National Theatre of the Deaf

ABOUT The National Theatre of the Deaf

Linda Bove with Meryl Streep

The National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD)
has a history that is proud and groundbreaking.

Touring the nation and the world for over 45 years, the acting company is comprised of deaf and hearing actors.  Each performance unfolds simultaneously in two languages; one for the eye, American Sign Language, and one for the ear, the Spoken Word.

When the company began in 1967:

  • No closed captioning on television
  • No captioning for televised emergencies, or weather advisories
  • Telephones for the deaf were just invented—they weighed around 300 pounds, were costly, and most deaf people did not have them
  • No 911 number—deaf people would rely on hearing neighbors or their hearing children to place emergency calls for them
  • No interpreter telephone services, and qualified interpreters were rare  
  • No such thing as the American Disabilities Act that would guarantee equal opportunities, or prohibit from being discriminated against because of being deaf
  • Slim job choices.  Stereotypical jobs were janitor, seamstress, baker or printer—jobs that required little interaction with other people

It is interesting to note that the idea for the National Theatre of the Deaf came about through a Broadway production called The Miracle Worker in the late 1950’s. The Miracle Worker was based on the true story of Helen Keller, a girl born deaf and blind.  The audiences were moved when Helen learned to sign and the world of language was opened to her. The star of the show, Anne Bancroft, and the Lighting Designer, David Hays, were captivated by the idea that sign language had a place on the world’s stage as a performing art form.

After the show closed, David Hays continued to pursue this dream and after nearly ten years was able to secure funding from the Department of Education and launched the National Theatre of the Deaf.

The first theatrical tour was difficult to book.  Frankly, bookers couldn’t imagine what a performance with deaf actors would be, or if they could sell it to their audiences. They thought it might be a pantomime show and patrons would only come out of guilt.  Some bookers took a chance and once audiences saw the performances, things rapidly changed. Audiences were amazed at the acting ability of deaf artists, the beauty, depth, and range of material that was performed.  There is no limit to what the NTD can perform.  

By showing the value and talent of the deaf artist, the NTD also showed the value and talent of the deaf individual.  NTD became a catalyst for change, as theatergoers are often influential and public spirited citizens.  Deaf people also became more empowered.  By affecting our audiences, NTD proved and still proves its ability to be a catalyst for social change.  Our influence is social, educational and theatrical.  Through power of example and role model, NTD has been instrumental in fostering:

  • Removing stigma from Sign Language
  • Legitimizing the use of Sign Language on television, stage, and movies
  • Popularizing the study of Sign Language
  • Providing professional training and employing deaf artists
  • Invigorating the entertainment industry to consider and use deaf artists
  • Deaf pride of self and culture to all members of the deaf community

Celebrating over forty-five years of touring the nation and world, the National Theatre of the Deaf is the longest existing touring company in the United States. NTD has performed in all fifty states, on all seven continents, performed on the Disney Channel, on Sesame Street, at the White House, for royalty the world over, and on Broadway.  NTD was the first company to tour South Africa when sanctions were lifted, first company from the West to tour The People’s Republic of China, represented the USA at the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, performed in Taiwan through the American Cultural Center to represent the United States during the Deaflympics, and received a Tony Award. It is no wonder the National Theatre of the Deaf is considered “A Wonder to Behold.”