July 2, 2024

Community and Craft Take Center Stage at Deaf West Theatre

Author Aly Semigran, Content Specialist

During his historic acceptance speech at the 2022 Academy Awards, Best Supporting Actor winner Troy Kotsur (CODA) thanked “all the wonderful deaf theater stages” and credited the spaces with “the opportunity to develop my craft as an actor.” One of the very stages that fostered Kotsur’s craft, which eventually led him to become only the second deaf actor in history to win an Oscar, is Deaf West Theatre.

Established in 1991, the Los Angeles-based theater has been not only the launching pad for deaf actors like Kotsur, but it’s been something of a haven for a wide range of audiences. While the company began doing primarily non-speaking shows using ASL (American Sign Language) and headsets for audiences, they have since evolved into more hybrid productions, including shadowing, and voicing both on and off stage.

“I think we really broke ground when we started doing musical theater,” says Jeff Perri, managing director of Deaf West Theatre. “That really changed the landscape of how theater can be interpreted and how music correlates with the poetry of sign language.” To date, the theater has produced shows including Pippin, Big River and Spring Awakening, and will welcome the Green Day rock opera American Idiot to their stage in 2024.

A harmonious merger is how Perri sees both the deaf community and the theater community within the nonprofit organization. “These two worlds come together and support each other and make magic together.”

For philanthropic-minded donors, this kind of collaboration can strike a chord. “The advocacy is built-in,” Perri says of the theater’s mission, adding, “That’s what’s so special about what we do. We are championing a community; we are breaking down barriers; we are giving opportunities to deaf performers and creators and we are providing an outlet for what visibility can be.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, was eye-opening for many in terms of the importance of visibility and accessibility for various communities. People with disabilities faced markedly different challenges, and the “gaps in equitable situations” came to the forefront with an urgent need for change.

The pandemic was also a call-to-arms for the state of nonprofit theaters like Deaf West and their future. According to NBC News, many theaters across the United States “haven’t recovered from the pandemic, with dozens of stages set to shutter without urgent infusions of cash.”

Perri acknowledges that local, state and federal funding during the height of the crisis “allowed the theater to keep its doors open,” but with those resources now gone, the future is a little trickier to navigate. “Now, more than ever, support is needed. The arts are the lifeblood of America and culture.”

For supporters who give through vehicles like donor-advised funds (DAFs), Perri notes that “donor funds go to every aspect of our organization.” From staff support to workshops to theater productions, Perri says that donor support “runs the full gamut…and we really invest the money wisely.” He adds that unrestricted funds, in particular, can “create a larger footprint” when it comes to what the theater can do for their community.

Creating a viable future for nonprofit theaters like Deaf West isn’t just an act of philanthropy. It’s ensuring progress in building bridges between deaf individuals and hearing individuals. “It’s a vibrant, rich, welcoming community full of culture and language,” Perri says.

“Deaf West is a very unique company, and we are at the forefront of providing this type of engagement,” he says, adding, “We want to continue to engage in projects and shows that are going to be impactful and that are going to allow us to speak to the widest breadth of audiences we can reach.”

Photo courtesy of Deaf West Theatre