Deaf Austin Theatre Promotes Inclusivity in Performing Arts
Local theaters partner with DAT to make the stage experience more accessible for all artists
By Britni Rachal
When local theaters partner with Deaf Austin Theatre (DAT), they enable an accessible stage experience for all artists. These immersive performances provide entertainment that is educational and eye-opening for all audiences to enjoy.
Fully collaborative, some scenes are largely silent with American Sign Language (ASL) and captions on a backdrop screen telling the story, while in others you’ll hear a combination of speaking, singing and ASL. Then, rather than clapping at the end of the performance, half of the audience waves their hands in the air — a sign that’s made in support and appreciation of a very diverse and talented stage of actresses and actors.
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With inclusivity in mind, the performances help promote thoughtfulness and consideration of struggles faced by millions of Americans. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, two to three of every 1,000 children in the U.S. are born with a detectable hearing loss in one or both ears. On top of that, around 15% of American adults, or 37.5 million, currently report having some trouble hearing.
“Theater saved my life,” says Dr. Brian Cheslik, Artistic Director for DAT. “In middle school I was a shy, closeted gay deaf kid in a small, closed-minded town, where I was bullied daily and had no friends.” Cheslik said his family later moved to Columbus, Ohio, where he joined a drama club and made friends. “I was able to find my people, my tribe, my support system … my friends.”
Officially forming in 2017, after five years of ideas and action by Russell Harvard, Bellamie Bachleda, Flash Oltalora and Michelle Schaffer, the Deaf Austin Theatre program is one of the most unique in the country and serves a very much needed purpose — one that is ingrained in the core of its participants.
“Forming Deaf Theatre in Austin was a no-brainer because there is a large deaf community in Austin, and the multi-communities here in Austin are familiar with deaf culture and people using ASL,” says Sandra Mae Frank, Production Manager for DAT. “We knew that having a theater company here would make a huge impact and bring so much noise to theater communities in Austin by saying: hire us, work with us, produce with us.”
To date, DAT has put on six in-person shows and four virtual shows, with the most recent being Cinderella in partnership with ZACH Theatre. The shows are incredibly immersive — and great for any audience. Even younger children, who can’t read the captions, can be seen in the theater with their parents quietly whispering the captions to them, almost in a storybook reading style. Each production also includes hearing actors to make sure all shows are accessible for everyone.
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“The magic happens when both worlds work together and ensure there are equal voices on the production team,” says Frank. “When you come in to watch a production knowing there are deaf actors involved using ASL, don’t set your mind to, ‘Oh, this is something special to witness, something extraordinary and inspirational to witness as actors with disabilities perform,’” advises Frank. “Just come to watch a show as if you would with any other production. Have an open mind and allow yourself to be in that world and trust you will not be lost. Instead, embrace what you see on the stage, and know that everything is intentional. You’ll leave gaining new experiences and awareness. It’s something you’ll continue to talk about the next day.”
One theatrical challenge is that there are so few deaf actors and actresses in Austin that organizers must bring in talent from outside of Austin — something that can really consume much of a production’s budget, along with the cost of interpreters. However, through these extra measures, the deaf theater is meeting a need and expanding talent reach for those who previously wouldn’t have an opportunity.
“I cannot imagine my life not being in a creative career. Not only am I an actor, but I’m also a director,” says Frank. “I love working in different aspects — theater, film and TV. I get to create stories for a living and play characters that both challenge and teach me. Every lesson I learn through my characters, I also carry with me in life.”
To help offset costs and fully operate, DAT relies on donations, sponsorships, fundraisers and volunteers. In the future, the organization hopes to further expand its reach, and start working with theaters beyond Central Texas. Preview upcoming productions and learn more at deafaustintheatre.org.
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