Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Hearts, hands and history

Imagination Stage’s Deaf Access Company uses the stage and an interactive children’s museum exhibit to advance communication

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄THe Gazette
See and sign: Deaf Access director Lisa Agogliati of Silver Spring uses sign language and speech to guide members of her teenage troupe through rehearsal as Ilse Cruces looks on.
They called him Dummy.

Never mind that William Hoy was the most accomplished deaf player in big league baseball history, a record setter who played in four different major leagues and established the signals used for ‘‘safe” and ‘‘out” calls even now, 120 years after his first professional game.

The centerfielder, who started his career with the Washington Nationals in 1888, was no dummy. He was smart enough to have been valedictorian of his class at the Ohio State School for the Deaf in Columbus, clever enough to play in the Major Leagues for a dozen years and classy enough to ensure that his legacy as a gentleman and an ambassador of the sport endured even when his early records for stolen bases, assists and putouts fell to others in subsequent years.

If you’ve not heard of Hoy — or even if you have – his story is part of ‘‘Language for the Eye,” a traveling exhibit created by the National Children’s Museum and Imagination Stage. It’s about deafness and deaf culture, and it’s coming to Bethesda this weekend and Takoma Park the next, along with Imagination Stage’s Deaf Access show ‘‘Hand in Hand.”

Hoy got his nickname — a nickname he was, by all accounts, perfectly happy with — because he was unable to use his voice to communicate. And back in the day, ‘‘deaf and dumb” was the expression of choice, a way to describe a group of people whose disabilities set them apart.

It’s no longer the expression of choice.

Culture clashes

‘‘At first, I wanted to be a doctor, a pediatrician — that was my first thought,” Dahlia Levine, 17, says. The sparkly-eyed Rockville High School senior has an internship at the National Institutes of Health, where she does laboratory research on immuno-suppressant drugs. She hangs with her friends at the movies and the mall, likes to go out to dinner, and plans on heading to the University of Maryland in the fall.

Like Hoy, she lost her hearing at a very early age; unlike Hoy, she’s living in the 21st century, reaping the benefits of technology, open-mindedness, and the courage and talent of deaf pioneers and activists. And she’s determined to keep pushing at the doors that Hoy and Helen Keller and Academy Award winner (and ‘‘Dancing With the Stars” contestant) Marlee Matlin – and hundreds of less famous deaf people – have worked so hard to open.

That’s why she’s here at the Christopher and Dana Reeve Studio Theater in Bethesda, rehearsing songs, dances and spoken-and-signed dialogue with the four other deaf and four hearing members of the Imagination Stage Deaf Access troupe.

‘‘I don’t know why,” she muses, ‘‘but when I’m in a group and I miss something, with hearing people, they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s nothing!’

‘‘They brush over it.

‘‘Here if a deaf person signs too fast, the deaf break it down for the hearing; the hearing break it down for the deaf.

‘‘Nobody ever says ‘never mind.’”

Except — maybe — for Levine herself. At first, she wasn’t sure the stage was the place for her.

‘‘They’ve always tried to recruit me – since I was little,” she says, using a combination of sign language and speech. ‘‘But I was very shy and quiet.”

Two years ago, when she heard Deaf Access was planning a show based on Israeli culture, Levine put aside her shyness and tried out.

‘‘It’s different this year,” she notes. ‘‘It’s focused specifically on the hearing and the deaf worlds, our different cultures and how there are clashes.

‘‘It’s about kids trying to work together.”


It’s always been about that, as far as Lisa Agogliati is concerned. The Deaf Access director joined Imagination Stage in 1989.

‘‘I was working for them in a summer program,” she says, ‘‘and another 12-year-old wanted to join. They said ‘Can you take one more?’

‘‘‘And — by the way — she’s deaf. ’”

Agogliati, a dancer-choreographer with a degree in theater from American University, was up for the challenge.

‘‘For me, that was a whole new experience – but I was inspired by this brave young person,” she says.

At first, it was all about making theater class more accessible to the student with a disability. But soon, Agogliati and her Imagination Stage colleagues were seeing things from a different point of view.

