Feel the vibrations as Las Vegas Deaf Theatre takes the stage

The production debut of Las Vegas Deaf Theatre will have the dancing and singing we’re used to in musicals woven with powerful artistic performances of American Sign Language.
Photo: Aaron Coulson

At some point we have to stop and say, there’s Marlee, not there’s the deaf actress. —Marlee Matlin

That sentiment gets underlined this month thanks to a new kid on the local arts block. Las Vegas Deaf Theatre is debuting with an evening of Broadway music, dancing, acting and the beautiful language of hands.

The Details

A Grand Night for Singing
May 18 & 19, 7 p.m. (meadow opens 6 p.m.)
$8 in advance ($10 at the door), the Meadow at Spring Mountain Ranch.
Click here for more information and a link to tickets.

In collaboration with RagTag Entertainment, LVDT will perform the Rodgers and Hammerstein revue A Grand Night for Singing as the opening show for Super Summer Theatre at Spring Mountain Ranch. The cast includes deaf, hard of hearing and hearing actors—all local—and the production is uniquely staged for an audience across the same spectrum. There will be live orchestration, 17 dynamic voices and 13 American Sign Language specialists, and LVDT founding artistic director Aaron Coulson says the goal is to “transform the stereotypes of a culture and of the abilities of those who are deaf or hard of hearing,” as well as to create new job and entertainment opportunities and showcase the singular power of Sign Language.

Coulson graduated from Cheyenne High School before studying Sign Language at CCSN and musical theatre in New York City, where he became involved in New York Deaf Theatre. He went on to direct and choreograph traditional shows there and in Florida and Las Vegas, where he recently replanted his roots. We chatted him up about his history on the stage, the creation of LVDT and the rush of emotions going into the first show in his hometown.

What motivated your study of American Sign Language, and how do you connect as an individual without hearing impairment?

I started my American Sign Language classes at CCSN because I needed another language credit for graduation. The expression of the language I find very exciting and beautiful. Just like in spoken English, ASL has many contributing factors that make the language as complex or simplistic as the speaker chooses to deliver. Having grown up in theatre, I find the expressiveness of deaf culture comes quite easily for me. I am also a dancer and tend to express myself with lots of body language; now it just takes on a new meaning—quite literally, a meaning.

How did your work with New York Deaf Theatre inform the creation of LVDT?

Working with New York Deaf Theatre was a huge stepping-stone in my life. I made some incredible friends and learned so much about the culture. I actually started with NYDT as a “voicer” for the hearing audiences that would come to watch the shows that didn’t know Sign Language. We would basically interpret what the actor was saying on stage into voice. There were so many new elements during rehearsals I was learning, like flashing lights to get the room’s attention, waving your hand to catch someone’s eye, even stomping your foot on the floor was totally acceptable. It was just a new way of doing things for me that they have been doing all along, and it made total sense.

What were the biggest concepts you applied to founding your own company?

Respect and patience. We really are two different cultures—it’s not just that one can hear and one can’t hear; it’s the language, heritage, traditions and lifestyles. What might be acceptable in one culture might be frowned upon in the other. The key to harmony in a theatrical environment like this is knowledge. It’s important to me that everyone I work with know what’s acceptable and not, from the beginning. Watching all the actors learn and grow from each other is such a great experience. Actors who have never signed before in their life are off working in corners with deaf people. The environment is so comfortable that deaf performers will just walk up to a singer when they are rehearsing and put their hands on their throat just to feel the vibrations, and the singer does not think twice about it. We are bringing cultures and communities together. People are getting the opportunities to do things they have never done before.

As a director, what is uniquely enjoyable about working with a mix of hearing abilities?

The part that tickles me most is that the deaf are 100 percent relying on cues from the hearing, because they can’t hear, and the hearing are 100 percent relying on cues from the deaf, because they don’t understand their language, and both cultures are so careful to deliver to the other.

Las Vegas has such a vast entertainment community. What drove you to get in the mix at this level?

After my wife and I moved back to Vegas from NYC, I began my search for a deaf theatre company. I was hard pressed to find any activities for the deaf going on in Vegas. There are occasional ASL socials but no form of entertainment for the deaf in their native American Sign Language. After being asked to direct A Grand Night for Singing and talking with some peers I decided to go out on a limb and put up audition notices that would attract both hearing and deaf performers, and start conceptualizing the idea of bridging the gap between deaf and hearing theatre.

I have always wondered what it’s like for people with hearing impairments to watch a musical performance. Can they feel the vibrations of the instruments and voices?

You are exactly correct. You would be amazed at how a deaf performer or audience member can feel a vibration. They memorize the different vibrations just like we memorize the different sounds. After a performance for The National Association for the Deaf a few years ago, a bunch of us went dancing. It was amazing how the deaf performers could tell you what song was playing just by the vibrations they felt. I think lighting plays a crucial roll as well. If the lighting is set just right with the vibrations it not only enhances the hearing audience members’ experience but the deaf, as well.

How did you incorporate the show’s diverse elements in a way that will impact everyone, both onstage and in the audience?

The audience will relate to all of these songs one way or another, because they all have to do with love. A lot of time was taken in making sure the individual actor for a specific song was perfect for that role. So the grandma in the audience will certainly relate to the grandma on the stage singing to her little grandbaby. Each number is staged and performed differently. There are times we have the quintet coming out stage right as five deaf actors come out stage left. They basically tell their own stories on their own sides of the stage while mirroring the other side’s moves. Other times we have hearing actors down on the sides of the stage voicing for deaf actors who fill the stage. In some cases a hearing actor has learned Sign Language and is delivering both at the same time. The list goes on and on. I think this is how the crowds will stay riveted. Wondering how the next song will be “interpreted” for the stage.

A Grand Night for Singing is a revue of many songs in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon. Did you do any creative tweaking of the format?

This show was originally written to be performed by five people; we have taken that number to 35. The big group numbers are so powerful with the live orchestration, the lighting, all the voices and then the expressiveness of the added American Sign Language.

As you get closer to opening night, of what are you most proud?

I think what I am most proud of is the way everyone is working together and the trust that has formulated between cast members. I’ve heard hearing people encourage deaf people to sing out, and they have—that’s trust. I’ve seen deaf people teaching hearing people their language and encouraging them when they feel overwhelmed. You know the phrase, “take time to smell the flowers,” well these actors are creating those flowers for the audience that will come. And let me tell you, these flowers will be big!

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