‘Bridging Worlds’: David Kurs details relationship between sign language and theater

Anissa Nishioka/Staff

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David Kurs, artistic director at Deaf West Theatre, discussed how the performing arts help bridge the deaf and hearing worlds during a Berkeley Forum event Monday evening.

Kurs, who is deaf, signed his presentation, and with the assistance of two translators, communicated the history of American Sign Language, or ASL, and his work in the theater to about 30 UC Berkeley students and members of the public.

Deaf West Theatre is a theater company founded in Los Angeles that aims to enrich the cultural lives of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Company productions are presented in ASL and simultaneously translated in English, allowing both hearing and deaf audience members to experience the play.

“Deaf children don’t see theater in their language,” Kurs said during the forum, expounding on the lack of deaf playwrights and actors. “I’ve met so many deaf children that come to my theater and for the first time see a show in ASL. … So my goal is to try and help bring that to those deaf children.”

The theater’s revival adaptations of “Big River” and “Spring Awakening” — which ran on Broadway in 2003 and 2015, respectively — each earned multiple Tony nominations, with “Big River” winning the Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre.

The musicals feature both hearing and deaf actors, who perform alongside one another onstage. Prior knowledge of ASL is not a requirement to be a part of the production, according to Kurs, and some actors step into the audition room never having met a deaf person. The actors are then taught their lines in sign language in time for the show.

While the coordination between the deaf and hearing actors bridges the divide between them, Kurs said the goal of the theater is to entertain — an extension of the vision of the original deaf actors who started the company.

“They didn’t just want to make good theater for the thousands of deaf people in Los Angeles, they wanted to make good theater, period,” Kurs said during the forum.

Casting both deaf and hearing actors sometimes heightens the drama of the production and gives new meaning to the material, according to Kurs. He cited a production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” as an example.

Kurs also said the strongest selling point for Deaf West’s Broadway production of “Spring Awakening” wound up being its use of ASL. Kurs added that the show had inspired other companies to incorporate signing into their productions, which would lead to more opportunities for deaf actors.

“I’m driven by my vision of a more civil, just world that celebrates us for our differences,” Kurs said during the forum. “A world that sees the deaf community as a visual and close-knit community drawn together by our language, and that we have much to offer the world.”

Elena Aguirre covers student life. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @eaguirreDC.