Deaf-friendly musical rallies collegiate ministry
ATHENS, Ga. (BP) -- The intended audience for "No Place Like Home" came to see the performers speak with their hands in a summer musical production by the Baptist Collegiate Ministries at the University of Georgia.
Everything performed on stage was in American Sign Language, noted Haley Beach, student leader of the BCM's deaf ministry and one of the directors of the show along with Amara Ede and Jami Dillard.
The BCM's newly-formed ministry already had formed some bonds with the deaf community at the university and in Athens, with this summer's play only increasing the reach.
During one performance, campus minister Nathan Byrd spotted a pair of deaf sisters excitedly signing to each other about how they were enjoying the show. One of the girls told their family after the show they had never met anyone like the BCM crew.
The BCM performance was seen by nearly 300 people through two performances over the last weekend in July.
"Some of these people would never come in contact with this," Beach said. "They'd never step in a church, but they would be a part of this. They can see the light that believers shine. It's just such a blessing for them to see someone who cares about them so much that they would learn their language."
Even though the show was geared toward deaf and hard of hearing audiences, accommodations were made for audience members who did not understand ASL. Music was piped through the speakers from the tech booth and voice actors read the script offstage so all audience members could follow along.
Still, it was this deaf-first mentality that meant the most to the deaf portion of the audience.
"We wanted them to be in a completely deaf-friendly space and just provide adjustments for the hearing audience," Beach said. "Everything would be deaf-friendly."
Providing such an environment obviously created unique challenges for Beach and the rest of the cast and crew, such as learning when to perform certain lines. "In a normal production, there are certain cues and things like that to listen for," Beach acknowledged.
For every new challenge, though, there are solutions. "We had to implement things like a stomp at the end of the lines so [deaf actors] could feel the floor move and we had to have changes in lights," she said.
With all of the production's unique elements, it was perhaps even more important than in most productions that everything happened with particular synchronicity and timing. The cast and crew also saw a happy blend of deaf and hearing contributors. Some of the voice interpreters for the hearing audience were hard of hearing, so they were able to follow the signs on the stage.
Most of the performers, though, were without impairment, and were learning ASL as a second language just for the sake of the show.
"They were performing in a language that wasn't theirs," Beach said. "We wanted them to have the signs correct, but people in the audience know you're performing in a language that you're not a native speaker of. There aren't many deaf-friendly spaces, so for us to be providing something like this, the audience is just appreciative. We told the cast to have fun. It doesn't have to be perfect.
"The nice thing about the deaf community is that they're very forgiving. They're used to having to adjust and they're such patient people," Beach said. "And we're doing this for God's glory, it's not for ourselves."
A new tradition from an old one
The idea for the production actually came from one of the BCM's annual traditions, a dinner theater show to raise SendMeNow funds to send summer missionaries all over the world. The BCM started providing ASL interpreters for any deaf audience members so they could enjoy the dinner theater shows, but the accommodating service had mixed results. "It was hard for people to watch the interpreter and see what was on stage," Beach said. Though admission to No Place Like Home was free, it raised $850 with generous donations for SendMeNow.
Moving forward, Beach hopes the production can include more deaf actors in future iterations.
Beach, entering her third year at the university, came to lead the deaf ministry almost by accident. During her freshman year she signed up for the new ministry and learned ASL to serve as an interpreter during the dinner theater, proceeding to serve as a camp counselor at a deaf summer camp. Then, she fell into the leadership position by default when the two seniors in charge, Lindsey Thompson and Sarah Hendricks, graduated.
After praying about it and seeking God's will, Beach realized she was doing exactly what God wanted her to be doing. "I'm not comfortable with it yet, but I know this is exactly what You want me to do," Beach told God in her prayer.
As often happens, after her experiences with the deaf ministry, the Lord has shown Beach that He wants her serving in this capacity beyond college. She had changed her major several times in college, never really sensing peace until God led her to study to become an ASL interpreter.
A new world opened up, and she has developed extensive personal relationships in the deaf community, and they have responded in kind.
Many deaf people feel isolated from the world at large because of the communication barrier. When people like Beach take the time to learn their language and get to know them, it brings the world home and lets members of the deaf community feel like they can be a part of it.
"I never really felt such a sense of community until I met the deaf community," Beach said. "They're such a tight-knit community, but they're not exclusive. And that's rare."