Thursday, June 2, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Connecting cultures through deaf theater

Seattle Times theater critic

"Many hearing people are puzzled why my theater is doing anything with music," says deaf theater producer Ed Waterstreet. "But I remember when I was a kid, I loved going with my families to musicals. I didn't understand much, but I thought, 'Someday I'd love to see a show like this with sign language.' "

Waterstreet realized that dream years later, as artistic head of the L.A. troupe he still runs, Deaf West Theatre.

And now he's delighted that Deaf West Theatre's most popular show, a signed and sung version of the toe-tapping musical "Big River," is on national tour after having made it to Broadway (in 2004), where it earned two Tony Award nominations, and a Tony Honor for Excellence in Theatre.

Not bad at all for a bilingual production that started out in 2001 at DWT's tiny 66-seat playhouse in North Hollywood.

It wasn't Waterstreet's first musical project for the theater — that was a version of "Oliver!" for deaf and hearing actors.

"People loved it," he recalls, through a sign-language interpreter. "But our audience was 75 percent hearing and 25 percent deaf. That was back in the day, when we were trying to build a deaf audience."

"Big River," the Roger Miller-scored tuner based on Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," helped in that effort. "We chose it because there's so much storytelling in it, and for its themes of black vs. white, diversity and difference in America."

Five sign-language experts created a script for the actors to sign, while the hearing actors also spoke and sang the show's original book and score.

"We wanted to parallel the play in ASL," Waterstreet says, "not substitute one language for another."

A smash hit in L.A., "Big River" thrived, Waterstreet contends, because, "Hearing patrons could actually see the music while also hearing it, and deaf people got a rhythmic portrayal of the story in sign language."

A former actor with the pioneering National Theatre of the Deaf, Waterstreet says he's now forging a new kind of deaf/hearing drama that's "more inclusive and interactive."

"I understand some deaf people want a separate culture with a peer deaf community," he says. "But my philosophy is to bring both worlds, both cultures together."

The nationwide success of "Big River" (there now are two touring companies of the show) is a first big step. And Deaf West Theatre soon will expand into a larger venue in North Hollywood. More information on the company is at

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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