Under the auspices of founding artistic director Ed Waterstreet, Deaf West was the first professional residential sign language theater west of the Mississippi. Its productions of plays such asEquus, The House Of Bernarda Alba, and Medea have received awards from such organizations as the L.A. Weekly, Backstage West, and DramaLogue.
More importantly, Deaf West serves as a vital link between the deaf and hearing communities through the medium of vibrant theater. Currently enjoying his company's new North Hollywood home, a 60-seat venue that will be expanded to 99 seats within the next year or two, Waterstreet spoke (through interpreter Bill O'Brien) about the journey that has brought Deaf West to its present success.
"Exactly 10 years ago," says Waterstreet, "we started a theater company at the Fountain Theatre. They'd given us a grant and some office space--free office space for two years. We decided to do The Gin Game at the Fountain, and it was a wonderful production. It was a slow process for the company with no pay for two years. But we got some support from CSUN, at Deaf Studies there; they gave us the $6,000 to help us get going. We did very limited-budget stuff for four years, then we moved to the Heliotrope Theatre. We were with them for a while, but we wanted to be more independent. It was time for the deaf to start their own theater. For six years we loved the Heliotrope but the location wasn't great. This new location is our own theater. We've gone from a $6,000 budget to a $4 million budget over five years, and we're in the middle of a lot of growth. It's really been fascinating."
All Deaf West shows are intended for both deaf and hearing audiences, with actors signing and having their lines voiced by hearing performers. "Seventy-five percent of our audience is hearing," says Waterstreet, "so we can't just depend on the deaf. We look for plays where both cultures can come together. A lot of deaf people have been writing scripts, so we've been getting a lot of those. I think, in the future, we can do certain projects for a short run that are specifically designed for the deaf. The Gin Game is an example of a project that is more deaf-specific; the only voices will be coming from backstage. So far, we haven't done something that is 100 percent deaf, but we will probably try something like that."
While there has certainly been no lack of challenges in the theater's history, the production of Oliver! has probably been their biggest one yet. "I've always had a vision that I wanted to do a musical," says Waterstreet. "I especially have to thank Jeff Calhoun, the director [who didn't know sign language when he was hired]. We had a couple of meetings on the vision of how to merge music and sign language--all of this took place in two months--and I think now we'll be able to keep growing and discuss what musical we might want to do next. But I might have to hold that for a couple of years, because it's a pretty big undertaking."
In the past, the enjoyment of musicals has been difficult for Waterstreet. "I have a little bit of residual hearing," he says. "I lost most of my hearing when I was two and was sick for a year. The rest of my family is all hearing. They've always enjoyed music, and I always felt that I was left out of that. I'd turn up the radio in the car and make it as loud as it could go, because I wanted to get a sense of it. My parents would complain 'It's too loud! It's too loud!' Music was never given to me in a way that I was satisfied with. If I went to a musical, I couldn't hear voices, so it seemed that I wasn't understanding a lot of it. Then, at Gallaudet College, I was in a deaf production of The Threepenny Opera," Waterstreet continues. "We had to practice a lot to make everything work. It was okay, but it wasn't quite yet accomplishing what I thought it could."
Oliver! has been designed to appeal to all patrons, deaf or not. As Waterstreet sees it, "There is no question that the hearing audience gets a double benefit: They can hear the music, and there's the added visual element of the signing. For the deaf, this is a new kind of stylized signing. We also have subwoofers installed in the theater, so they can feel some of the bass in the music. A new idea I think we're going to do now is to print a little program of the lyrics. There's another option, a captioning device like operas use; we have that, but the deaf people said they prefer we don't use it, because then they'd be missing the action by reading the words."
Waterstreet is tremendously gratified by the success of Deaf West's latest venture. "Last weekend," he relates, "I asked some of the deaf people in the audience for Oliver! if they had been as curious about musicals as I was, and they said yes. They were absolutely spellbound."