Dawn Jani Birley, ’99, earns top acting honor in Sweden

March 14, 2016

Author: Nathan Ramsier

Dawn Jani Birley, '99, was honored as the 2015 Riksteatern's Artist of the Year, a prestigious acting award in Sweden, for her performance in the leading role of When Winter Stars Shine Here

Birley became the first deaf person to receive this honor. The Riksteatern recognized Birley for her exploration of identity through artistic expression.

Founded in 1933, The Riksteatern, the largest theatre company in Sweden, brings high quality performances across the country, especially in rural areas. In 1967, the company added a children theatre; a decade later the company established the Silent Theatre, which performs in sign language and has gained notoriety both in Sweden and internationally.

When Winter Stars Shine Here explores the devastating effects of language policies on minorities. Birley played the role of Najdra, a spirit who alternately took the form of a shaman and a reindeer to encourage an old man to put his painful past behind him. Throughout the show, seven different languages appeared on stage and Birley, as the only deaf performer, used Finnish Sign Language, Swedish Sign Language, and International Sign.

"It was a strong and visual play that addressed racism and language," said Birley."It shed light on political issues about languages, communication and identities."

When Winter Stars Shine Here received much critical praise. Nummer.se, a prominent media outlet in Sweden, selected it as the best play in Northern Sweden.

A native of Canada, Birley earned a B.A. in communication arts from Gallaudet. Upon graduation, she accepted a job at a training center for deaf people in Norway, where she began to study acting. Birley relocated to Finland two years later, started frequenting Kuurojen Teatteri, the Finnish sign language theatre now known as Teatteri Totti, and landed a job as their light technician.

"My love for the theatre just grew and grew... my instincts told me that I belonged on stage," said Birley.

After taking a summer acting class in Denmark, Birley convinced her boss at Teatteri Totti to let her audition. She earned multiple roles in The Hunt of King Charles, the world's first sign language opera. Soon Birley was performing not only in Finland but in Sweden and Canada as well. Last year, she appeared on stage in London, where she recently earned her M.A. in physical theatre from St. Mary University.

Birley's success on stage has led to multiple onscreen appearances, including a role in ASLFilms' 2013 production of In The Can (with Nyle DiMarco). Since 2009, Birley has been the face of H3 World TV, a news outlet broadcasting in International Sign.

While at Gallaudet, Birley proved to be a tremendous student-athlete. She was also on the Canadian National Taekwondo Olympic Team and was named Deaflympic Sportswoman of the Year in 1996. Birley was the Delta Epsilon Ideal Student of the Year her freshmen year, homecoming queen her senior year, and the recipient of many other honors in between. Birley accomplished all of this while remaining on the Dean's List. The School of Communication gave her the Outstanding Student Award in 1999.

To learn more about Birley, visit her website at http://www.dawnjanibirley.com.