At first, the rehearsal of “Alice in Wonderland” at the International Center on Deafness and the Arts looks and sounds like any typical children’s theater practice.
In the noisy rehearsal room, director Jonalee Folerzynski guides a shy teenager through her part. Nearby, the Queen of Hearts commands, “Offfff with her head!” in a high, pompous falsetto, prompting a round of giggling among the children.
Amid all the noise, a second, silent stream of conversation ripples through the room—American Sign Language.
This is the only arts center for the deaf in the Midwest and the largest in the country, says the group’s president and founder, Patricia Scherer, who is a psychologist and educator. A handful of other theaters for the deaf exist around the United States, but some present plays only in sign language, which excludes hearing people, Scherer says.
Here most plays are bilingual—the characters sign while a hearing actor speaks in time with the signer. “Most lead roles go to the deaf actor first,” director Folerzynski, who is deaf, writes via e-mail. “If I can’t find a deaf actor, then sometimes the role can be a hearing actor who knows sign language.”
“The goal is for deaf children to receive appreciation from an audience that is mixed. Most of their parents are hearing. Silent only is for very small audiences of deaf people and a few teachers. It just doesn’t seem like living in the world.”
Actress Asha Darrah, 14, who is deaf, says the program provides social opportunities. “Deaf people are not that hard to communicate with, [but] hearing people sometimes say ‘never mind.’ ”
“Arts makes [children] come alive,” says Scherer. “It teaches them that they have ideas that other people would appreciate. That spurs them on to think and develop their own creativity.”
Scherer, who is not deaf, founded the program 31 years ago. “The thing that still motivates me in everything that I do is that the average deaf child has a lot of potential, and it’s locked up inside of them. Unless I find a way to release it, they’re not going to reach that potential.”
“Most young deaf kids are natural-born actors,” adds Kathleen Herman, Scherer’s daughter and an employee. “They use their bodies to communicate. Acting tends to be a natural outlet.”
Scherer says the goal is to provide life skills for deaf children—learning to be prepared and arrive on time—along with cognitive skills involved with memorizing lines and dance steps. While studies show 75 percent of the deaf people in the United States are unemployed, Scherer says 98 percent of the center’s graduates have jobs.
The center in Northbrook runs afterschool programs and a summer camp for children, a museum on deafness, a semi-professional adult theater, a teacher-training program, a dance theater and two touring theater groups.
Elissa Wagman, Medill News Service