CHAMPS Charter High School of the Arts

Deaf performers are finally seen and heard on the stage and screen

Interpreting Credits: Rachel Bird and Mikaella Taylor

Joshua Castille developed his deep passion for performing as a middle school student in Louisiana. However, opportunities to perform were limited until high school, because, while Castille was able see the audience’s awed expressions, and had a natural presence on stage, he was not able to hear what was being said on stage around him. Unlike most other talented aspiring performers, the 21-year-old actor is hard-of-hearing.

Castille’s deafness* has not prevented him from pursuing his dreams. He has starred in a critically-acclaimed Broadway production, appeared on a popular television series and directed a well-received staged-reading of a musical. Yet, growing up, Castille had very few deaf or hard-of-hearing role models within the entertainment industry. He would stare at the screen in astonishment at the sight of a fellow deaf actor.

Not until college did he discover the large community of talented deaf actors, like himself, who had, until recently, been pushed to the sidelines by mainstream media. Castille is part of a groundbreaking surge in Deaf exposure within the arts has thrust talented young actors into the spotlight, as they rapidly become the role models they never had.

“The change is happening,” said Blake Silver, the associate director of the recent critically-acclaimed Broadway revival of the musical Spring Awakening, which embraced both deaf and hearing actors, including Castille. “The outreach that is possible is unheard of and unprecedented.”

Photo Credit: BroadwayWorld.com Josh Castille and co-stars Andy Mientus and Daniel David Stewart (L to R) in SPRING AWAKENING.
Photo Credit: BroadwayWorld.com
Josh Castille and co-stars Andy Mientus and Daniel David Stewart (L to R) in SPRING AWAKENING.

For decades, a myriad of films have cast hearing actors in the already scarce deaf roles, despite a pool of deaf actors that has been in existence since the era of silent films. The Avenged, a 2013 film, received backlash in the Deaf community for casting a hearing actor to portray the deaf protagonist. Furthermore, in the 87 years since the first Academy Awards, only one deaf actor or actress has ever been nominated for a performance award: Marlee Matlin, who won the coveted award for her depiction of a young deaf woman in the 1986 film Children of a Lesser God.

Although the road to inclusion has been a treacherous one, the tides are turning, as recent productions have begun casting genuinely deaf actors. The long-running Freeform show Switched at Birth cast dozens of deaf and hard-of-hearing actors, in both leading and supporting roles, and told the story of an intelligent and spirited deaf teenager. Spring Awakening, produced by Deaf West Theatre, found success in both LA and NYC, earning an extended Broadway run, 3 Tony nominations, and 6 Ovation Awards. It featured American Sign Language, and a cast that was one-third deaf or hard-of-hearing.The cast performed, in both ASL and English, on national television at this year’s Tony Awards, which broadcast the sign-language infused performance to over 8 million people nationwide.

Both of these shows happen to be geared towards young adults, and they promote strong themes of communication and acceptance. These marketable productions have had an apparent impact on both hearing and deaf young people of this day and age by exposing young audiences to Deaf culture and allowing deaf actors to prevail.

According to recent studies conducted by the Modern Language Association, the number of students who are taking ASL classes at universities has doubled in the past decade. “Sign language is now more popular than ever,” said Silver, who spent nearly two years working with Deaf West Theatre, “hearing kids, who never really knew about it as a culture or a language, are digging deeper and learning about what the culture has to offer.”

The success of these shows, as well as the steadily growing presence of people who are deaf in comedy, the media, and on competition shows, has spawned the hashtag #DeafTalent, which has become a staple for ensuring that all deaf artists, writers, or athletes’ voices are heard. The hashtag began as a Twitter page in response to the discontent over the casting of Avenged, and has expanded into a social media phenomenon.

The hashtag promotes the idea that deaf actors have talents that are ideally suited for the stage and screen. The expressive facials that come naturally for native signers go hand in hand with the vocals and spoken dialogue of singers, and, along with the signs, are able to effectively and movingly convey emotion and story.

“ASL is a visual, three-dimensional, mobile language, which makes expressive use of the face, body and hands. This automatically makes actors who use ASL on stage engaging to watch,” said Willy Conley, a professor of theatre at Gallaudet University, the nation’s leading liberal arts university for deaf students, where Castille attended school before joining the cast of Spring Awakening.

However, for one who can’t speak, making yourself heard can be a challenge. American Sign Language is Castille’s primary means of communication. He can speak, but is most comfortable signing, which his mother learned with him when she discovered that he was hard-of-hearing. To combat the challenges that arise from including profoundly deaf and hard of hearing performers in a musical, the production team from Spring Awakening, many of whom were also deaf, utilized light cues, stylized body language, and specific blocking and choreography to ensure that everyone remained in sync with the music, despite the fact that a third of the cast had never heard it.

“During Spring Awakening, I found my identity as a deaf artist, and I know now that there are tons of us,” said Castille.

The deaf performers are the movers and shapers of this new era of entertainment, but there are other aspects of theatre and film that are changing the game for the next generation of aspiring deaf performers. While thousands of videos and shows continue not to provide captioning, the world is becoming more aware that captioning is a necessity, not a courtesy. Deaf advocacy groups dedicate generous amounts of time to have bills passed that require all video platforms to include captioning. As these YouTube videos, films, and television shows gain subtitles, more young deaf performers are inspired to take acting seriously.

Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 2.30.12 PM
11-year-old Lana Pollack during summer camp at No Limits for Deaf Children, a theatre and education program for children who are deaf and hard-of-hearing.

Lana Pollack, an 11-year-old deaf theatre student with No Limits for Deaf Children, is interested in pursuing acting as an adult, and does not believe her deafness will ultimately hold her back.

“This is my eighth play!” said Pollack, a spirited young girl with fire-red hair. She continued to explain how different her world looks, and sounds, for aspiring deaf actors, as compared to Castille’s childhood, only 10 years ago. “It makes me more excited,” she said, about the expanding opportunities for young deaf performers.
Recently, Pollack auditioned for her first role in a film. She did not win the part, but she was excited that they would let a young deaf girl audition. And, she confident that there would be a “next time,” when they will give the part to a deaf girl.

 

 

*Any time the term “deaf” is used, it also encompasses hard-of-hearing, and deaf is the inability to hear, while Deaf refers to the community of those who are deaf*

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