Spring Awakening – Pros and Cons of Broadway Plays in ASL

Theater entrance for Spring Awakening play

Happy New Year! I wanted to start the new year with an article about Spring Awakening, a Broadway play in ASL (American Sign Language), directed by Deaf West. They also directed another play on Broadway back in 2003, Big River. Deaf actors work with hearing actors who voice for them for hearing audience. I have seen both plays and found them amazing. The best part is choreography, lighting, props, dancing, and acting.

While it’s great to see deaf actors playing on Broadway (which is very important), the major issue is that ASL plays – especially if they are also voiced in English – are written mainly for hearing audience. Many say or assume that ASL plays are “fully” accessible to deaf and hard of hearing patrons. However, it’s not true. Majority of people with hearing loss are oral using spoken languages and relying on captioning and other visual access than sign language, so they feel left out. Even being a fluent signer, I have a hard time understanding ASL plays and there are times when I miss signs and cannot fully appreciate plays.

After watching Big River in ASL years back, I thought I was the only deaf person missing things during the play until I learned that other deaf people who I went with to the play told me that they also experienced the same way. So when I heard about Spring Awakening in ASL by the same organization that directed Big River, I was hesitating to attend at first. Then I came across an article by Jehanne McCullough, 10 Things the Raving Reviews Don’t Tell You About Spring Awakening.

I would strongly recommend reading the article above before continuing here to better understand that ASL plays are not fully accessible not only to those with hearing loss who don’t know sign language, but even to native and fluent signers. It finally made me realize why those who know sign language may miss things during ASL plays and how that can be improved.

To make an ASL play accessible to hearing patrons, there needs to be people to voice signing actors. So hearing actors are used for that. It’s easier to follow actors in ASL if they just sign without speaking. However, in ASL plays some hearing actors sign and speak at same time – the major issue explained in the article linked above. When you speak and sign at same time, you need to choose if you need to speak or sign more – you cannot do both well. Using that method is okay for informal conversations, but it’s not advisable for formal situations like those plays. I noticed that some hearing actors who were signing and speaking at same time, they had to skip some signs for the sake of hearing patrons to help them fully appreciate the spoken language which left deaf patrons at disadvantage.

Sadly and ironically, ASL plays are more accessible to hearing patrons than those with hearing loss – especially those who don’t know or understand sign language. I feel disappointed that Deaf West does not make efforts to provide captioned versions for all of their ASL play performances. Open captions on a LED display are offered only on a few selected dates and they are booked up pretty fast because more deaf and hard of hearing people need captioning access than limited seats and dates available. Also, captioning is offered not by Deaf West, but by TDF that has limited budget to provide captioning access.

I understand that Deaf West wants to spread more awareness about deafness and sign language and to encourage more theaters to hire deaf actors. It is not a problem. The problem is that the organization is leaving out a significant population with hearing loss who doesn’t sign. It also sends a wrong message to general public that all deaf people use and can understand sign language. It is not true because deaf and hard of hearing people have various hearing and communication abilities and preferences. It’s hard enough to have access to Broadway plays as someone who is deaf, it’s even more frustrating when people with normal hearing assume that ASL plays are “fully” accessible if open captioning is not available for a wider audience.

If not for the captioned version (thanks to TDF), I would have passed on attending that play. I was glad to be able to book an open captioned ASL performance last month. The ticket is not cheap, so it was worth the price to attend the performance that was fully accessible for me via open captioning. I did not even to have to read a synopsis before the play like I regularly did in past with ASL plays and could follow everything.

My advice to those who are interested in attending ASL plays: Unless you have normal hearing and can understand aural English (because again the play is written for hearing people), attend ASL play performances that have open captions if you want to fully understand the play along with sign language (or to check captions if you know sign language but may miss signs).

For future ASL plays (that are also voiced in English) I encourage Deaf West to make their ASL plays fully accessible via open captions for all of their performances and not just on selected dates. Hearing loss is very stigmatized and many people having it won’t disclose it, so they would greatly appreciate it when they can attend events that readily offer open captions without their prior request on any dates that better fit their schedule on par with hearing patrons. Captioning would also benefit people who are foreign language speakers, for example, and even native and fluent signers who may miss some signs during an ASL play.