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Edge of a precipice

The halt of a federal grant program slows the work of theater companies for the deaf, including L.A.'s Deaf West.

April 19, 2006|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

On the surface, the Deaf West Theatre Company looked to be on a roll. It had a critical and popular hit with its revival of the Mark Twain-inspired musical "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," which moved from the group's 90-seat North Hollywood space to the Mark Taper Forum to a 2003 run on Broadway. Then the show, which included both spoken and sign language, went on a national tour.

Deaf West, atypically flush with cash from the production, began to dream of a follow-up.

But now, after the trimming of an obscure, almost hidden federal grant, the programming and even existence of the North Hollywood-based company, as well as of others like it around the nation, are threatened.

Bill O'Brien, Deaf West's managing director and producer, is one of only two remaining full-time staffers. "The only reason 'Big River' was able to happen, at Deaf West, at the Mark Taper Forum, on Broadway and in all of those 49 weeks afterward," he says, "was because of this funding."

The funding, which came from the Department of Education, was canceled in late 2004 when an earmark for cultural experiences for the deaf was struck during the reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act. The money itself stopped coming to deaf theater groups last year. "We don't know exactly why it was removed," a department spokesman, Jim Bradshaw, said Tuesday by e-mail. "An explanation does not appear in the legislation's report language. About all we can tell you is that since it was an earmark outside of the department, we defer to Congress' judgment on this."

This year, the companies are really feeling the effects. Deaf West, which had been receiving $800,000 a year from the government, the largest chunk of roughly $2 million in such grants disbursed annually to deaf theater groups, has not only laid off staff but has also begun to worry about future productions.

Ed Waterstreet, the deaf actor who founded the group in 1991 and now serves as artistic director and chief executive, said in a statement that the funding had been "instrumental in allowing our community to effectively participate in the larger society."

Though it came from various sources, "this funding has been in existence, in one form or another, since 1967," says O'Brien, "and allowed the National Theatre of the Deaf, and the movement itself, to be born." Cities with smaller groups include Seattle and Washington.

"Without the funding, deaf theater will go back to pre-1967, nonprofessional community theater," O'Brien says. "It's absolutely a regression. It would be as if we're putting black people back into the back of the bus."

The California group, which lost two full-time staffers, now includes only O'Brien and Waterstreet as full-time employees and has slashed its budget from about $1.2 million in 2004 to what O'Brien expects will be less than $600,000 this year.

More tangibly, the company has several planned productions at various stages of development that may never see the light of day.

Among other projects, Deaf West had been discussing a musical loosely based on the story of Sleeping Beauty, involving members of the creative teams from "Big River" and the recent Broadway hit "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," for an engagement at a Center Theatre Group venue next year. But a development workshop scheduled for this summer could be hard to pull off, O'Brien says.

And plans to take "Big River" to a theater in England, which would require British Sign Language translations, and to take a production of "Oliver!" to San Diego's Old Globe theater, are up in the air. "They've held a slot in the fall of '06 for that," O'Brien says of the Globe, and an "Oliver!" tour through Japan and the U.S. had been envisioned. (Dave Henson, the Old Globe's director of marketing and communications, says that the season is still in flux and that the theater has not committed to the show.)

"In all of these cases," O'Brien says, "there are extraordinary costs related to the deaf component. They all amount to productions that make no commercial sense on their own: They require subsidy the same way someone with a wheelchair deserves a ramp."

The North Hollywood group is not alone. The National Theatre of the Deaf, the first major U.S. company of its kind, lost its annual grant of $680,000 and saw its budget fall from $1.2 million in '04 to $300,000 this year.

Moreover, NTD, based in Hartford, Conn., lacked the cushion of a "Big River." It's eliminated almost all programming aimed at adults in favor of educational performances for schoolchildren.

"It was a major, major blow to us," says the organization's executive director and president, Paul Winters. "We've had to scale down and put all our eggs into the basket of the children's wing."

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