An Interview with Deaf Playwrights: Bernard Bragg & Eugene Bergman
“Tales from a Clubroom: A Deaf Theatre Classic”
Length of Interview: 19:02
Note: This is a summary of the signed commentary made during this interview and is not a verbatim translation. Text summaries by Karen Christie and Patti Durr.
“Tales from a Clubroom: A Deaf Theatre Classic”
An Interview with Deaf Playwrights: Bernard Bragg & Eugene Bergman
Opening Montage of clips from “Tales From a Clubroom” LIGHTS ON! Deaf theatre and NTID Performing Arts Dept productions. Brannon: …The larger Hearing world rejects me. The DEAF-WORLD is much smaller, more limited, gossipy, and close-knit in socializing. At the same time, I’m drawn to the Deaf community because Deaf people– represent my last chance.
Intertitle: Origins of “Tales From a Clubroom”
Eugene Bergman: What was the heart of the DEAF-WORLD? It was the Deaf club. So, I thought why not write a play about that? I proposed the idea to him (indicating Bernard Bragg). Bernard replies, “I said yes.” Eugene: He accepted. From then on, each week after dinner at my home, we’d work together. It was a give and take. Most importantly, the process did not start with the development of the plot, that was to come later, but rather the Deaf characters.
Bernard Bragg (BB): Yes, without wasting any time, I emphatically agreed with him, expressing excitement about this venture because of my background. You see, my father had been the president of two or three different Deaf clubs so I was basically raised in the Deaf club. We went to Deaf clubs with great regularity. So when he proposed focusing on this particular subject, I was immediately thrilled and enthused by the prospect.
Fred Schreiber, whose namesign was similar to the sign for jewish, was the NAD (National Association of the Deaf) president, I mean Executive Director of NAD. Fred and I happened to be very good friends. We had been talking about the possibility of developing a play for the NAD Centennial. Fred responded, “Yes, I would love to see that happen.” Unfortunately, he died unexpectedly soon after. The proposal had then been passed on to Gary Olsen, who followed in Fred’s footsteps, and ushered the project along.
Intertitle: Play Development Process (still image from “Tales From a Clubroom”)
Bernard Bragg: We hosted auditions and one hundred Deaf people lined up to audition. Then, we looked them all over and at that point agreed to be sure they all had real life experience with the Deaf club. That was the beginning of the selection process. We started to select people based on the idea they would represent a “typical” Deaf club member. For example, we’d say we need a president and a treasurer and so on and on until the full cast was selected. If I remember correctly, we ended up with a total of 20 characters. Out of the 20 we wanted to have one, at least one, character who was Hearing. In the old days it was customary to have a Hearing person who would attend the club and help out by interpreting. This person had a big heart for the DEAF-WORLD so we wanted to develop that character from our imagination. In the play, the Hearing character ended up being a person who previously had a relationship with a Deaf guy. Even though they had broken up, she still had warm feelings for the Deaf club and would regularly come by. She was not a professional interpreter, but just someone to help out as needed. We were all set with that character, but we still had 19 DEAF characters left. With that in mind, we weeded through the hundred people who auditioned and cast a group of actors as a result.
With this group of actors, we went forth using improvisational techniques. We would think of events that were commonplace or typical occurrences at the Deaf club. For example, Deaf people might be apt to drink a bit too much and then engage in a fight. What would they fight about? Maybe, they would argue about Deaf peddlers and from there we would add and embellish until the scenario became fleshed out. This was all done via improvisation. All the while, Eugene would be taking notes of all he was observing. As the director, I would indicate things like, “that there, get that down…” and Eugene would be putting it all down. Later, I remember it was Thursday nights; we’d meet at his home. We’d sit down together, look over what we had down on paper, and start to develop our script based on the cast’s improvisation. Over time, the scenes were expanded upon and we consistently edited and reedited. We brought the script back to actors and showed them their lines and we revised accordingly. Before we knew it, we had the final complete script. Of course we did spend a great deal of time polishing it, fine-tuning it, and attending to the details.
Eugene: It was a “play in being,” so to speak. Every time we had a rehearsal, we would learn something new and develop new ideas. This was also true for our cast.
