A remarkable group of sculptors is coming to the Kennedy Center. What they sculpt is air.
The group, "The Little Theater of the Deaf," will be appeafing as part of the Center's National Children's Art Festival running at the Eisenhower April 18-24.
As if illustrating the intricate web of American theater, this group is descended from Eugene O'Neill, who very likely would be amazed to find any connection in his life to four deaf actors and a speaking actor. Yet there is intense, passionate logic in the developement.
I first caught the connection 11 years ago while floating on Long Island Sound off Waterford, Conn. That was the first year of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's Playwright's Conference. The site had been chosen by a TV director-producer named George C. White because he'd grown up there and knew that a faded old mansion had been the home of offstage characters reffered to by O'Neill in "Long Day's Journey into Night" and "Ah, Wilderness!," the setting for which was the James O'Neill cottage in nearby New London.
Convinced that theater had all sorts of neglected connections with life, White determined to make the old mansion and its extensive seashore grounds a center for a web of activities. The playwirights' conference as one of these, a continuing producing group that since has uncovered new playwrights who command national respect, as well as a National Critics Institute and the American Theater Critics Association.
Scenic designer - and expert swimmer - David Hays had slowed to a crawl and was talking of deaf actors he had seen at, among other places, Gallaudet College, White, he expalined, was a enthusiastic as he abouth the O'Neill Center sponsoring a professional company of deafs actors.
"It shouldn't be confused," the designer for such works as "No Strings" and "Marco Millions" went on, "with a theater for the deaf. We would use the visual language of the deaf expanded into a beautiful, peneterating and intensely theatrical form with insights for all theatergoers. The language has the color of dance and is interwoven with pantomine and dance in language forms and would be matched by speaking actors with every word seen and heard."
Hays' vision was not just noonday dreaming on a beach. By the following March he'd formed a company for one-hour TV special and by the end of this 10the anniversary year it will have played over 2,000 performances.
In fact, probably no other American organization has had so strong a theater decade,performing from London and Paris, to Scandinavia, Yugoslavia, Israel and on to Australia where it has worked with aborigines on a study of the universality of human communications. By this year's end it will have appeared in all 50 states.
After its first year, the National Theater of the Deaf had spawned the Little Theater of the Deaf, which now has three units. It's one of these which will be appearing at the Kennedy Center's "The Imagination Clebration" week with four deaf actors and one speaking actor.
In this form a narrator stands at one side of he stage, speaking the dialogue the performaers act out wordlessly. Sometimes there is music, and this music is related to movement by the artists. But for those who do not know sign language, there is always the spoken word as guide.
Far from coincidentally, Gallaudet College has had a stronf role in the realization of the Hay's dream, for not only did it performaces inspire the notion, but also many of the company members are Gallaudet graduates, some of whom went on to be theater majors at Catholic University.
For at least two generations Gallaudet campus plays have been a feature of Washington theater life. One of its gifted students I recall watching first in a play, later as a faculty director, Patrick Graybill, is now administrative director of the Professional School for Deaf Theater Personnel and a leading member of the National Theater of the Deaf.
The initial interest that the Department of Health, Education and Welfare showed through its social and Rehabilitation Services has been continued; thought Hays and White are always after help from the private sector. The Kennedy Center's joint project with the U.S. Office of Education, the Alliance for Arts Education, is funding the children's arts festival with the George Gund Foundation.
The LTD's production will be "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," by Dennis Scott, a Jamaican-born winner of the Shubert playwriting grant who here turns a medieval romance into a timeless lesson in virture and humility.
While LTD has performed at Arena Stage, the larger company has unaccountably not had Washington dates. One White House gala was all set until a Ford White House underlining insisted on cutting down the running length. Rather than omit some members of the company, hays turned dwon the valuable honor of performing in the White House. The Carter staff would find this group a remarkably effective entertainment feature.
For viewing the deaf's fluidity of motion is rather like adding a new scale of vision to one's eyes. After seeing such performers one looks the more keenly at the everyday world, noting the potential grace of human movement from feet to fingertips, the astonishing miracle of form in motion, sculpting in the air.