The National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD) was founded in 1967 and is the oldest theatre company in the United States with a continuous history of domestic and international touring and producing original works. NTD productions combine American Sign Language with spoken language to fulfill the theatre's mission statement of linking deaf and hearing communities and educating the public about Deaf art. The NTD is affiliated with a drama school, also founded in 1967, and with the Little Theatre of the Deaf (LTD), established in 1968 to produce shows for a younger audience.
The first official performance of the NTD was at Wesleyan University in 1967. NTD members participated in the first National and Worldwide Deaf Theatre Conference in 1994. Many deaf actors have earned acclaim through their work with the NTD in performances, conferences, and community outreach. The NTD has been fundamental in the creation of an international Deaf theatre community, and has received several awards, including the Tony Award for Theatrical Excellence. The company has visited each of the 50 states during over 150 national tours, as well as over 30 countries.
In 1946, Robert Panara, a Gallaudet University graduate and newly hired teacher at the New York School for the Deaf, produced a play with Bernard Bragg, a 17-year-old student in Panara's English class. Later in the 1940s, when Bragg was a student at Gallaudet, Panara left New York School for the Deaf to teach at Gallaudet. While both at Gallaudet, Panara and Bragg conceived of the idea of a theater for the deaf.
In 1963, Dr. Edna Levine, a professor of Deaf studies at New York University, saw Bragg perform a one-man show in New York City. She asked him for a meeting and shared her own vision for a national theater for the deaf. In 1965, they obtained a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to establish the NTD. Additional grant money was given by the Office of Education. Mary E. Switzer of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and Boyce R. Williams and Malcolm Norwood of the Rehabilitation Services Administration were important advocates of funding the NTD.
Levine and Bragg worked with set designer David Hays to establish a mission statement, locate funding, select a location, and assemble a company. The founders also included Ann Bancroft, who played Annie Sullivan in the Broadway production of The Miracle Worker, and Arthur Penn and Gene Lasko, directors of The Miracle Worker.
The founders' mission was to feature sign language in the theater for both deaf and hearing audiences. The founders believed that audience members need to “hear every word and see every word” in all NTD productions. To fulfill this mission, productions included both deaf and hearing actors. The language used by the deaf performers included sign language, mime, and gesture, and the hearing actors provided spoken language. Bragg had studied under the French mime Marcel Marceau, and his acting style influenced the early NTD productions.
Originally, the NTD was located on the campus of the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Connecticut. In 1983, the NTD moved to Chester, Connecticut.:63-64 In 2000, the NTD moved to Hartford, Connecticut, and in 2004 moved onto the campus of the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford. Since 2012, the NTD has again been based at the O'Neill Theatre Center while maintaining a satellite office on the campus of the American School for the Deaf.
The founding company included:
Early instructors in the school included:
The school's curriculum included:
Other actors who have worked with NTD include Colleen Dewhurst, Sir Michael Redgrave, Chita Rivera, Jason Robards, and Meryl Streep. While some NTD actors have achieved recognition in hearing theatre, a greater number of Deaf actors, including Chuck Baird, Eric Malzkuhn, Ed Waterstreet, Gilberst Eastman, Mary Beth Miller, and Manny Hernandez, have achieved recognition primarily within deaf theatre.
Rehearsals and performances occupied most of each day for both company actors and students. The company toured by bus both domestically and internationally, received only part-time pay, and paid out-of-pocket for their travel.:125-129 Both the company and the students lived dormitory-style at the O'Neill Theatre Center while rehearsing, and slept either on the bus or in inexpensive hotels while touring domestically. While touring internationally, the actors stayed in hostels.
The company performed both traditional plays and plays written by Deaf playwrights.:121-124 Hearing audiences have typically had positive responses to NTD productions, while Deaf and Hard of Hearing audiences have often had mixed reviews. Deaf and Hard of Hearing audience members sometimes expected productions to be more focused around the Deaf experience, and to be less highly dramatized. Some Deaf audience members have seen NTD productions as catering to Hearing audiences, which has generated a negative response. However, many Deaf audience members have responded positively and appreciated NTD productions.:115-116
The NTD has been discussed in newspapers such as Silent News, journals such as the Puppetry Journal, and television shows such as Deaf Mosaic, which aired during the 1980s and 1990s. Many scholars have written about the NTD in books and dissertations.:24-25; 41-42; 55-56; 70-71; 83-84; 95-96; 109-110; 117-118