For example, we had an actor that was full of energy and he reminded us of a Deaf peddler. Therefore, we gave him flashy attire with a big hat used to strut his stuff.
Every time we had a rehearsal, we had improvements, changes, additions and new ideas.
Bernard Bragg: Additionally, I’d like to talk about translation. Of course, we could not write the script in ASL. It couldn’t fully be represented in print. He (Eugene) scripted the play in pure English, but avoided using idioms and figures of speech common to Hearing speakers of English. He worked diligently to keep the script clean and in a bare bone English form.
Then, we worked with each character asking, “How would you interpret that line? How would your character sign it? Put it in your own way of signing translating it from English to ASL.” I wanted to take a look at that and see if what they came up with was believable. And I have to admit that each of the actors did a marvelous job. They really did their homework. They would help each other by saying things like, “No, a Deaf person wouldn’t sign it that way…” They were critiquing each other. There was give and take. It was genuinely a collaborative and cooperative process. There was no hurt pride or ego, none of that at all. The actors were very cooperative. It was truly beautiful to behold. I was really proud of that cast.
[Still image from the original production of “Tales From a Clubroom” rehearsal.]
[Still image of the original cast list]
Most gratitude is owed to Bernard. He is a wonderful director. He knows how to bring out the best in every actor. With his astute knowledge of signing, he was able to cultivate great improvement in the perfection of their signing.
Bernard Bragg: The rehearsal process lasted a long 8 months. Luckily, we had the luxury of a leisurely time schedule. We were rehearsing mostly on weekends [checks with Eugene if that memory is correct] Mostly weekends, right. Many of the cast members were working people so it was hard to find time to get together. We would schedule things based on small group scenes. We managed working along in that manner.
Eugene Bergman: All of this was volunteer – without any pay!
Bernard Bragg: Once I was sitting in the middle of the audience so that I could survey the reactions to the play. Truly, there was a great deal of emotions such as laughter, tears and skepticism. It was then I saw we had “made it,” and I had a great sense of relief. The play stimulated these various emotional responses because, of course, it conjured up a feeling of “yes, that is just like my people back at home.” “Yes, that’s exactly right. That’s the same as my people, and that too.” This sense of “me-same.” Even when it was performed at Deaf Way II, many foreign Deaf people who saw the show remarked on how it portrayed experiences that were the same in their countries. I saw the comments from them, “It is the same as with my people back home.” This tells me that the play reflects a universal Deaf experience.
After some of the performances, a few women in the audience, in fact, went up to the actor who played the widow with a drinking problem and said to her, “I was just like you. After my husband died, I was so lonely I started drinking a lot too.” The actor replied, “Excuse me, but I am just playing that role” and the audience member would be like “oh, goodness.” They totally identified with this character.
That is the main reason why I left the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD), even though I helped to found it. NTD is a really important touring company. I strongly believe that it changed the image of Deaf people, I really do. I’m Happy I did my part; yet, I had this burning desire to break away and be involved with something that explored the Deaf theatre – something that tells us about ourselves. I wanted that so badly and I was making all these connections that lead me to Eugene. We teamed up to work together, and then he suggested this Deaf play.
I don’t know if you can imagine it, but two or three people happened to approach the actor who played the thieving treasurer and admitted that they also embezzled money! And the actor was like, “Whoa, you know that wasn’t really me…” They’d reply, “oh, I know. I’m talking about me, my situation. But it’s so awful that your club FIRED you and threw you out. That wasn’t the case with my club. They just suspended me for one year and then let me come back. But your situation, wow, I think that was too much, too strict! ” Imagine that kind of response! But we would not alter that part. We left it alone as it was.
I came here to NTID, I can’t remember the exact year. It might have been 16 or 17 years ago to see our play, “Tales From a Clubroom,” which was directed by Patrick Graybill.
[Program book cover from “Tales From a Clubroom” shown]
I came see that production here. I remember being very excited about seeing it. Patrick did a fantastic job directing that play. He followed the script faithfully. It was in a very small theater, not here at NTID, but in the city. We were sitting in the back row of the audience and observed two young guys enter the theatre and sit down in front. Apparently, they had never seen the play before. It became obvious from their later conversation that this was the first time they had seen the play. Sitting in the first row, they were right on the stage itself. They were not in the elevated sitting rows like most of us. So while they were off to the side in the corner, they were pretty much on eye level with the actors. When the play finally ended, what happened was these two Deaf boys approached the director and asked, “How do we go about joining this club?” I laughed and laughed. Graybill remembers that well. We were all just doubled over with laughter. What does that tell us? They found the play to be so believable that they thought it was the real thing.
