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Deaf West Theatre Expands the Art of Storytelling for Kids

Actors use American Sign Language and spoken word to bring children's books to theatrical life in a series of free performances at bookstores.


"When I was a child, I would go with my family to see a play,but since English is my second language and signing is my first, I would have a lot of challenges understanding what the story was about. Seeing it actually signed by a deaf person was like, wow!"

Ed Waterstreet, artistic director of the Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood, is speaking through voice interpreter Beverly Nero. She rushes to keep up, her rapid-fire interpretation and upbeat tone a reflection of Waterstreet's robust enthusiasm.

With his almost-10-year-old company continuing to earn respect for artistic merit from hearing and deaf audiences, Waterstreet is reaching out to children with the company's new family performance series "ASL Storytime."


The free series for deaf and hearing children and parents features theatrical storytelling performed in American Sign Language with voice translation. It will take place at various Barnes & Noble and Border's Books stores well into 2001.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 13, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo credit--The photograph of Deaf West Theatre Company actors Liz Raci and Troy Kotsur that ran with the Arts Zone column in Thursday's Calendar Weekend had an incorrect credit. The photographer is Ed Krieger.

Each 50-minute program, coordinated by company member Liz Raci, will be different, performed by Raci and Deaf West's Antoinette Abbamonte, Deanne Bray, Troy Kotsur and Missy Keast. Stories will include such children's books as "Little Red Riding Hood"; the latest J.K. Rowling phenomenon, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"; Patricia Polacco's offbeat celebration of books, "Aunt Chip and the Great Triple Creek Dam Affair"; and Joseph Anthony's gentle life-cycle tale "The Dandelion Seed."

"The actors themselves chose stories that they felt would be adaptable for sign language and that children would relate to, and that the deaf world would identity with somehow," Waterstreet said. "But I want to emphasize that it's not only for deaf children and adults, it's for hearing people to enjoy. It will probably be helpful for any children who have reading challenges or who aren't reading yet. When the story comes to life in American Sign Language--an art form itself--that [combination of] the spoken word and the visualization of signing will be enhanced storytelling for everybody."

Waterstreet estimates that 75% of Deaf West's audience is made up of hearing people, a testament to the crossover appeal of such critically acclaimed signed and spoken-word adaptations as Lionel Bart's musical "Oliver!" and Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," two shows that have just garnered a whopping 17 Theatre L.A.-sponsored Ovation Award nominations for excellence.

A 15-year veteran of the National Theatre of the Deaf, Waterstreet, who founded Deaf West Theatre in 1991, points to the poetry and theatricality inherent in sign language, which contains myriad subtleties of gesture and expression that "convey the meaning of words of every language, of every concept.

In other words, when you take the word 'tree': In American Sign Language, we can describe in an instant, by the way we sign it, how the tree looked. It's the same with birds, with elephants, with 'home.' Whenever we sign anything, intrinsically each sign gives you a picture."

"ASL Storytime" was made possible by grants from the California Arts Council, the Thelma Pearl Howard Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation. Added to a recent $4-million federal grant from the Department of Education for three main-stage productions a year, a national tour and the establishment of a conservatory to train deaf theater artists, the funding for his children's storytelling series is helping Waterstreet fulfill dreams that just keep getting "bigger and bigger and bigger."

"It started with a desk and a chair," Waterstreet said. "We were established here as the first residential [deaf] theater on the West Coast, and it's so nice to be able to implement these different projects. We want to see other theaters spring up all over America. Deaf people all over the country are so starved for theater."

Deaf West's 10th anniversary show, opening Nov. 2, will be a reprise of its first production in 1991, D.L. Coburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Gin Game."

The company's original commissioned play by Tony Award-winning playwright Mark Medoff, "Road to the Revolution," will have its world premiere in the spring, starring Phyllis Frelich, a frequent Deaf West cast member and the 1980 best actress Tony winner for Medoff's acclaimed "Children of a Lesser God."

* "ASL Storytime," Barnes & Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino: Oct. 19, 7 p.m.; Oct. 24, 10:30 a.m. Barnes & Noble, 13400 Maxella, Marina del Rey: Oct. 21, Nov. 18, Dec. 16, Jan. 20, 10:30 a.m. Barnes & Noble, 731 San Fernando Road, Burbank: Oct. 28, Nov. 11, Dec. 9, Jan. 13, Feb. 10, 11 a.m. Border's, 3700 Torrance Blvd., Torrance, Nov. 8, 7 p.m. Ends Feb. 10. Free. (323) 913-2275.

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