Making Art Accessible

by Lisa Mulcahy
in Feature
A moment from Deaf West’s Spring Awakening on Broadway.
A moment from Deaf West’s Spring Awakening on Broadway.

Deaf West Theatre’s creative achievements have inspired both deaf and hearing audiences, thanks to its visionary leaders Ed Waterstreet and David Kurs.

Deaf West Theatre has pioneered the concept of theatre for deaf audiences, incorporating deaf theatre artists, for nearly three decades—and it’s only just begun to hit its stride. Ed Waterstreet, an accomplished stage actor known through the Los Angeles theatre community, served as founder and artistic director of Deaf West. From its home base in North Hollywood, Deaf West became the first company to incorporate American Sign Language for Southern California audiences, with a view toward serving the 1.2 million hearing impaired individuals in LA county. The company’s message has now expanded far beyond the west, as it brought critically and commercially successful productions of Big River and Spring Awakening to Broadway. In 2012, respected theatre artist David Kurs became the company’s new artistic director; together, Kurs and Waterstreet maintain their key commitment to offer deaf actors, directors and playwrights the opportunity to do the work they want to do, unfettered. They do it through creative resolve, artistic generosity and a highly honed technical process. 

An Ambitious Agenda

Ed Waterstreet
Ed Waterstreet

In 1991, Waterstreet had already enjoyed a successful 20 year run as a theatre and film actor. He and his wife, Linda Bove, well-respected for her long-running role on Sesame Street, worked very steadily as deaf performers, although Waterstreet found himself wishing that productions for both deaf and hearing audiences could be made more true to life. “Ed had a very clear vision, informed by his time at the National Theatre of the Deaf, about how a sign language theatre company should work,” explains Kurs. “In his vision, theatre would be fully accessible and feature deaf and hearing actors but deaf actors had to be the primary drivers of the action.” Waterstreet also felt that American Sign Language (ASL) could be utilized in a more honest, raw mode of expression than he often saw at that point in time on stage, and could be an organic part of the action in a play or musical.

 Armed with this ambition, Waterstreet staked out some shared office space at the Fountain Theatre in LA, and began conceptualizing a production of The Gin Game that would feature ASL as the only “spoken” element. In his version of the play, the deafness of the characters would be a simple fact of life, not a defining plot point. The ensuing production was a huge success with both deaf and hearing audiences, and led to more innovative work, such as Deaf West’s take on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Cuckoo’s Nest blended both speech and ASL, performed by both hearing and deaf actors, to clear and gritty effect, and garnered the company further acclaim. Productions to follow included Children of a Lesser God, Pippin, My Sister in this House, Cyrano, A Streetcar Named Desire and American Buffalo. The company’s success allowed it to settle into a 90-seat raked-stage house with a state of the art sound system, captioning capabilities and an infared headphone system in North Hollywood. Deaf West was also by this time attracting the cream of the crop in terms of creative collaborators; distinguished company associates include Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin, Camryn Manheim and more. 

David Kurs
David Kurs

As more artists helped move his original creative ideas forward, Waterstreet chose to retire from his post as artistic director in 2012. David Kurs, a Deaf West company associate and accomplished artist in his own right, assumed leadership of the company, following his successful writing and production work on Deaf West’s children’s production Aesop Who? 

Kurs sees the importance of continuing to let Deaf West’s purpose develop. “We have stayed true to Ed’s vision while also evolving and experimenting over the years,” he explains. “I’m very fortunate to have Ed by my side—we talk very often. The way he led Deaf West Theatre for more than 20 years was very inspiring—he created a theatre company that bridges two cultures and languages, which is harder than it sounds. He also has a great, innate sense of what types of theatre will appeal to our audience.” 

Perfecting the Production Process

As the company’s reputation grew, Deaf West expanded its profile nationally. In 2002, Deaf West’s production of Big River, which had transferred in Los Angeles to the Mark Taper Forum, garnered Broadway interest; Waterstreet worked with director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun, Tommy Tune’s longtime collaborator, to put up a production at the American Airlines Theatre in 2003. Calhoun, who had originally worked with Deaf West on a hit production of Oliver! in 2000, devised an intricate and visually arresting combination of singing and signing for the half-hearing, half-deaf cast, so they could “sing” in ASL. This feat was lauded by critics and audiences; the company subsequently earned two Tony Award nominations for the show, plus a Tony Award for Excellence in 2004. And the awards and citations continued to accumulate: Deaf West’s creative associates have to date won over 80 prizes of artistic distinction. The company is also the most awarded deaf theatre company in the nation itself; its honors include prizes from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and the L.A. Stage Ovation Awards. Government entities have also taken notice of Deaf West’s accomplishments—in 2005, the company was awarded the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary’s Highest Recognition Award, and Waterstreet was honored with the Fete d’Excellence Gold Medal Award for Cultural Excellence in Geneva, Switzerland in 2002, specifically for his work bringing bilingual and bi-cultural programming to audiences. 

The cast of Deaf West’s production of Cyrano
The cast of Deaf West’s production of Cyrano

In addition to these accolades, Deaf West has been embraced by diverse theatregoers. Kurs appreciates the company’s enthusiastic reception by larger audiences. “We exist to serve our deaf audience members first and foremost,” he says. “We select our projects based on whether it will appeal to deaf audience members. If we’re lucky, our productions will also appeal to the general public. We also aim to select projects that allow us to push the creative and artistic work that we do to new limits. Our artistic decisions are also guided by our trusted artistic collaborators, board members, and stakeholders who know and understand what we strive to achieve.”

Deaf West reached an even higher plane of success in 2015, when it brought a searing, elegant and moving revival of Spring Awakening to Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Directed by longtime company associate Michael Alden, Spring Awakening’s provocative premise, regarding teenage sexuality in 1891 Germany, was given another intriguing spin. Alden’s take on Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s material put forth the notion that certain language was banned during the play’s time period, drawing a parallel with the idea that deaf people often struggle to communicate, with ASL as their key tool. The revival earned three Tony nominations, and the company performed a memorable excerpt from the show at the Tony ceremony in June 2016. 

A Creative Connection

Kurs and Waterstreet’s imaginative hard work have allowed Deaf West to soar creatively and commercially, and the company’s goals are to keep moving toward new heights. The company is experimenting with multimedia; indie pop singer Ingrid Michaelson saw the company’s Spring Awakening Tony ceremony performance, and was so impressed she re-filmed the music video for her hit song “Hell No” to feature six Deaf West acting company members. In addition, the company is cooking up a fresh and exciting version of Edward Albee’s challenging piece At Home at the Zoo, which will premiere in 2017.

Looking back at Deaf West’s landscape of so many major accomplishments, Kurs is pressed to choose a proudest moment. “That’s a tough decision to make,” he admits. “It’s wonderful to see the hearing and deaf cast members and creative team members come together over the span of a production to the point where cultural and linguistic boundaries disappear, but I would have to say that I am always amazed in the ways that our productions affect our audience members.” Kurs, who is deaf, has great respect for the impact that ASL has when used as part of a production, especially. “Deaf people on a stage and signing can be a very powerful thing for a deaf person to behold,” he continues. That’s because so many of us have been taught that we shouldn’t speak with our hands, or that our deafness is something to be ashamed of.”

Ultimately, the guidance of both Waterstreet and Kurs has brought Deaf West audiences to a mutual enlightenment—arguably one of its key achievements. As Kurs sums it up: “I’m very proud of how much our productions teach people who are uninitiated about deaf culture or sign language. Art is a wonderful vehicle for education, empathy, and understanding. For two hours in the dark, everyone comes together.”