You know in our DEAF-WORLD we often have heated conversations about language. Someone might say, “No, that is the wrong sign.” “No, in English you would say it that way…” We wanted to incorporate that into the play. So we had one woman character who used some S.E.E. signs (Signing Exact English). She’d say, “Oh, I can’t help it my children at school pick it up and then bring it home to me. Forgive me.” She’d be signing it with a lot of “-ing” endings and such. We wanted to have a bit of that in the play.
Clip from Hughes Memorial Theatre production of “Tales From a Clubroom.”
Kathy Greene: “In WEEKS, we will have very green and excit ING …” Abe Greene: “You forget, we are in THE Deaf club now. Dang, now I’m doing S.E.E!.”
Kathy Greene: “Oh, gosh it’s become a habit now. Why? Because my children have influenced me. They go to the Deaf school learning signed English like GIRL-S (she). I don’t even understand it. I’ll just put that to the side. Now about the skit next week..”
There was another example. One character was a graduate of Gallaudet who came to the Deaf club arrogantly thinking he was hot stuff, using fancy words in straight English order and fingerspelling a lot of complicated terms. But the regular patrons were disgusted by his Hearing-like attitude and challenged him. In the play, we would touch on real situations like these because they are authentic experiences our World.
Clip from LIGHTS ON! Deaf Theatre production
Grady: …Hey, you use some fancy signs.
Lindsey: That’s Gallaudet Sign Language. It’s used all over the nation. The signing you use here is so colloquialism or local dialect. Grady: What was that you just fingerspelled at me? Huh? Well, anyways you’re new here right. You come in here because you want to meet people and make some friends, right. You want to be accepted, right? So don’t be a smart ass.
Eugene Bergman: One event that always stays in my memory is an event that took place years ago at a Deaf club in Atlanta. It was a New Years party and a man showed up, but they would not allow him in. It actually broke out into a physical fight with this man and they tossed him out the door. He was so assertive in trying to join the Deaf club. I will always remember that. In the play, the treasurer didn’t want to leave the Deaf club, but the members forced him out. He responded, “What can I do? This is my home.”
Clip from LIGHTS ON! Deaf Theatre production
Yakubski: …I went deeper and deeper into debt. Now I’m expelled from the club? I only have myself to blame. When Abe came to me – I should have admitted right then and there, but I was too afraid. Really, this is the worst punishment you could give to me or any Deaf person for that matter. What am I to do? Where can I go? What can I do except stay at home and stare at my wife? For your information, that home means nothing to me. Here is where my real, my number one home is. I truly love the club. Punish me differently, but kick me OUT? Why?
Intertitle: The Importance of Deaf Theatre
Bernard Bragg: Deaf theatre focuses on written plays about, for, of and by Deaf people. That is really IT. We really need more plays like that. Hearing theatre has a long list of plays at their disposal; such as, Arthur Miller with his social perspective, Tennessee Williams, and so on. They examined people, problems, and frustrations in their plays. We can see a lot in that, but it’s not always something we can relate to.
Let’s say a troupe of Deaf actors were to take one of Tennessee William’s works like “A Glass Menagerie.” I’ve actually seen that done before and it was nice to see it in ASL. For me, it wasn’t fully acceptable because I was already familiar with the play as part of the Hearing world. So to see it all packaged with signing, but with Deaf actors trying to be like Hearing people just left me saying, “No, that is not it. That’s not me. That is not really part of our DEAF-WORLD.”
I would like to see more plays that tell us who we are as individuals and collectively. I am excited about that. I am hoping it will have a ripple effect on young playwrights to develop their craft and their own plays.
Willy Conley: Deaf Playwright
Length of Interview: 22:33
Note: This is a summary of the signed commentary made during this interview and is not a verbatim translation. Text summary by Karen Christie and Patti Durr.