‘‘Accessibility is not just giving that person the same thing,” she explains. ‘‘It’s about actually creating the right conditions so that person can experience the same things that everyone else is experiencing.”

And doing that meant creating something new from the ground up: a program where actors who are deaf, hearing and coda (children of deaf adults) come together to learn about the craft — and about each other.

‘‘We decided to put together a half hearing, half deaf troupe,” Agogliati says, and nearly 20 years later, Deaf Access is still going strong.

‘‘Those friendships are long lasting,” she adds. ‘‘I still have Deaf Access alumni who come back and bring their children.”

Like most Deaf Access shows, ‘‘Hand in Hand” is a perfect place to bring children. There’s music and dance, a whimsical story performed by appealing teenage actors and enough interaction to keep everyone engaged. It all gets kicked up a notch, though, with the addition of sign language and the introduction to the realities of what deaf people can do.

‘‘When kids see our shows, they have a lot of questions,” Agogliati says. ‘‘So for us, having an exhibit that’s designed for kids to explain deafness and deaf culture – we’re connecting again and again.”

Catalyst to communicate

The ‘‘Language for the Eye” exhibits will be set up in the Imagination Stage lobby (and later outside the theater at Montgomery College-Takoma Park) where docents will help visitors learn more about deaf history and culture.

‘‘We’ve been very fortunate,” Agogliati says. ‘‘It’s a unique opportunity for our audience to come and have both parts of the experience, to weave together the historical and the artistic elements.”

It’s also just one example of the forces of synergy that seem to line up behind the Deaf Access program and send it surging – and signing — forward. The heart of the deaf community beats nearby at Gallaudet University; the D.C. area boasts deaf artists like choreographer Fred Beam, visual dramatist Warren ‘‘WaWa” Snipe and company signmaster Susan Robbins.

‘‘We had a pool of talented deaf artists to draw from over the years,” says Agogliati. ‘‘It really was a matter of networking with the community, diving in and seeing who was out there.”

Rachel and Henry Cross are longtime collaborators, musicians who both can hear, but understand deaf culture. They create a soundtrack inspired by the moves of deaf choreographers – and the young deaf and hearing dancers of Deaf Access.

‘‘It’s our story,” says Leila Samara, 17. ‘‘A group of kids who have things they want to share but find there are problems – obstacles – to overcome.”

Samara is hearing; she followed her younger brother, who is deaf, into the program. A senior, this is her last performance. ‘‘It’s bittersweet,” she sighs – and she’s collecting the memories as she goes.

‘‘My favorite thing,” she says, ‘‘I was signing and I could see in the audience a kid signing furiously to his mother:

‘‘‘She’s wrong! But...she tried! ’”

Both Samara and Levine say they love meeting the children who come to each performance, chatting with them and trying to coax the shy ones out of their shells.

And Agogliati admits: ‘‘This is different than working on your high school production. This is about developing visual theater skills, and also communication skills, awareness of the different types of communication. It’s an opportunity to work with dancers and hip-hop artists from the deaf community – a workshop with Fred (Beam) or WaWa (Snipe) that takes a completely different approach.”

And for the audience, it’s different, too. Because the performance incorporates speech and sign language, the range of communication is broader and the connection between stage and seats is closer.

‘‘It’s your mind, your body, your imagination,” the director says. ‘‘Our show is a catalyst to communicate, to learn more about deafness and deaf culture.”

They’re throwing out the first ball, so to speak, just as Hoy did in Cincinnati before the 1961 World Series. He was 99 years old then, a hero to the end.

Imagination Stage’s Deaf Access Company presents ‘‘Hand in Hand,” a show presented in conjunction with ‘‘Language for the Eye,” an interactive exhibit about deafness and deaf culture created by the National Children’s Museum and Imagination Stage. Performances are at 2 and 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in the Reeve Studio Theatre at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda, and at 2 and 4 p.m. April 12 and 13 in the Black Box Theatre on Montgomery College’s Takoma Park Campus, 7600 Takoma Ave. Tickets are $10. Call 301-280-1660 or visit