On Monday, September 21, the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee presented the event “Deaf and Hard of Hearing Theatre Artists Roundtable,” a virtual panel discussion. The event explored the needs and experiences of Deaf* and Hard of Hearing (Deaf/HoH) theatre professionals and was facilitated by Eastern Principal Councilor and EEOC member John McGinty. The roundtable was interpreted in American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL) with live captions in English.
Deaf/HoH theater artists face many challenges, from the audition room to the stage, and advocating for these artists and sharing best practices is more important than ever. The conversation included panelists from both the US and the UK and considered both professional contexts. The panel explored how the industry can promote employment opportunities for Deaf/HoH theatre artists, and how the industry can educate theatre makers to support their employment. The event shed light on potential challenges and solutions, offered an exchange of best practices and triumphs, and built fundamental connections between Deaf artists on both sides of the "pond."
Panelists included McGinty (Broadway: Children of a Lesser God, King Lear) along with London-based actors Stephen Collins (Lead Artist, DH Ensemble) and Nadia Nadarajah (Associate Artist, Shakespeare’s Globe). The panel was moderated by actor, educator and Director of Artistic Sign Language Alexandria Wailes (2020 Obie Citation for Sustained Excellence as an Artist and Advocate). Sign language interpretation was provided by Candace Broecker Penn, Stephanie Feyne, Justine Rivera and Lynnette Taylor (ASL) and Kathy Yeoman and Sandeep Deo (BSL). The panel examined the increased opportunities available for Deaf/HoH theatre artists in the UK, finding that greater UK government funding and prioritization for professional Deaf/HoH theatre workers creates a more inclusive work environment than we see in the US, where employers are required to provide all necessary accommodations to create an accessible workplace.
Wailes’ first question for the panel was about challenges they have encountered in the audition process as Deaf/HoH actors. McGinty noted that he has experienced, “a lot of negotiation in the process." Instead, McGinty would like to work towards, “not having to educate or identify what the needs are” for a Deaf actor in an audition or in rehearsal. Nadarajah noted that she has had the opposite experience in that she is, “Lucky to have an agent that can really explain all those requirements to the people who are auditioning me. That brokering relationship has been beneficial.” Still, she noted that finding interpreters at the last minute is always a challenge. Collins agreed, and added, “Information is key in auditions. When they’re looking for a deaf character, we need to match that character and not obviously spend a lot of time prepping for something then turn up in the room and realize that we're not the right fit for the role.” Nadarajah related a story of where she showed up at an audition, but casting hadn’t realized that she was a woman of color. “It's fair for them to give me an audition. But I don't match the script. Do I match that character? Would I ever get that role? I've spent all this time trying to find the interpreter. And those people who opened the door to me, they knew when I even arrived, that I was not going to get this role.”
McGinty noted that he wished that companies would provide interpreters at open calls so that he could make the decision for himself whether to audition. “Thinking outside of the box like that would be so wonderful,” said McGinty, “Because deaf people have such varied experiences. Yet without that access, how are we given an opportunity to show our experiences and to share our stories?” Nadarajah mentioned the Spotlight, a website with both job posts and profiles of actors – both Deaf/HoH and hearing who speak BSL. Collins added the caveat that Spotlight still needs improvement. “We’ve been advocating for the addition of levels of BSL fluency on people's profiles,” said Collins, “Because we've had deaf people arrive at auditions, fluent signers, and then an actor off the street walks in with their little bits of basic BSL and gets the part ahead of us.”
Nadarajah also highlighted UK Equity’s Guide to Best Practice with BSL in the Arts. “It's taken three years of advocacy to get these guidelines published in the UK,” said Nadarajah. “We can now put this in front of theatre companies and TV agents.”
Wailes turned the conversation towards self-advocacy in situations where people are uncomfortable working with Deaf artists, sharing that she herself has walked into an audition where casting has forgotten to secure an interpreter or needed to request that the interpreter be placed where Wailes could see them. Nadarajah responded that because theater, television, and film are often run by hearing people, “I have to advocate, I have to educate them. If I want an interpreter, if I want access, it has to be me knowing my rights, and me knowing that this is what I need to walk into that room and have that audition be on a level playing field with everyone else.” McGinty noted that, “it's really important that when we are faced with a barrier and might feel stuck, to keep fighting to get in. Because the only way that we can change things is sometimes you might have to play the bad cop: to take on that role and shift things so that we can move forward.”
The panelists also compared the positions of BSL consultants in the U.K., and its counterpart in the US, a Director of Artistic Sign Language (DASL). As a DASL, Wailes noted the importance of the position, and that they should be part of the creative team. “They are a critical part of the team, as a whole, in envisioning what the characters would be like.” Wailes was heartened by similar movement in both the US and UK, and said, “It's great that I'm seeing that in both countries the artistic capability of language.”
"It's really important that when we are faced with a barrier and might feel stuck, to keep fighting to get in."
At this point, audience participants were invited to breakout rooms where they discussed ideas ideas for improving the industry for Deaf/HoH theater artists, including their protection during their job searches, best practices in rehearsal, and how to make more inclusive workspaces.
While the participants were in their breakout rooms, the panelists continued their discussion with an eye toward the relationship between casting directors and Deaf theater artists. Nadarajah happily offered that in recent years, UK casting generally seem to know about access requirements. So much so that she has even been asked who her preferred interpreter is. “I was like, WOW, they know,” she exclaimed, “It's not me having to educate. That's the first time that's ever happened. It was incredibly positive.” Collins attributed the beginning of the change to a 2016 consortium that gathered six UK theater companies who collectively decided that they wanted to get more deaf and disabled actors on stage. The consortium created the “Ramps to the Moon Project”, where each of these venues would host and create one production a year that would be fully cast by deaf and disabled actors, bringing more exposure to them. Collins praised the project and added, “Ramps to the Moon is opening doors. You’re going to see a lot more deaf and disabled actors in the UK, on screens and in theaters because of it. If we see more Deaf artists going into these mainstream venues, and getting that representation out there, it really will change things.
When the participants returned from their breakout rooms, a representative from each room provided a summary of their thoughts. This led to a robust discussion of the current state of the industry for Deaf/HoH theatre professionals in the US, with the hope that the kind of progress made in the UK can also happen here. Wailes pointed out that Deaf/HoH actors are “not there to be the token deaf person in the room. We're there to be part of the artistry, and our needs have to be a priority.”
Wailes concluded the discussion by highlighting the movement for Black Lives in the US, and how it has fueled demands for equity and parity for BIPOC theatre artists. Wailes noted that these demands need to also include the disability community. Collins agreed, and added, “Our stories are being taken by people. It’s important that we reclaim our stories, reclaim Deaf actors. We're on equal par with everyone else in that room. And we need to be treated with that respect.”
Deaf/HoH actors are “not there to be the token deaf person in the room. We're there to be part of the artistry, and our needs have to be a priority."
Actors’ Equity Association members can watch the full webinar in the member portal. The webinar was supported by Senses Askew Company, The DH Ensemble, Hands On, Alternative Communication Services, Flying Leap Productions and Actors’ Equity Foundation. Independent theater producer Jess Kaufman of Flying Leap Productions served as the event co-producer.
*A note on the usage of “Deaf” vs. “deaf”: “Deaf” with a capital D describes people who share a cultural identity borne of hearing loss. Culture includes but is not limited to a particular set of social mores and a shared language. The use of “deaf” with a lowercase d refers to the medical condition of hearing loss. A person be both Deaf and deaf or only one or the other. Many use “d/Deaf” when it is appropriate to refer to both the disability group and cultural group.