When pursuing a theater festival for accessibility didn’t work, a Utah school official started his own

Michelle Tanner was looking for a way for deaf students in Utah to experience theater — and when pursuing the state’s most prestigious theater festival didn’t work out, she decided to start her own.

This is how the National Deaf High School Theater Festival – marking his second year, but his first with in-person performances – debuted. The festival takes place Thursday through Saturday in Salt Lake City.

The festival will draw students, ages 14 to 18, from 10 schools across the country – including Texas, Minnesota and Oklahoma – to perform drama, as well as dance, storytelling and visual vernacular.

Students will participate in a mix of workshops, trainings and other social opportunities, said David Kurs, artistic director of Deaf West Theatera Los Angeles-based troupe that bills itself as “the bridge between the deaf and hearing worlds.”

On Saturday evening, the general public will be able to see the performances of the students and the stars who contributed to their formation. The performance will take place Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Salt Lake City campus of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, 1655 E. 3300 South, Salt Lake City. Free entry. Performances will also be streamed live on deafwest.org.

Audiences attending Saturday’s performances will find themselves completely immersed in deaf theater, Tanner said. Interpreters will be on hand for basic introductions and explanations, but not during the performances themselves, she said.

“People who come to watch it and observe it will be able to experience it in the first language, the natural language in which it was developed,” Tanner said. “To experience different performances in this way, I think, will be a great experience for people who hear people who don’t know sign language either.”

One of the guest performers is Daniel Durant, who last month won a Screen Actors Guild award as part of the ensemble cast of “CODA.” This movie — about a Massachusetts fishing family whose hearing member (Emilia Jones) learns she has a talent for singing — won four awards at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is nominated for three Oscars, including best film.

Sign language actors feature in two of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees. Besides “CODA,” which also stars nominated supporting actor Troy Katsur and former Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, the Japanese film “Drive My Car” features a character who communicates in Korean Sign Language — and it is by sign that she delivers the film’s final speech, as part of a performance of the classic “Uncle Vanya”.

It was the classics — and the lack of access to them — that prompted Tanner, associate superintendent of the deaf at Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind (USDB), to start the high school festival in the first place.

For years, USDB students have attended the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City, competing — and sometimes winning — in the festival’s high school competitions. Tanner said she complained that the judges did not criticize the deaf student actors, but the performers voicing the actors’ dialogue.

Tanner said the Shakespeare Festival has provided American Sign Language interpreters for years so its students can attend professional performances at the festival. In 2019, she said, organizers told the school they should start providing their own ASL interpreters. Instead, USF provided tablets that played closed captioning.

USF Executive Producer Frank Mack said in a statement this week, “The festival provides live captioned performances to every play we produce each season. Live captioning is fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. »

Tanner pointed out that it is difficult for Deaf students to read captions and pay attention to visual performance on stage simultaneously. Plus, she says, Shakespearean English is hard to understand, whether you’re deaf or not.

USDB, another school, and the Utah Association of the Deaf sued USF, Mack, and Southern Utah University in 2019, alleging the festival violated the ADA by not providing language interpreters signs. A judge dismissed the lawsuit the day after it was filed.

Having lost in court, Tanner took a different approach. She thought there should be high school drama competitions for deaf children, but there was nothing. Tanner said his reaction was, “Game, we’re gonna do it.”

USDB began partnering with Sun 2.0a professional touring theater troupe from Rochester, NY Deaf West later signed.

These groups, Tanner said, offer its students more than the Shakespeare Festival could. “They don’t know it from a deaf person’s perspective, they don’t know what it is. They can’t give that advice. They can’t teach my students that while Sunshine 2.0 and Deaf West can,” she said.

Plans for the new festival have been put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced organizers to stage last year’s inaugural season as a virtual event.

Kurs, the artistic director of Deaf West, said that “before the pandemic hit, we were doing this kind of work on a smaller scale here in the Los Angeles area with different schools and programs around. We were sending teachers to different campuses to teach and teach and then put on shows. »

When the pandemic started, Kurs said he realized Zoom calls would allow the troupe to grow.

Tanner said having students work with real deaf actors provides a level of “prestige and professionalism” that helps overall competition — and gives students the chance to become well-rounded individuals.

“In schools, we usually focused on academics, academics, academics. But kids are so much more than just academics,” Tanner said. “They are a whole being and they have a whole aspect that they can develop and cultivate.”

For this year’s festival, student actors from participating schools have been participating in weekly online workshops since January. They also wrote their own works, jammed them, and rehearsed them to perform in Salt Lake City.

There are no common themes in what the students write, Kurs said, but the process has been “fascinating.”

“When you think of deaf children coming together, [you’d think] usually they write about their culture and their language, but that’s not the case,” Kurs said. For example, a group develops a work of science fiction. “When you have full access, everything else really falls apart,” he said. “The deaf side of things, all that language. It’s more about “I want to tell my story in the setting that I want to offer”.

Kurs said the theater is a natural place for deaf people.

“We are born communicators,” Kurs said. “We know how to communicate with our hands, faces and bodies naturally and we don’t use those skills often enough, and it always breaks my heart to see a deaf child give up on a dream like this and make a different decision. . . .”

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