The State of Deaf Theatre in Seattle

Executive Director of Deaf Spotlight Patty Liang, actor Lindsay W. Evans, actor Joshua Castille, ASL interpreter Amy Harris and Sign Master Ryan Schlecht in rehearsal for ACT's 'Tribes.' Photo by Chris Bennion

According to the 2010 United States Census, an estimated 2.4% of the Washington population identifies as Deaf. And while estimations surrounding the size of Seattle’s own population vary widely, it’s clear that the Deaf community here is vibrant and engaged. So how are the region’s theatres providing accessible performing arts experiences for the community?

According to Deaf Spotlight’s accessibility index, The Paramount Theatre (as part of Seattle Theatre Group and Broadway at The Paramount), The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT Theatre all offer long-term commitments to providing captioning, American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation and other accessibility services to their Deaf and hard of hearing audiences. And while these three theatres seem to be leading the way in Deaf accessibility, Seattle Rep and Sound Theatre Company also provide captioning and ASL interpretation during select performances.

Over the last couple of years, both The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT Theatre have embraced the talents of actor Joshua M. Castille. In 2017, Castille made his Seattle debut playing Billy in ACT’s production of Tribes by Nina Raine. He returned in 2018 to play Quasimodo in 5th Avenue’s production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a role traditionally played by a hearing actor. His performance in the titular role of this new Disney musical was augmented by actor E.J. Cardona, who sang on Castille’s behalf. Earlier this year, Castille returned to Seattle to portray yet another titular role: Romeo in ACT’s production of Romeo and Juliet.

“Deaf theatre rarely happens, because it’s rare that we get to direct or produce a show from our lens,” Castille explained. He clarified, saying that all of the roles he’s performed in Seattle lean more toward what he calls “theatre including the Deaf.”

E.J. Cardona as the Voice of Quasimodo, Joshua Castille as Quasimodo, and ensemble in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame.'
E.J. Cardona as the Voice of Quasimodo, Joshua Castille as Quasimodo, and ensemble in ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ at 5th Avenue. Photo by Tracy Martin

“I wouldn’t consider Romeo and Juliet ‘Deaf theatre’ because its primary audience isn’t Deaf, it’s hearing,” Castille said. “It’s all about the intended audience.” Deaf West Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening, the show that gave Castille his Broadway debut, was a blend of the two.

Castille identifies as an artivist, an identifier that he picked up from Andrea Moore, executive director of The Wayfaring Band. Castille was struck by the way Moore uses art to mobilize her Denver community to create change in the world.

“Artists make observations on life,” Castille said. “We explore and encourage ideas. It’s so powerful that it would be silly not to be conscious about the sociological effects of our work.”

Reflecting back on Romeo and Juliet, which closed in March 2019, Castille said that the decision to cast two Deaf actors in the production—Howie Seago played Friar Lawrence—was intentional. Director John Langs had noticed that this young tough guy, Romeo, was visiting the priest a lot. “Why?” Castille asked. “What motivates Romeo to go to the priest? Because they are the only two people who speak that language and share that experience. This is similar to real life. We often find Deaf families to participate in or find a Deaf role model to latch onto.”

Howie Seago, Lindsay W. Evans, Joshua Castille and Gabriella O’ Fallon in 'Romeo & Juliet' at ACT.
Howie Seago, Lindsay W. Evans, Joshua Castille and Gabriella O’ Fallon in ‘Romeo & Juliet’ at ACT. Photo by Chris Bennion

It’s a casting choice that sent ripples through the rest of the text, including the second half of the play when Romeo is left out of a major communication loop regarding Juliet.

When asked what keeps him coming back to Seattle, Castille was quick to bring up the Deaf community and the strength he witnesses every time he comes back to work. “I love how Deaf Spotlight fosters Deaf artists,” Castille said. “I’m so blown away by their mindset and the events they produce. They are supportive and loving.”

