Arts·Point of View

How one play inspired a new guide for bringing deaf artists and audiences to the theatre

It's not just about accessibility. One Toronto company wants the theatre to become a site for deaf culture, and they've created a free toolkit to help make it happen.

DATT's the plan! Toronto's Cahoots Theatre has released a toolkit for engaging the deaf community

Elizabeth Morris and Chris Dodd in Cahoots Theatre's production of Ultrasound. (Michael Cooper/Courtesy of Cahoots Theatre)

At Toronto's Cahoots Theatre, where I'm the current playwright in residence, the mandate is exploring diversity — and this fall, Cahoots released a project that's creating a company-wide transformation. It's called the Deaf Artists and Theatres Toolkit (DATT), a free online resource to support engagement and collaborations between theatre organizations and deaf artists and audiences.

It all began when Cahoots' artistic director Marjorie Chan decided to produce Ultrasound this spring, a play by award-winning Saskatoon writer Adam Pottle.

Directed by Chan, the play was performed in English and American Sign Language and also used integrated subtitles and projections, constructing a richly visual storytelling experience. "I see such tremendous dramatic potential in the language of American Sign Language," Chan tells me over email. "There is an inherently theatrical and expressive nature to a visual language. The possibilities are endless."

I see such tremendous dramatic potential in the language of American Sign Language.- Marjorie Chan, artistic director of Cahoots Theatre

The story's about a deaf couple. When they learn they're expecting, their relationship is shaken as they contemplate whether the child will be born hearing or deaf. Their clashing perspectives cast an ominous cloud over the news.

Pottle himself has hearing loss, but he doesn't consider himself culturally deaf or fluent in ASL — and Ultrasound explores the identity issues that arise when you're somewhere in between communities.

When I watched the play at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille this spring, I was confronted for the first time with the concept of deaf culture. I had never considered it a cultural group, connected not only through language but also through identity, behavioural norms, values rooted in clear communication and traditions that flourish through generations.

The 12-month process of producing the play proved to be a teaching moment for Cahoots as well. The experience provided much of the research that went into the creation of the DATT.

Chris Dodd in Ultrasound. While producing the show, Toronto's Cahoots Theatre developed the Deaf Artists and Theatres Toolkit (DATT). (Michael Cooper/Courtesy of Cahoots Theatre)

After Cahoots committed to producing Ultrasound, Chan says, "We recognized that there would be a great deal of learning on our part. We called it 'vertical learning,' in that if we did not learn, we would fall down a vertical cliff to the rocky shore below!"

"So at that point, knowing we were going to be working with deaf actors, we conceived the toolkit as a way to track our learnings and perhaps offer someone else a smoother path."

It's not the first resource out there. A toolkit for producing ASL-interpreted performances was released by Ontario cultural organization Picasso PRO in 2012. Last spring, Canada Council for the Arts released "Expanding the Arts: A Guidebook for Working with Artists who are Deaf or have Disabilities."

However, the DATT is distinct because it considers how theatre companies can incorporate deaf culture throughout an entire production cycle.

The DATT provides resources on the cultural context of deaf communities as well as tips on marketing, publicity and outreach. It also includes tools for arranging script interpretation and translation, auditions and casting and scheduling and budgets. There are even how-to's for offering accessible patron services.

Cahoots Theatre's Marjorie Chan (L) and Deaf Community Consultant Catherine MacKinnon rehearse for Ultrasound. (Dahlia Katz/Courtesy of Cahoots Theatre)

The DATT shows that deeply engaging deaf artists and audiences goes beyond providing ASL or Langue des Signes Quebecois interpretation. It requires a marked shift in the way theatre companies work.

"The timeline for working with deaf artists and thinking about deaf audiences is a much longer timeline, as interpreters need to be booked, etc.," Chan explains. "So the thinking for accessibility has to begin much earlier in a production process and not as an afterthought. That is a challenge if one is used to working on a certain timeframe, and requires a shift in process. Hopefully, it becomes a natural shift and industry norm. As well, there are additional costs that have to be taken into consideration. Funding models need to shift to incorporate these costs."

Parents gather outside Queen's Park, where they are asking the provincial government not to close schools for disabled, deaf and blind children. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

The DATT arrived during a turbulent year for many in Ontario's deaf community, too. Early in 2016, the provincial government considered closing as many as five residential schools for students who are deaf or blind or have severe learning disabilities. This led to protests by parents and staff. In August, the Liberal government announced that they had "no plans" to close schools for special-needs students but they also did not confirm that they'd remain open beyond the coming school year.

Deaf schools are considered by many to be a cornerstone of the community, a space where language and culture are passed on. In this context of political uncertainty, the importance of the DATT as a tool for not only making the theatre more accessible but also positioning the theatre as a site for deaf culture to grow more consistently becomes even more urgent.

"Already, we are seeing more and more companies big and small incorporating ASL interpretation into their performances," writes Chan. In terms of the DATT, Chan says it's already being accessed by readers across North America, and Cahoots plans to run a survey in six months to get feedback from users.

That said, she notes that ASL is "only one portion of how we can make theatre more inclusive."

"In the end, as with culturally diverse audiences, they respond through ticket sales and attendance when they see their own culture represented onstage. The truth is, deaf representation by deaf artists onstage is still very limited in this country." 

Deaf Community Consultant Catherine MacKinnon (L) and performer Elizabeth Morris in a scene from Ultrasound. (Dahlia Katz/Courtesy of Cahoots Theatre)

Learn more about the DATT on their website.