Spring training is underway, and dozens of actors at Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf also are in full swing in a unique production of Damn Yankees.
The musical, which depicts the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil to become a young baseball star, opens March 13 and runs through March 16 at the Robert F. Panara Theatre.
“We decided to stage this production because our theater season this year honors Bob Panara, for whom our theater is named,” says director Luane Davis-Haggarty, a faculty member in NTID’s Cultural & Creative Studies Department. “So, all the shows this season are things that would appeal to him. He’s a big fan of the (Rochester) Red Wings, and he’s been on the petition to try to get William ‘Dummy’ Hoy into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, so he’s very into baseball.”
More than 70 students, faculty, staff and community members from across the RIT campus are involved. Students built the set and work backstage, changing scenery and calling cues for lighting. The cues are called using sign language and video monitors rather than headsets to ensure accessibility for all crew members.
Actors on stage primarily communicate in sign language, but have voicing actors nearby who speak or sing the lines, so everyone in the audience can follow the plot, whether they know sign language or not.
“We have it captioned, and it’s signed, spoken, sung, and mimed. So, if you don’t know what’s going on, you’ve been asleep,” says Davis-Haggerty.
This type of theater, using deaf and hearing actors simultaneously, is rare. And it can be challenging.
“You basically have three languages,” says Davis-Haggarty. “You have spoken English, and you have sign language, and then you have the music, and all three have to be in sync. And all three have a very specific internal rhythm. So making them all match up, and making it look like it’s easy, like it naturally happens this way, that’s a little tricky. But when it comes together, it’s almost magical to see.”
Live musicians are also part of the production. Davis-Haggarty says live music feels different than recorded background music to individuals who are deaf.
Hunter Bartholomew, a second-year interpreting major from Coon Rapids, Minn., is paired on stage with the devil character. Bartholomew voices the part that the deaf actor portraying the devil is signing. While Bartholomew is a veteran of theater back home, this is his first experience with deaf theater.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for me,” he says. “It’s been so much fun. It’s trying to match with another person, trying to get all the emotions right between the two of us and building the relationships between the two of us.
“We have the signing—and it’s very lyrical signing—and at the same time we have the voices trying to match along with that. It’s an experience I’ve never had before, and it’s absolutely beautiful, seeing how the two languages come together, and seeing how the two cultures and worlds come together and really create something amazing.”
Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets are $7, or $5 for students and senior citizens. They can be purchased at the door or reserved via email at email@example.com.