Actor Howie Seago, who played the aforementioned Friar Lawrence role, said that he identifies as a Deaf person first and a Deaf actor second. “Most any role can be adapted to be performed by a Deaf actor, but I believe I cannot exclude my deafness as part of the makeup of the character,” Seago said. “It is always there.”

Seago has worked all over the world—with Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Edinburgh Festival, Amsterdam Opera, Seattle Children’s Theatre, Intiman and most recently at ACT. Seago grew up in Tacoma and it was important to raise his two sons in the Pacific Northwest, surrounded by family. He and his wife decided to call Seattle home because it’s a theatre town full of innovative artists.

Howie Seago and Joshua Castille in 'Romeo & Juliet.'
Howie Seago and Joshua Castille in ‘Romeo & Juliet.’ Photo by Chris Bennion

After ACT’s production of Tribes, it was clear to Seago that the theatre was inspired to include Deaf talent and ASL in future productions. It was clear they were willing to put in the work.

“Other theatres in town can start to consider how they might adapt roles for Deaf talent,” Seago said. “Having a Deaf actor portraying a role and utilizing some aspects of the Deaf experience might add another layer of depth to the message of the play.” In Romeo and Juliet, a flashing light signaled the end of the school day in Friar Lawrence’s class. Friar John, the often forgotten second friar in William Shakespeare’s classic, was given a much larger role as Lawrence’s interpreter. And, as Castille pointed out, the shared deafness of Romeo and Friar Lawrence strengthened the bond between these two characters.

Seago encourages Seattle theatres to broaden their Deaf talent to include those behind the scenes as well. “The next step after offering more performance opportunities to the Deaf talent community would be to sponsor playwriting workshops for the Deaf and hire Deaf directors—either as the main director or an assistant director,” Seago said. “Having a ‘Deaf eye’ will ensure Deaf culture accuracy, proper ASL translations and clear sightlines for Deaf audiences.”

“The next step after offering more performance opportunities to the Deaf talent community would be to sponsor playwriting workshops for the Deaf and hire Deaf directors…Having a ‘Deaf eye’ will ensure Deaf culture accuracy, proper ASL translations and clear sightlines for Deaf audiences.”

Howie Seago

Patty Liang, the executive director of Deaf Spotlight, is grateful for the mentorship she received as a Ceramics student at the University of Washington. It was her ASL interpreters who suggested she seek out Deaf non-profits in town.

“There are not many Deaf POC arts administrators,” said Liang, who identifies as Chinese American. “I hope my efforts encourage other Deaf female and POC artists and arts administrators in my field. There isn’t enough visibility and representation right now.”

Liang’s artistic background is in visual art, but her advocacy work through Deaf Spotlight extends to theatre and other performing arts. Liang said that she’d love to see a more inclusive effort from Seattle’s theatres, hiring Deaf talent on all levels of production. “Right now, theatres only offer opportunities for Deaf talent as actors, performance interpreters or directors of ASL,” Liang said. “I especially want to see more works by Deaf directors. They will certainly bring different perspectives and resources, reframing each play in a different light.”

Part of Deaf Spotlight’s programming is a biannual Short Play Festival. Earlier this year, Deaf Spotlight partnered with ACT Theatre, producing the festival during the 2019 ACTLab season. Deaf Spotlight hired six playwrights, three directors, eleven actors—all Deaf. “That’s Deaf theatre right there,” Liang said. “We don’t often get the opportunity to have a Deaf- and ASL-centric space, especially a creative space. I treasured these moments of banter and collaboration. It’s what made the festival such a success.”

Joshua Castille and E.J. Cardona in 5th Avenue’s ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame.’ Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Rob Roth, who identifies primarily as an audience member despite being a founding member of Deaf Spotlight, shared that he and his husband used to be subscribers to Seattle Rep. They’re both retired now and enjoy traveling, so it’s been difficult to fit captioned and ASL-interpreted shows into their schedules. “Our ability to attend captioned and ASL-interpreted shows is limited, as they are on specific nights and cannot easily be exchanged for another performance unless it is also captioned or ASL-interpreted,” Roth said. “ACT now has captions available for any performance, so this has expanded our options considerably.”

