It’s a little over a week before opening night, and director Daniel Brucker is tweaking lighting cues for an upcoming performance of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. He signals to the technician to dim the lights even more, then asks his actors to try a few lines. Can you still understand them, he wants to know, when the stage is this dark?
The actors, and Brucker, are all deaf. Next week, they’ll put on two performances in American Sign Language, with voice actors reciting the lines in real time for a hearing audience. Making a show that’s accessible to all requires some finagling. Brucker decides yes, the lights are too dim: you won’t be able to interpret signs clearly from the audience.
This is the first theater production by the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in four years. Nearly the entire high school class is involved, either on-stage or behind the scenes. On the day I visit, they’re rehearsing the scene where — spoiler alert — the White Witch kills Aslan, the lion ruler of Narnia. The students stage fight with a solemn intensity, making their final adjustments before curtains rise next week.
Brucker, who teaches at the school, adapted C.S. Lewis’s classic to ASL specially for the high schoolers. He said it wasn’t as simple as just translating from English.
“I had a vision of the different characters that they are not just acting out hearing roles, that they are actually deaf characters,” he said. So if the book said, for example, “We hear someone coming,” Brucker would tweak it. “A deaf audience wouldn’t actually resonate with that idea.”
Last year was a big one for signing in cinema, but it also raised questions about deaf representation in performance. At the Oscars, Best Picture winner The Shape of Water featured hearing actress Sally Hawkins playing a deaf woman, whereas the winner for Best Short Film, The Silent Child, cast a deaf six-year-old actress in the lead. Model, actor, and advocate Nyle DiMarco, who is deaf, has reflected on what a difference those castings can make.
“Deaf people can do anything except hear,” says Brucker, “That is a quote we often use in the deaf community.”
High schooler Hazim Houron, who plays Edmund, is acting for the first time in this show. He says of next week’s audience, “I want to give them the experience of seeing deaf actors, seeing a deaf production, seeing deaf people in various roles, and knowing that is possible for deaf people.”
Deaf and hearing audiences alike will have the opportunity to brush up on a childhood favorite, support the country’s third-oldest school for the deaf, and applaud first-time actors at two performances this weekend.
The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe
- May 25th and 26th at 7pm
- First United Methodist Church of Germantown, 6001 Germantown Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19144
- Tickets $12 for adults, $7 for children