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Training the spotlight on a new side of theater arts

September 4, 2009
By Rhea Yablon Kennedy
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On a hot day in August, nine performers gathered on the patio between the Andrew Foster Auditorium and the Jordan Student Academic Center. They had just completed the intensive week-long Leadership in Theater Arts for Deaf People of Color at Gallaudet, studying movement, the history of theater, and play production. What was to follow was their culminating performance.

“The script didn’t come from a book,” announced Monique Holt, one of the program’s instructors. “It came from their experiences.”

New and seasoned actors alike admitted to getting the jitters as they prepared to share a performance infused with their stories-some true to life, some embellished, but all 100 percent original. Each participant wore a shirt of a different color, so that together they represented a full rainbow.

This was the first time that the Gallaudet Leadership Institute (GLI) in the College of Professional Studies and Outreach offered the program. Each day, the performers tackled new movement exercises performing artist, educator, director, and choreographer Rita Corey, attended presentations by program coordinator Fred Beam about the history of deaf theater and theater created by people of color, and worked on their own contribution to that history with Monique Holt, a presidential fellow in the Department of Theater Arts. Then the participants went home with an assignment to journal their thoughts on the day’s experiences.

It was fitting that the final performance trained a spotlight on the participants’ own experiences as deaf people of color. Those expressions, said Fred Beam, are part of an often-overlooked genre. “People don’t realize there is deaf theater by people of color,” said Beam, who is the executive director of the culture and arts organization Invisible Hands. “They are often excluded from theater…. There are not many role models out there.” During this program, the participants only needed to look around the room to see others like them, Beam pointed out, an experience that built self-esteem and grew confidence.

At the close of the program and the final performance, the participants noticed changes in themselves.
“I will never forget this week,” said Opal Gordon of New York City, a veteran of the stage who has worked among both deaf and hearing casts, but had never encountered a theater workshop where no one required an interpreter. Her realization? “It’s not just about facial expression and signing,” she said. “You have to incorporate the whole body.”

Leland Lyken, the man behind DJ Supa Lee, also had a revelation. “I’ve always wanted to play music for my clients and sign along to the songs,” said Lyken, who often DJs events with deaf crowds. He had never mustered the courage to step from behind the turntable, or take to the stage during one of the ASL open mics he hosts at U Street’s Busboys and Poets-until now. “I was hesitant to try it, but now I can do it,” he said.

The idea for the life-changing program began with following a focus of the University and fulfilling a community need. “It is important for the Gallaudet Leadership Institute to collaborate with other organizations,” said Dr. Simon Guteng, director of the GLI and Professional Studies. Guteng reached out to Beam, who was serving as president of the D.C. chapter of National Black Deaf Advocates, and the two agreed that they could address a need for theater arts training for deaf people of color together. They had already collaborated in last year’s “Be What You Are” program for deaf high school students of color.

News of the training program’s success has already gotten out, Guteng said, and he is seeing interest from other parts of the country. “There are not enough opportunities like this for deaf and hard of hearing people of color,” he said.

Guteng would be pleased to see help the program expand, and see it become a launch pad for participants’ own pursuits. “We hope participants will build on the knowledge and skills they learned from this program,” Guteng said, “by participating in more theater arts opportunities to gain hands-on professional experience.”

 –Rhea Yablon Kennedy

 

4 September 2009
By Rhea Yablon Kennedy

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Rhea Yablon Kennedy

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