Opening Clip: My name is Willy Conley, and my name sign is W-on-temple.
Intertitle: Willy Conley: Deaf Playwright
Intertitle: Falling in Love with Deaf Theatre
I remember one early experience with theatre when my parents had took me to an outdoor theatrical production in North Carolina called “The Lost Colony.” It was in a huge outdoor arena and the stage was quite far from where we were sitting. All the actors on stage were moving around like a colony of ants. It was impossible to lipread the actors, and so for me this experience was an exercise in endurance of boredom.
After I arrived NTID, I began to learn about myself as a Deaf person and began learning ASL. When I saw signing on stage at NTID, theatre finally became one hundred percent accessible. I can remember watching the NTID production “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” which was amazingly powerful and just blew me away. That was it, and I immediately fell in love with theatre. I wanted to become part of that experience as an actor which then lead to an interest in directing, in play writing—the whole theatrical triad of acting, directing and writing.
After graduating from college, I wanted continue my involvement in theatre. Yet, I also wanted to pursue photography, which was a more practical interest for earning my “bread and butter.”
Later, an opportunity with ASL Scene Study in Los Angeles, California arose. Once a year, ASL Scene Study included ASL productions as part of their theatre season. Other Deaf people working with ASL Scene Study were Phyllis Frelich, Ed Waterstreet, Freda Norman. These people planted the seed in that Theatre Company to involve Deaf actors and it just grew from there. That experience with ASL Scene Study really “got the fire in me burning” because it provided an intense learning experience related to how analyze lines, analyze character goals and motivations. For the first time, I examined how to work with characters so that they represent different emotions and expressions. It was a very exciting type of theatre.
During that time, I became aware of the five-week summer school program offered by the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD). I applied for the NTD scholarship and was accepted into their school. I was hoping that I would be able to use the summer school theatre experience as a springboard into NTD’s touring company. And after three years of touring with NTD, I became exhausted with the itinerant life of living out of a suitcase and living at Motel 6s. Also, I felt increasingly uncomfortable and “artificial” to be working with scripts that were not from a Deaf cultural point of view. I recognized the need for scripts from Deaf writers for Deaf actors telling stories through Deaf characters. At that point, I was determined that creating those scripts would be my new mission in life.
Intertitle: On his play, “Broken Spokes”
(image: Playbill from the University of Vermont Production of “Broken Spokes:” April 2001)
The title of the play, “Broken Spokes” has a double meaning: it can refer to broken spokes of a bicycle or it can refer to broken speech. The play is basically about a young deaf man whose goal is to open the first Deaf-owned bike shop with his fiancée. The basic conflict in the play concerns the upheaval that impacts his life when a family tragedy occurs, and the play shows how his life unravels after this point. Another character in the play is the young Deaf man’s older Deaf brother who grew up as mercilessly tease. When a family tragedy strikes, the play shows how their roles become somewhat reversed.
(image: Broken Spokes Playbill from NTID Theatre Production, October 2008)
(Two clips from this production follow: Scene Two in which the older brother wrestles with the younger brother, pinning him down on the couch, and picking on him. Scene Seven shows the younger brother lashing out at the older brother who cowers on the couch).
The first play I ever wrote was “Broken Spokes.” I wrote the play while he was on tour with the National Theatre for the Deaf, and had never seen a Deaf play before. The Deaf play, “Tales From A Clubroom,” was performed before my time in theatre and the Deaf world. I had never seen either” My Third Eye” or “Sign Me Alice” until much later. All of these plays were created in the early 1970s when I was still in high school. I attended a hearing high school and at that time I basically knew I was deaf, but I hadn’t yet developed a cultural identity as a Deaf person.
(image: Playbill from the Chicago Production of “Broken Spokes:” November 1998)
(image: Playbill from the University of Texas Production of “Broken Spokes:” September 1990)
I saw several productions of “Broken Spokes” including those in Dallas and Boston. However, I was never involved with the rehearsal process of this play. “Broken Spokes” is probably one of the only plays I’ve written where I haven’t been involved with giving feedback during the rehearsal process or sitting in on the production. While I did give birth to this play by writing it, it seems to have ventured out into the world on its own.
