Playwright Monique Holt held the script for her latest work -- a single sheet of paper. No words were on it, only pictures.
Some of the props she planned to incorporate into her short play, a cookie sheet and nine aluminum foil "planets," would be backstage, projected on a giant screen.
"It's been a wonderful process," Holt said. "The biggest problem I had was showing what night was."
Holt's piece "The Night Was So Hungry That It Ate the Moon" was presented last week as part of an intense set of workshops on visual theater for three deaf playwrights. The sessions were held at Gallaudet University, the college for the deaf and hard of hearing in Northeast Washington.
The three playwrights worked with experts in the arts community from across the country -- some hearing-impaired and some not -- to learn the art of visual theater, which encourages the use of multimedia, puppetry and audience participation instead of the reliance on spoken language in traditional theater.
Peter Cook, a deaf storyteller from Chicago and one of the experts, said the Visual Playwrights Retreat teaches deaf playwrights to use an array of expressive media to present their works.
"Traditionally, deaf theater takes written scripts and translates to American Sign Language" before the scene is set up, Cook said. "This has given us an opportunity to skip that translation step."
The program began last year with a partnership between the university and the arts advocacy group Quest: arts for everyone. That year, it also provided a two-week intensive set of workshops to three select deaf playwrights.
Tim McCarty, president of Quest, said visual theater emphasizes the technical aspects of a show, allowing for audience participation and less of a reliance on spoken language.
He said production companies such as Cirque du Soleil and the Pilobolus Dance Theatre are notable successes in the medium, but too few universities expose their students to visual theater, an art form that should not be restricted to the deaf community.
"It's literally a handful of institutions that have an extensive curriculum," McCarty said.
"Almost all the theater programs in this country concentrate on the written word. Most people think a script has to be these linear words," McCarty added.
In student playwright Shanny Mow's world, Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, is portrayed as an evil man.
"The telephone denies deaf people access," Mow said. "It was a decisive thing."
Mow, based in Santa Fe, N.M., worked at the retreat to refine his one-act play "Bell in Hell."
In the play, Bell is made to pay for what Mow sees as a misdeed. "The fun part is he goes to hell and becomes deaf," Mow said.
During their sessions at Gallaudet, the student playwrights were immersed in visual theater.
In one workshop, using a television and a video camera, two purported lovebirds, their arms around each other, sit side by side. Two other actors join their arms together in front of them, forming a rectangular box, a television.
A hand appears, in front of the TV, moving slowly, in a fanning motion, wafting an odor through the air. Suddenly the woman widens her nostrils, and her contented expression turns to a scowl. She looks toward the man's bare feet. Despite the smell, the two move to kiss one another.
Cook stops the actors and rewinds the tape, giving direction on how to use the space more effectively.
Director Willy Conley, an associate professor in Gallaudet's Theatre Arts Department, stands nearby, observing the workshop.
"This is all about process and not [about] performance," Conley said. "There are very few opportunities for deaf artists to develop their works. We want to provide that space and support in a nurturing environment. I think it's very special."
Michael P. Ralph, a Portland, Maine, playwright and a Gallaudet alumnus, was still tweaking his piece on Buddhism a day before the performance.
"Deaf people always want things to be more visual," he said, "and this is just a wonderful opportunity to make something more visual."
an array of expressive media in presenting