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There’s a national theater festival for deaf students and it’s growing out of Utah

Students participate in a theater exercise at the National Deaf High School Theatre Festival on Friday, March 17, 2023, at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.
Martha Harris
/
KUER
Students participate in a theater exercise at the National Deaf High School Theatre Festival on Friday, March 17, 2023, at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.

Sixth-grade student Kelsey Ensign wants to be an actor when she grows up.

“Maybe like a horror film? That would be cool,” she signed in American Sign Language.

Ensign attends Jean Massieu School of the Deaf in Salt Lake City. She was inspired to start acting after seeing former student Millicent Simmonds, who starred in the 2018 film “A Quiet Place,” succeed as a deaf actor.

“Sometimes you get stuck in the real world and sometimes you can just be a different character, be in a different world, and it’s fun.”

All individuals KUER spoke with for this story were interviewed with the aid of an interpreter.

Ensign recently performed at the National Deaf High School Theatre Festival hosted by the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind. She and other students spent weeks rehearsing beforehand and were even visited by some of the actors in “A Quiet Place.”

Then, Utah students and other deaf students from four schools across the country met in Salt Lake City for workshops with professional actors ahead of the March 18 showcase. In addition to the in-person festival, there was a virtual aspect and a performance competition.

During the final performance, Ensign played a dragon in a student-written play, “The King’s Child.”

“The story is about a king who is really desperate to have a child and seeks the aid of a witch, who grants his wish,” Jean Massieu sophomore Mauro Corrales explained. “However, the child is a dragon. And so he’s trying to work through this process and the dragon keeps eating people and other things, which creates frustration.”

Corrales participated in the festival last year and said he enjoys theater because he likes expressing himself through sign language on stage and working on different characters.

The options for deaf students participating in theater events are limited, said Michelle Tanner, the associate superintendent for the Deaf at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind. Her students used to attend the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City. But after a quickly dismissed lawsuit with the festival over a lack of American Sign Language interpreters, Tanner created her own competition and festival for deaf students.

“I started to think, ‘What next? Well, you know what? I'm going to roll up my sleeves and we'll set up our own festival here.’ And that was three years ago,” Tanner said.

USDB partnered with Deaf West Theatre, an award-winning theater company from Los Angeles, and Sunshine 2.0, a professional theater troupe based out of the Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

David Kurs, artistic director of Deaf West Theatre, said he would not be working in theater if it wasn’t for the theater camps he went to growing up and being exposed to other deaf artists.

“I recognize and acknowledge that there have been some small numbers of opportunities for people like myself to grow. So I know that something like this is critical for all of us in our community.”

During the festival, Kurs said there were workshops on filmmaking and improv, as well as more traditional theater classes focused on scripts and lines. They helped students make sure that content in English was expressed the same way in ASL, with the appropriate emotion and pacing.

“I think theater, in and of itself, covers so much in terms of Deaf identity, Deaf culture, being exposed to other role models and also learning my own story and learning how to tell my own story. And that just by itself is so important here in the world, not just for others to only understand us,” Kurs said.

While more people might have become aware of deaf performers over the last several years, like with the award-winning film “CODA,” Jonaz McMillan, artist and project coordinator for the festival, said deaf actors have always been around.

Part of the reason this festival is so important is students are able to learn about and practice theater in their own language, American Sign Language.

“A lot has to do, not so much with deaf or hearing, but just the language being presented,” McMillan said.

Overall, his goal is to help students find their “inner light” and what they are passionate about. He also hopes that by bringing the Deaf community together for this festival it will help students develop their sense of identity.

USDB teacher Sheri Ramirez said it’s helped her students' confidence by being able to utilize their native language while performing and learning from people who speak the same language as them, as opposed to taking a theater class where most do not speak ASL.

“It is so wonderful to see their natural talents come forth. Some of them have even astounded themselves, and it's really nice for them to realize on their own that, ‘hey, I'm good at this. This is something I can do. This is something I like doing. I like performing,’” Ramirez said.

The deaf high school theater festival is only run on the national level, but Tanner hopes to keep growing it so, eventually, there are regional competitions. This year they invited schools from across the country, but only four could afford to attend the festival in person.

“Life's more than just academics,” Tanner said. “I want our students to really be excited about the world in front of them — maybe they're part of this, maybe they're part of something else — and to have those opportunities. And understand they have options and that they're not limited, there are no restrictions on them. The world is just like your world and my world.”

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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