Intertitle: On his play, “The Hearing Test”
The title of the play “The Hearing Test” can be interpreted as an auditory assessment of one’s hearing abilities or can be interpreted as a judgment as to how well one behaves like a hearing person. The plot of the play concerns a young Deaf boy who goes for his annual hearing test and shows resistance when his audiologist proposes the idea of him having a cochlear implant. In his own way, he carries out an act of rebellion against that. I have always been fascinated with the situation of young oral deaf boys. These boys have often grown up controlled by very domineering mothers. Therefore, both physically and emotionally they are very weak. I’ve known several deaf boys who have had this life experience and I wanted to write about these wimpy Deaf boys with their very controlling mothers. But in the course of the play, I also wanted to give the young deaf boy the experience of empowerment by suggesting a situation in which he can rebel against society and his family.
One character I created in “The Hearing Test” was a shadow of the deaf boy because that boy was oral and couldn’t speak well or sign. The shadow character was a more masculine Deaf adult who was skilled in ASL and more self-assured. He would always follow the oral deaf boy on stage expressing in ASL the young boy’s true thoughts. This shadow character would also represent the young deaf boys’ potential for the future, which will help him overcome the oppression he has experienced.
I do believe that many young oral deaf boys likely have a shadow character in their minds that function as a protective mechanism. This would help them imagine what would happen if they could break that chain of oppression.
In this play, the radio and light are used as symbols. On stage, there is a 1940s-style radio, which in some ways reflects the old-fashioned thinking of the hearing world. It also represents connections to the world of sound. The radio is positioned on a higher platform than the rest of the stage and it serves as a radio booth with a DJ. During the play, the DJ is constantly reporting on the news of the world, the weather and the traffic. All this important information about the world is coming through this talking box. So to have the power to be able to just cut this off is really something because the audiologist uses the radio to keep her mind busy as she works throughout her day in the office and between patients. The little boy knows that the radio serves as a connection to her world. It was my intention to give the boy the power to cut the plug on the radio and literally cut those connections to the world of sound.
Because the little boy’s father is skilled at fixing electrical and mechanical things, the little boy also has developed these skills. Ironically, the cochlear implant that the audiologist and the boy’s mother want the boy to get is, in a sense, electrical wiring. This is a strange twist because the boy is proficient at fixing electronic things outside of his body.
It is true that I do see a parallel between the young boy’s journey in this play to becoming a stronger Deaf-identified person with the Deafhood journey described by Paddy Ladd. At the end, the boy clearly becomes a Deaf person in his own right. In the play, the little boy fixes the light, which is both a literal and symbolic action. It is symbolic in that it represents an epiphany: The boy’s eventual awareness –the light bulb going on in his mind. When the boy cut the wiring of the radio, this was a clear act of empowerment, which also represented the desire to be cut off from the hearing world.
(image: Boston University’s production of “The Hearing Test:” April 1991)
“The Hearing Test” was written in 1990 when I was applying for graduate school at Yale University’s MFA playwriting program. I wasn’t accepted at Yale, but later was accepted into the Boston University program. “The Hearing Test” had several productions and the first one was there at Boston University as part of my Master’s degree work. Other productions were at St. Louis Community College and New York Deaf Theatre (NYTD). The NYDT production had Manny Hernandez as the shadow character on stage and Jackie Roth was the director.
(image: New York Deaf Theatre Production of “The Hearing Test:” December 1993)
I do believe that today there still are Hearing mothers out there who are very domineering. These mothers make life-changing decisions, which alter their children physically, and often are not successful later. I see these kids in my classes at Gallaudet University—kids who had cochlear implants that never worked for them. Of course, cochlear implants work for some, but not for others. Clearly, there still exists a lot of young Deaf kids being dominated.
Intertitle: Chatting About Other Works
Up to now, I have written about twenty plays. Because I feel like a parent who loves all my children equally, it is difficult for me to choose a favorite. My personal favorite, though, is “The water falls.” That play was loosely based on my grandfather’s suicide and its ripple effect on my family. This happened years ago, but I wrote the play for my mother after seeing how this experience impacted us. This was truly one of the easiest plays I ever wrote, one that just flowed out. In that way, it was an interesting experience because other plays I’ve written required years of reworking and editing. Despite the topic, the play did not come out as a sob story, but in an artistic manner. The play was sparked the image of water moving over a falls. At the time, I was watching a waterfall, and thinking about the sentence ‘the water falls’ with all those spaces between the words. In addition to thinking of waterfalls and water moving and falling over an edge, the sentence also seemed to refer to the image of a drop of water falling and splattering. The play was built around this image, which at first was a poem, and then eventually became a play.
