectator at several recent Shakespeare productions. How do the choices made by both the production team and the front of house of the theatres themselves demonstrate their understanding of the needs of Deaf audience members? Her paper, Audiences, American Sign Language, and Deafness in Shakespeare Performance  also details practical ways performances can improve accessibility. She joined us to discuss her research and experiences in more detail.

Can you tell us a bit about your "academic origin story"? What is your specific area of research? What brought you to your area of academic focus? 

As an undergraduate, I majored in Economics and English because my father thought an English degree alone wouldn’t get me a job. One semester I took a class in the history of economic thought and I was hooked. In grad school, I focused on eighteenth-century British literature because that is when economics emerged as a discourse. I researched that for many years while teaching at Gallaudet, which is a university for Deaf and hard of hearing students in Washington, D.C. One day, I saw a call for applications from the Folger Shakespeare Library for a national travelling exhibit to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. I knew my colleagues at Gallaudet had done some very cool work with Shakespeare in ASL, so I got a group of people together to submit an application. When we were selected as the DC site, I immersed myself in the history of Deaf theater and Shakespeare in ASL. That was a turning point for my career and led to my current position at NTID. 

In your paper, Audiences, American Sign Language, and Deafness in Shakespeare Performance, you compare your experience as a Deaf audience member at Shakespeare plays to published reviews of the same performances you attended. Did the genesis of this paper come from comparing your experience with those reviews, or did the paper's themes come together in prior work or experiences? 

I have a hearing colleague and friend, Sheila Cavanaugh, who is interested in all things Shakespeare. She and I decided to go see the plays together. Originally, I was planning to write about the translations. However, it immediately became apparent that she and I were having completely different experiences at the plays. And that I, as a Deaf spectator, was having an inferior experience. So I decided to write about that. As I read through reviews of the performances, I noticed more and more how accessibility for Deaf and hard of hearing audiences was not considered by the majority of the reviewers. Which is the most important element, from my point of view. 

You note that none of the reviews of the performances you attended were written by people who self-disclose as Deaf. Much as the theaters have a responsibility to take into consideration Deaf audiences, do you feel the publications that run reviews have a responsibility to hire Deaf reviewers? 

I think that reviews of integrated Deaf/hearing plays would be greatly enriched by a Deaf perspective. There are often aspects of these productions that only Deaf audience members are aware of. 

You point out in your notes that "Shakespeare in sign language is not new, however. Once can find mentions of such productions in British newspapers in the late 1880s." How common today are Shakespeare performances that are staged entirely in ASL? How has your experience as an audience member at those performances compared?

They are not very common. The last time a Deaf theater company did Shakespeare was 2016, when New York Deaf Theatre did Titus. It’s not very common for a hearing theater company to do a fully ASL production either. The most recent one was A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Sound Theatre Company in Seattle (2018). Two big barriers for theater companies are the increased costs due to interpreting needs and the task of translating the entire play. There aren’t pre-existing translations that people can use, as with spoken language plays. Most of the time, the actors have to do the translation work themselves, in conjunction with the director of artistic sign language (DASL). In professional theater, there’s not a lot of extra time for this. 

I definitely have a better experience at fully ASL productions because many of the accessibility issues that I discuss in my article are not present. However, the translation issues remain – the need to balance clarity with Shakespeare’s poetic artistry.  

You note that different shows' methods of translating the text into ASL either enhanced or detracted from different performances. Who makes those translation decisions from the original text to ASL? 

Typically the actors, with support from the DASL. In some instances, the play has been translated by a team in advance and given to the actors as a script to memorize. I’m an advocate of the latter, but some of my theater colleagues are not. They feel that it doesn’t allow the actors to express themselves in their characters, even though that’s what hearing actors are expected to do.

What was the best performance (even if not one you reference in your paper) of a Shakespeare play you have seen that incorporated ASL and/or Deaf actors? What made it special? 

There are two that stand out. One is the Sound Theatre Company’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Deaf artist Howie Seago. The translation was so amazingly clear. But, I saw that online during the pandemic, so I didn’t get the full live theater experience. For that, I would have to say Josette Bushell-Mingo’s The Tempest, because it was almost 100% accessible and the translation was also very clear. It was an unusual script though, as she pulled text from a variety of Shakespeare’s plays. I didn’t love that aspect of it. I guess I’m still waiting for the perfect production to come along.

The plays you note in your work were all in 2019. Did the onset of Covid-19 and subsequent pivoting of much of live performance to Zoom / online open up new opportunities for Deaf actors and/or audience members? 

Yes and no. Many Deaf theatermakers turned to Zoom or other livestreaming platforms to earn money and keep performing. For myself as a Deaf audience member, suddenly performances all over the world were accessible to me. I got to see Emilia, from Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet, and some other shows in England. On the other hand, there was very little accessibility for Deaf and hearing audiences. Only very established theater companies captioned their performances. I tried using the built-in captioning in Chrome, which can caption any media on a website pretty accurately, but it couldn’t handle Shakespearean English. Of course, I could have had the play open in front of me and followed along, but that splits the visual attention. It wasn’t really worth it. So, the pandemic was definitely a mixed bag in terms of new opportunities.  

What's next for you, research-wise? Any papers or books you are currently working on that you would like to share with us? 

I have a couple of grant projects that I’m working on. I’ll be collaborating with Protactile Theatre to develop a children’s play that will be performed in Rochester and the DC metro area. I also received an NEA Big Read grant to organize programming centered on Ilya Kaminsky’s book of poetry Deaf Republic. That will include a stage adaptation, which I’m very excited about. I’m also working on an immersive adaptation of Hamlet to be performed at NTID that will allow me to explore some of my thoughts about accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities. And my RIT colleague Andy Head and I are writing a book about integrated Deaf/hearing theater. It is a practical handbook that will help theatermakers avoid the types of accessibility and inclusion issues that I discuss in my Shakespeare Bulletin article. The next couple of years will be busy, but really exciting!

Jill Bradbury

Jill Marie Bradbury is Professor and Chair, Department of Performing Arts, National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology. Publications include the collaborative essay "ProTactile Romeo and Juliet: Theater by/for the DeafBlind," Shakespeare Studies 47 (2019); “Audiences and ASL in Shakespeare Performance,” Shakespeare Bulletin 40.1 (2022); "Disability Embodiment and Inclusive Aesthetics," forthcoming in the edited collection Inclusive Shakespeares: Identity, Pedagogy, Performance. Other work includes the documentary video “ProTactile Romeo and Juliet: Theater by/for the DeafBlind” and the exhibit "Shakespeare in American Deaf History." She has received multiple grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and serves on the board of the National Theatre of the Deaf

Written by: MAFY
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