"Happy New Year," proclaims Elliot Quick as he lifts both hands, brushing his chest and then rotating one hand around the other, to repeat the phrase in American Sign Language.
Next, the 15-year-old says it in spoken Japanese, then places his index fingers next to each other, closes both hands and throws them open above his head--signs in Japanese sign language that indicate the first day of the first month and the celebratory throwing of rice. He does it again and again, trying to perfect each syllable and motion during a rehearsal for a play of Japanese folk tales by the Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts (BAPA) Deaf Access Company.
The company combines 24 deaf, hard of hearing and hearing high school students, who are performing "Tales from Japan" at the group's Imagination Stage at White Flint Mall. All performances are in spoken English and American Sign Language, and parts of the plays also include spoken and signed Japanese.
Lisa Agogliati, director of Deaf Access, began the company 10 years ago after a deaf girl asked to be in a BAPA play. It was then that Agogliati, who had never worked with people with hearing loss, discovered that drama and sign language go hand in hand.
"I am fascinated with the fusing of sign language and theater. There are so many similar facial expressions and motions," she said.
Agogliati said that directing a play for an audience and cast that has hearing-impaired members allows her to be more creative.
"When I look at the script, I definitely want to emphasize the visual element. Instead of describing a dream, for instance, could we tell it better by a dance? With props? And when there's signing, the more hands in the picture, the richer the experience," she said.
The company is one of the few in the Washington area that include deaf youths, and it is only one of a handful in the country that combine a range of abilities. Agogliati also encourages hearing children of deaf parents to take part in the company. Inclusion in the company is by audition only, and the program is so popular that Agogliati started a company for middle school students last fall.
The Deaf Access program includes drama classes for children ages 3 to 12 and an adult educational touring company. Including the students Agogliati works with in the public schools, more than 100 youths participate in the program. It is one of several at the Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts, which offers drama classes to children ages 3 to 18. Children 8 to 18 can audition to perform in plays at BAPA's Imagination Stage.
"In my mind, we are a role model for our community of positive interaction between the deaf and hearing," Agogliati said of her program. "For some in our audience, we are offering them their first impression of the deaf."
For Elliot, of Northwest Washington, who can hear and is a ninth-grade student at Sidwell Friends, participating in the company has taught him about getting his point across loud and clear--without making a sound.
"Communication isn't necessarily just speaking, it's the look on your face, the way you stand, signing," he said. "This experience has also helped me be more concerned about people in general and helped me look out for others better."
Cara Anne Miller, 15, a 10th-grader at Rockville High School, is hard of hearing. When she got her first hearing aid as a toddler, she says she "jumped up and down, it was so wonderful to hear."
Now in her third year with the company, Cara said that the experience has helped her socialize better with a variety of teenagers and feel more comfortable in both the deaf and hearing worlds.
Sean Kelly, 15, also a 10th-grader at Rockville High, has been deaf since he was 2 weeks old. He said performing with the company has given him more exposure to hearing teenagers. Although he takes half his classes with hearing students, he said he used to feel on the periphery of things, retreating whenever possible to friends who knew sign language.
"Now I like hanging out with hearing people. I like being involved in a mix. We can learn about each other," he said.
While Sean signs his part, Elliot serves as an off-stage narrator, speaking the lines.
The students have spent more than four months not just learning about each other and the play, but also being immersed in Japanese culture, from fan dance lessons to origami, the Japanese art of paper folding. A $264,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 1998 allowed Deaf Access to hire Japanese performer Shizumi Shigeto Manale to help the company understand Japanese culture. The production includes Japanese dance, music and haiku. The grant also allowed the company to work with deaf choreographer Fred Beam for the production.
Deaf Access has won accolades, including an award from the Montgomery County Council last year, and was the only youth group invited to attend an international deaf theater conference in Connecticut last summer.
For Cara Anne, the time spent meeting for pizza and origami and traveling with her peers is just as important as rehearsing the play, because it has strengthened the bonds among the members of the company.
"No matter what our differences are, when we're on stage, we're a team," she said.
"Tales from Japan" will be performed on Saturdays and Sundays at 1 and 3 p.m. through Feb. 13. Tickets are $6 and can be reserved by calling 301-881-5106.