(image: NYDT’s production of “The water falls.” June 1997)
“Olives” originally was created in the form of a play and then later became a short story. Even before the play, “Olives” was a videotaped improvisation piece. During a restaurant scene, another actor and I improvised and that performance was videotaped. Then, I took the raw videotaped footage home and watched it. When I saw a line that I liked, I wrote it down and the whole play was based on these lines.
(image: NeWorks Festival, Boston Production of “Olives”—January 1999)
The production of “Goya: In the House of the Deaf Man” was to be completely visual, using movement techniques and mask, and without any spoken or sign language. Unlike my other plays, I wouldn’t need to be concerned with translation issues. Iosif Schiderman and I created the play as we had always wanted to work together. The opportunity arose for us to propose a production involving Gallaudet students for the Deaf Way II Conference. We decided to propose a visual play because the audience at the Deaf Way II Conference would be from all over the world, and not all would know ASL. Iosif suggested doing a play about Goya, the Spanish artist. I knew a little bit about Goya, but Iosif really was knowledgeable. With the topic of the play decided, I suggested doing a play based on gesture and movement in order to communicate with the international audience. Iosif didn’t believe that we could do such a play, but I convinced him that with his background in clown/mime and my understanding of play structure that together we could make something happen. And, we certainly did. Together, we worked on the play’s development and built a great ensemble of Deaf student actors. For the first time, I felt remarkably free being able to work on the development of the play and not have to worry about the text of the play. We didn’t have to be concerned with whether the translation was appropriate. Being able to put that aside, we could begin with the pictures themselves—Goya’s art. A lot of his drawings and individual paintings contained a story already and we used these as a jumping off place for the development of the play. We built connections between all of the stories from the different artworks. The whole play was right there.
(images: Playbills from the productions of Goya: In the House of the Deaf Man including Gallaudet University’s production, November 200)
Intertitle: Play creation
In terms of playwriting, I don’t believe that I have a specific style that is common across all my plays. Each of the plays I write “… is a different animal.” I think that is a result of my formal training in playwriting. Because of this training, I have been exposed to a variety of different plays. I was able to see how those plays were constructed and learned about their structure. Self-taught playwrights certainly can do research and discover what I had through my schooling. Yet for me, the benefit of formal training was access –the ability to see a variety of plays and build a network with other playwrights who invite me to see their work being performed. This helped me expand my portfolio of plays.
When creating a play, hearing playwrights give their script to the director, who gives it to the actors to speak the lines, and it is pretty much ready. With Deaf playwrights who write in English, their script is given to Deaf actors who need to translate it into ASL or gestures or whatever form of expression is used to communicate to a Deaf audience. So there is an extra step in there for us which comprises a lot more work. I admit that sometimes I am envious of hearing actors and hearing writers who don’t have that extra labor to get the play ready for stage with the translation process.
At Gallaudet University about five years ago, we received a three-year grant to set up a Visual Playwrights Workshop. Several top playwrights who had shown potential came to Gallaudet to develop their plays in a nontraditional manner using different approaches such as the use of video cameras for recording improvisations with actors. It was a wonderful way of breaking away from the traditional approach to playwriting and encouraged thinking outside of the box. It allowed us to consider deeply different ways Deaf people can create plays. There’s not only one-way where playwrights type up lines in English. A play could, for example, be developed from a class or team of creative collaborators, actors, and videotape editors. This team would be able to inspire play creation. Since most Deaf people are bilingual to some degree, we are often pulled between languages when developing plays. So, this also means there is no one pure, right way to create plays.
When I look to the future, one thing I really would like to see more of is Deaf community theatre. This would simply be a group of folks coming together. It wouldn’t have to be a perfect, professional-quality theatre production. Members of the Deaf community need to consider what they wish to see and what the burning questions are that they want to share. Once they do that, they can start it up and create something!