Today, William Shakespeare’s 451st birthday, we’re still discovering new ways to experience that remarkable writer.
Earlier this year, the Folger Library chose a city in every state of the Union to host one of its multimillion-dollar First Folios during 2016. The traveling exhibit — the most ambitious project the Folger has ever undertaken — is designed to introduce people all across the country to this incomparable book, the first collected works of Shakespeare, published in 1623 by two of the playwright’s colleagues.
But what about Washingtonians, who already have the luxury of seeing the Folger’s 82 First Folios whenever they want? How could they participate in this grand national tour and interact with the Bard in a new setting?
For its hometown choice, the Folger Library made a brilliant venue selection: Gallaudet University.
As the world’s preeminent academic institution for the deaf and hard of hearing, Gallaudet will offer a unique and expansive perspective when it presents its contribution to the First Folio tour in October 2016. The university organizers are already designing “Eyes on Shakespeare,” a series of lectures, conferences and theatrical productions for academics and teachers, families and children — to anyone, that is, who knows “the play’s the thing.”
The exhibit will demonstrate that rather than missing some essential aspect of Shakespeare’s theater, the deaf community adds a broader appreciation for the rich visual elements of the Bard’s work. Tyrone Giordano, content producer in the American Sign Language and Deaf Studies department, reminds fans that “Shakespeare is more than just sound emanating forth from bodies, representing the words he hammered out on his pages. Shakespeare is about the human condition.”
And as people around the world know, his genius translates into many languages — including sign language. Just because “the rest is silence,” doesn’t mean there’s nothing to say. In fact, sign language can illuminate a performance in special ways. Lindsey Snyder, a resident artist at Gallaudet and the director of access and inclusion at the Washington theater company Faction of Fools, says that American Sign Language (ASL) “goes beyond what a traditional physical theater approach can do. ASL can embody the text from the page down to the phonemic level. It has the capability of physically exploring the textual level.”
For many people, this offers a dramatically new way to think about the text literally coming alive. As Shakespeare writes in “Venus & Adonis,” “Were I deaf, thy outward parts would move/ Each part in me that were but sensible.” In other words, once we stop focusing just on the oral delivery, we can start to see and appreciate so much more about Shakespeare’s immortal plays. The words of the performance don’t merely shape the air; they shape the actors’ movements.
Gallaudet English professor Jennifer Nelson explains that a performance that uses ASL on stage “moves the written words through time and space via the performer’s physical presence. The acting styles of the performers is necessarily inflected more by the grammatical and expressive nature of ASL on the body.”
This approach also can help us see the visual content of the plays themselves, even though they contain none of the stage directions, costume notes or scene descriptions one would find in a modern script. Jill Bradbury, another English professor at Gallaudet, points out that Shakespeare “incorporates scenic descriptions” that enhance the characters’ development within their lines.
These approaches will be the subject of lectures and demonstrations during Gallaudet’s participation in the First Folio tour next year. In partnership with Washington Ballet, Synetic Theater, Faction of Fools, Lean & Hungry and other Washington arts organizations, Gallaudet will also explore various ways of broadening access to theater in general. The organizers hope to offer a panel of directors and producers who can speak about more creative and effective ways to offer open-captioned and ASL- interpreted performances. (Theaters can do better, Bradbury suggests, than placing a captioning box off to the side of the stage.)
To commemorate what might have been the first production of Shakespeare in ASL — an 1894 performance of “The Merchant of Venice” — the Gallaudet organizers are hoping to put on a production of that problematic play around their First Folio exhibit.
Bradbury says that while preparing for next year’s events, she and her colleagues learned of a delightful coincidence: The first time that ASL was used on TV was in 1967 when an NBC program called “Experiments in Television” showed actors with the National Theater of the Deaf performing scenes from Shakespeare.
A half-century later, we’re still learning that “his very action speaks/ In every power that moves.”