Wave Tension by Dale Witherow
“Do you sense a tension…”
“I’m hearing a tension…”
“Let’s explore that tension…”
The “t” word appeared many of my sentences last year as I attempted to more closely examine the relationship between beliefs or practices with conflicting implications, rather than my opinion of a particular situation.
What do I mean by “tensions”?:
- the Narrative – Experience tension
- the Impact – Reach tension
- the Privilege – Responsibility tension
However: it isn’t until months later that I feel I’ve gotten enough distance on a particular event of 2014 to be able to clear my vision and articulate the tensions in spite of my opinions. I knew that when I jump started A Big Eyed Fish that I needed to force myself to tackle this topic in the first few posts.
There’s a laundry list of disclaimers I could go into, but instead I ask everyone to know that I am writing with the best intentions, writing solely from my personal perspective, and writing with the purpose of prompting reflection… and possibly dialogue.
This fall, Virginia-based theatre company WSC Avant Bard jointly produced the world premiere of Visible Language with Gallaudet University. The show told “the true story of the 1890s culture war when two powerful and egotistical men—Alexander Graham Bell and Edward Miner Gallaudet—clashed over how the Deaf should be taught to communicate. The outcome of that contest…changed the life of every Deaf person in America.”
Tension: Hearing Production – Deaf Story
Visible Language was written, directed, featured, and publicly produced predominantly by hearing people. And I want to emphasize publicly produced; I was surprised to learn after see the show that it was a “joint production” (the phrase on WSC’s website) with Gallaudet University’s theatre department (addressing this next). The dominant language in the show was spoken English. The show was 100% captioned and a handful of scenes (regretfully I don’t know an exact number) transpired in American Sign Language (ASL). A number of the characters engaged in “Sim-Com” or simultaneous-communication, speaking English and signing at the same time, which is technically speaking two languages at the same time and still privileges the spoken word over the signed.
What responsibility does a company have to be aware of its own privilege when producing a show that features the history, stories, language, people, and voices of a non-dominant culture and community? What responsibility do the hearing artists who wrote and directed the show have to turning over the reins of artistic leadership of this project to their Deaf artist collaborators? Who was the most appropriate company to produce the show? Should it even have been finished in the first place, after having initially been commissioned numerous years ago by another company for which it may have been stewarded with more care? I am not suggesting that Avant Bard should not have tackled this project. I love that they did. But I question whether the privilege the hearing artists held, because they are hearing, prevented them from realizing the tremendous responsibility they were shouldering with this endeavor and the amount of capital they withheld from their collaborators.
Tension: Professional Production – University Production
While Visible Language was a professional theatrical production, it was also the student production at Gallaudet. What is the responsibility of the producing organization to serving the needs of students when in partnership with academic institutions? The needs of the faculty and alumni? What was the impulse behind the partnership for the producing organization? What did Avant Bard provide the students of Gallaudet as far as professional training? How is that being extended beyond this one experience?
And, because Gallaudet is a higher education institution dedicated to the “advancement of deaf and hard of hearing individuals” and Avant Bard is a hearing theatre company…where was the imperative from Avant Bard to uphold and forward that mission through Visible Language?
Tension: Promotion of Inclusion – Maintaining Critical Standards
Washington Post closed out its review thus: “Visible Language makes you want to lean in and understand.”
Washington City Paper with: “There’s something mightily impressive about the fact that a show attempting to do something so unprecedented suffers from such prosaic problems….The people who inspired Visible Language were no quitters, and its makers shouldn’t quit, either.”
DC Metro Theatre Arts noted the show “moves its audience with an urgent yearning to communicate beyond whatever barriers might exist, imagined or real.”
Which is AWESOME!
But these quotes were drawn from reviews that also commented on the production as being under-rehearsed (e.g. actors dropping large sections of lines), songs as “insipid,” script as “expository,” “moving forward with blunt strokes,” and “leading to a rushed conclusion that elicits more confusion than satisfaction.” Read all the mainstream reviews for Visible Language in full, and one gets a feeling of cheerleading an underdog.
Broadwayworld.com remarks: “Avant Bard Artistic Director Tom Prewitt, Director of Visible Language, promises a ‘unique experience for theatergoers whether they are Deaf or hearing,’ and there is no question that this is a promise fulfilled. “ How does the reviewer, who I am guessing is hearing, know this?
A Twitter conversation on #OccupyVL (a hashtag initially started just for the group I attended the show with to discuss our reactions) revealed:
@jrscoyote Yes, and the pacing and staging is driven by the music, so the signing seems ‘shoehorned’ in and suffers accordingly #OccupyVL
@DrKVG I see it as driven by ENGLISH not by music. The ASL had no connections to music in terms of beat, handshape, motion etc. #OccupyVL
Also shared on the hashtag from the blog Surdus Explores:
“Most songs are given the SEE [Signed Exact English] treatment, which renders them fairly meaningless. A poem closes the show; it receives the same treatment. While SEE can help us perceive the English side of a poem in writing, it doesn’t lend itself to the performance of meaning.”
I share all this not to debate or debunk the critics, or to say the production was not a worthy endeavor. On the contrary—the exact opposite. However: what is the balance of critical review and promotion of inclusion, of equity, on DC stages? What role can the media play in this? How might the critics, writing for audiences not artists, encourage mainstream population (i.e. hearing) attendance at productions like Visible Language but in a way that doesn’t perpetuate cycles of inspiration porn?
Still, three months after seeing the show, I remain disappointed in my hearing peers’ decisions with this production. While I don’t believe they acted with any ill intentions, I believe they acted with the paper bag of hearing privilege over their heads. Who knows whether it was the scope of the project, the notoriety, the possibility for notoriety, or just the simply not knowing, and with some education, thinking you know all?
Not knowing the full story, I can only surmise based on what it felt like from the outside.
The tension in the tangled
But I am left with these questions, and so I leave you:
- What is the producers’ responsibility in carrying conversations forward that their productions begin, once the show is done?
- What is the tension between the privilege we have as non-profit arts organizations and our responsibility to the communities with which we collaborate? the communities we serve? the greater communities that support us?