Sometimes, a historical showdown begets memorable theater — think of the political struggles recalled in Shakespeare’s history plays, or the courtroom clash that inspired “Inherit the Wind.”
Now a new work is joining the canon of dramatized historical conflict. “Visible Language,” a world premiere musical in American Sign Language and English, evokes a famous 1890s blowup between Edward Miner Gallaudet and Alexander Graham Bell over methods for teaching the deaf. With a book and lyrics by Mary Resing, music by Andy Welchel and a cast of deaf as well as hearing actors performing in ASL and English, the musical runs through Nov. 16.
“Visible Language” tells a D.C. story: Edward Miner Gallaudet was the first president of the college that became Gallaudet University. Bell, better known as the inventor of the telephone, also worked as an educator of the deaf; he lived in Washington for part of his life. The disagreement between the two hearing men laid out in Washington’s political circles: Gallaudet advocated for the use of sign language in deaf education and communication, while Bell believed it was critical to teach the deaf to speak and read lips.
The heart of “Visible Language” is “this ideological battle over the future of deaf education. And we see that play out between two strong-willed men in Washington, D.C.,” at a time when the city was coming into its own as a locus of power, says Ethan Sinnott, director of Gallaudet’s theater and dance program.
It’s an inherently dramatic story, but Resing says she stumbled across it only after Open Circle Theatre asked her to pen a musical that featured both speech and ASL. It wasn’t terra incognita for Open Circle, which focused on including people with disabilities in professional theater and which mounted a 2007 version of Jason Robert Brown’s “Songs for a New World” that made use of ASL.
Resing has a passion for dramatizing local stories, an interest she pursued as artistic director (until 2013) of Maryland’s Active Cultures Theatre. So to find a topic for her new project, she canvassed the local deaf community, asking “What is the story that deaf audiences think needs to be on the stage?”
“Unanimously, the response was the story of Alexander Graham Bell and Edward Miner Gallaudet and the fight over speech versus signs,” she remembers.
Resing came to realize that the quarrel between the men reflected their different backgrounds as well as their educational outlooks.
Gallaudet’s father, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, had been a pioneer of education for the deaf in the United States and a proponent of signing. (He is Gallaudet University’s namesake.) Bell’s father, on the other hand, had been a teacher of elocution who developed Visible Speech, a system that broke speech down into elementary sounds and that proved useful in teaching the deaf to vocalize.
Bell and Gallaudet both believed that they had the best interests of the deaf community at heart, Resing says.
“Gallaudet advocated for sign language because it was very easy to teach” and thus cost-effective, making it possible to educate “as many people as possible,” she says.
By contrast, teaching a deaf person to speak can be labor- and time-intensive. But, Resing says, Bell thought the practice was necessary: He feared that reliance on signing would leave deaf people isolated from mainstream society and economically disadvantaged.
Resing strove to reflect these issues in her book and lyrics for the musical. Suzanne Richard, Open Circle’s artistic director, was for a time attached to the project as co-director with Tom Prewitt.
Part-way through the musical’s development, Open Circle went on hiatus. Prewitt was not willing to let the musical lapse, too.
After he assumed the artistic director post at WSC Avant Bard in 2013, that company signed on as co-producer with Gallaudet.
Speaking in ASL in an interview at Gallaudet, with an interpreter translating, Sinnott says he felt the project was a good one because “Bell and [Edward Miner] Gallaudet are two iconic figures within the deaf community, and, irrespective of whether history has a deaf or hearing lens, there is always a tendency to mythologize and romanticize the titans of an era.”
For instance, he says, many deaf people view Bell as “the bad guy — the Darth Vader of this story,” because Bell was interested in eugenics and how eugenic measures might lessen the incidence of deafness in the general population. That line of inquiry can seem horrifying today.
At the same time, Gallaudet is “easily framed as a champion,” which is simplistic in a different way, Sinnott observes.
“Part of the importance of this show and production is that it challenges people to take a look at what actually happened rather than subscribing to just the flat, non-nuanced” and “larger-than-life” versions of the characters, Sinnott says. In general, he says, theater should push people outside their comfort zones.
“Visible Language” may do just that with its approach to bilingualism. The musical tells its story in both ASL and English without recourse to role-doubling or translators who stand outside the world of the story. Instead, Resing wrote scenes and songs in which deaf and hearing characters converse in both languages. For instance, a scene chronicling a chat between Bell and Gallaudet becomes bilingual because a deaf character, Ennals Adams Jr., is present, and for his benefit, Bell and Gallaudet sign as they speak.
But because there is no constant source of simultaneous translation, the musical’s voiced and signed dialogue tracks sometimes diverge. Occasionally, a deaf character will sign a witticism that a non-ASL-conversant theatergoer may not understand, for instance. Deaf and hearing audiences who are not fluent in the other form of expression “won’t have exactly the same experience — but they will have parallel experiences,” says Prewitt.
The potential resonance of the strategy — and the related logistical challenges — were evident at a rehearsal in early October. Aaron Kubey, director of artistic sign language, and assistant director Tyler Herman were polishing a duet that featured the characters of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, Keller’s teacher. In the scene, the deaf and blind Keller (played by Gallaudet graduate Miranda Medugno, who is deaf) and Sullivan (played by hearing actress Sarah Anne Sillers) arrive in Washington. The two characters express their excitement and anxiety in a duet: Keller signs, and Sullivan sings words that are close to Keller’s but not identical.
During the rehearsal, Herman tried to sync the signing and singing with the music. Meanwhile, Kubey urged Medugno to be more expressive when conveying Keller’s bewildered reactions to the vibrations and smells of a Washington train station.
In offering these suggestions, Herman spoke and Kubey signed, and an interpreter translated each remark into the other language so everyone could be on the same page. (Prewitt says two ASL-English interpreters were scheduled for each rehearsal — standard procedure to accommodate simultaneous conversations and interpreters’ need for breaks, he said.)
Kubey, as one of the key deaf artists involved in a production whose writer, composer and director are hearing, was also keeping an eye on a macrocosmic goal. As he put it in an interview, speaking through an interpreter, he has worked with assistant director Charlie Ainsworth (who is deaf) “to make sure that the deaf perspective is recognized, valued, and accurately incorporated” in the musical.
Kubey’s additional duties include making sure that the actors sign in a way that is consistent with their characters. An older, high-status character would likely use a more formal signing style, whereas a young student character might sign in a more casual way. The style of expression needs to be as consistent as it would be in a speaking role. After all, “sign is our voice,” Kubey says.
It’s all in service of the play’s broader theme, which, in Resing’s words, is that “everybody wants to be heard, everyone has something to say” despite “all the ways communication can go awry.”
“Communication is never simple,” Resing says. “It just isn’t.”
Wren is a freelance writer.