Thinking back on the shows he’s seen recently, Roth cited The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5th Avenue as his most joyful experience as an audience member. “The production threaded deafness and ASL into the production wonderfully, and Joshua Castille in the title role was wonderful to watch,” Roth said. Roth also enjoyed seeing The Music Man at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2009, starring Howie Seago as Professor Harold Hill’s friend Marcellus.

When I asked what Seattle theatres can do to be more accessible to Deaf audiences, Roth had a list at the ready. “Accessibility excellence would be obtained when all performances are captioned, like they are at ACT, and when at least two performances—or more!—are ASL-interpreted, so that Deaf audiences have more choices,” Roth said. “It’s important to note that ASL-interpreted performances should not be dropped in favor of captioning. For many Deaf persons, English may not be their first language.”

Roth enjoys seeing performances at ACT, Seattle Rep, The Paramount and 5th Avenue. He says that Sound Theatre has also captured his attention.

“I may be Deaf, but that does not mean I cannot live a full, varied and interesting life, even though most people depend so much on audio clues.”

Ian Aranha

Audience member Ian Aranha identified himself as a human being first and foremost. “I may be Deaf, but that does not mean I cannot live a full, varied and interesting life,” Aranha said, “even though most people depend so much on audio clues.”

When we started talking about the kind of shows he gravitates toward, Aranha said that he enjoys musicals much more than plays. The combination of choreography and the visually interesting set pieces that come with seeing a Broadway-style musical make for an incredibly joyful experience. His favorite musical is Les Misérables. “I come from a musically inclined family,” Aranha said. “I usually know the lyrics and storyline of a musical already. Or I’ll learn it beforehand.”

Looking back on this last year, Aranha’s experience of seeing Hamilton at The Paramount Theatre is a particular favorite. “I love how Lin-Manuel Miranda combined history, music and modern storytelling, all into one,” Aranha said. “It was all braided together so wonderfully.”

Before seeing Hamilton, Aranha read the script and did some research on YouTube. “But when I went to see it live, with captioning provided, it was even so much better than I expected,” Aranha said.

In the middle of his story about seeing this performance, Aranha stopped to acknowledge the theatre that made this all happen. “The Paramount [via programming by STG and Broadway at The Paramount] has been incredible in providing access to shows for Deaf and hard of hearing people,” Aranha said. “Shout out to them!”

Frank Corrado and Joshua Castille in ‘Tribes’ at ACT. Photo by Chris Bennion

As a hearing audience member, I shared with Aranha that my only experience with captioning was at the opera, where all performances are captioned and interpreted for the entire audience.

“That segues into my argument that all shows should have captions,” Aranha said. “People go to the opera and need captions. But the argument theatres make is that hearing people complain about captions, so they’ll never turn them on for all shows.”

And it can be frustrating when the dates and times for captioned and ASL-interpreted shows are so few and far between. “Have you noticed that the ASL performance is always on Saturday at 2 p.m.?” Aranha asked. “It’s like we’re sheep. Go see the afternoon show and then go home. I want to have dinner and drinks before and then take in a show.”

Aranha echoed what so many of the Deaf actors and audience members I spoke with did. There is always room to do more to welcome Deaf audiences in. Provide more captioned performances, more ASL-interpreted performances and more opportunities to grow and learn from Seattle’s vibrant Deaf community.

“I hope your article makes waves,” Aranha said.

I hope it does too. 

More information about captioned and ASL-interpreted performances at Seattle Rep, Sound Theatre, Seattle Theatre Group, Broadway at The Paramount, ACT Theatre and The 5th Avenue Theatre, as well as other accessibility services they provide, can be found on each theatre’s website.

Submissions for Deaf Spotlight’s 2020 Seattle Deaf Film Festival are now open. Visit www.deafspotlight.org for more information.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog. www.daniellemohlman.com