Gallaudet to Host Month-long Celebration of Visual Shakespeare

April 06, 2016

Author: Kaitlin Luna

The great works of Shakespeare have been studied and performed in schools around the country for generations, celebrated in annual festivals, analyzed by scholars around the globe, and even used by jails to reduce recidivism rates.

Within the deaf community, Shakespeare has had a treasured role as his works have been performed in bilingual, visually-oriented ways through American Sign Language.

Shakespeare's popularity and influence continue to make a substantial impact on our world today, 400 years after his death in 1616.To commemorate the anniversary of his passing, all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. will host the Folger Shakespeare Library's traveling exhibit, First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare, part of their yearlong The Wonder of Will celebration. The First Folio is a collection of the first edition of Shakespeare's plays and regarded as one of the most valuable printed books in the world.

Gallaudet won a competitive selection process to be the D.C. host site from October 7 to 29, 2016. The University will celebrate with exhibits, performances, a lecture series, and festivals featuring both local and national talent. The Folio features 36 Shakespearean plays including tragedies Hamlet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar, histories Henry V, and Richard III, and comedies Twelfth Night, The Tempest, and As You Like It. Many of those works have been performed at Gallaudet and by deaf actors for over 100 years.

"Shakespeare in ASL has been a tradition at Gallaudet since at least 1884," said Dr. Jill Bradbury, professor of English and project director for the First Folio exhibit at Gallaudet. "His plays are about the human experience and deaf artists have always been attracted to the challenge of expressing these themes in ASL."

The Folio will be housed at the Washburn Arts Building where visitors will learn about its history, cultural significance, and continued relevance. Interpretive panels from the Folger Library will explore the evolving attraction of the First Folio and Shakespeare's modern impact. A second room in the gallery will examine the importance of Shakespeare to the American deaf community. Photographs, costumes, and other material artifacts will document the history of Shakespeare in ASL, from the earliest known productions in the 19th century to the present.  

"We have learned so much while researching this exhibit," said Bradbury. "Shakespeare has been an important part of deaf history for a long time, but most people do not realize this."

During the spring semester, the University hosted three Shakespeare & Diversity events including a lecture on "Shakespeare and Race" by Dr. Ayanna Thompson of the Department of English at George Washington University; an "Actors of Color on Shakespeare" panel discussion with hearing actors Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, KenYatta Rogers, Deidra LaWan Starnes, and deaf actor Monique Holt; and a screening and talk about the documentary, Shakespeare Behind Bars with Curt Tofteland. The First Folio team also hosted a campus-wide launch party in April which celebrated Shakespeare's birthday and Gallaudet's selection as the D.C. host site for the Folio.

Events throughout the month include:

  • Guided school tours and a workshop for students.
  • A lecture series which will examine various themes such as the history of Shakespeare within the American deaf community, the unique contributions deaf artists can make to Shakespearean theater, and visual approaches to Shakespeare's plays. 
  •  "Bard for the Day" family event where children can participate in workshops led by local performing and visual artists, try on 16th-century style costumes, take in performances by D.C. area theater troupes, enjoy Shakespearean-themed arts, and crafts, and ASL Shakespeare story-telling.
  •  "Eyes on Shakespeare Festival" has the University partnering with deaf and hearing artists in an array of performances, videos, experimental work, and talks by deaf and hearing theater groups and performers.
  •  A K-12 educator's workshop will discuss how to use the visual to support incorporation of Shakespeare at the elementary and secondary levels, issues specific to deaf students and ASL, and resources appropriate for all ages.

The schedule of events is subject to change. Visit the First Folio website for up-to-date information at www.gallaudet.edu/firstfolio.html

First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare, on tour from the Folger Shakespeare Library, is a national traveling exhibition organized by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, to commemorate the 400th anniversary in 2016 of Shakespeare's death. It is produced in association with the American Library Association and the Cincinnati Museum Center. First Folio! has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor, and by the support of Google.org, Vinton and Sigrid Cerf, the British Council, and other generous donors.