When suing a theater festival over accessibility didn’t work, a Utah school official started her own

Students from around the country will take part in workshops, meet professionals like “CODA” star Daniel Durant, and perform for a live audience.

(Apple TV+) Daniel Durant, seen here in a scene from the movie "CODA," will be a guest performer at the second annual National Deaf High School Theatre Festival, set for March 10-13 at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind campus in Salt Lake City.

Michelle Tanner was looking for a way for deaf students in Utah to experience the theater — and when suing the state’s most prestigious theater festival didn’t work, she decided to start her own.

That’s how the National Deaf High School Theatre Festival — marking its second year, but its first with in-person performances — got its start. The festival runs Thursday through Saturday in Salt Lake City.

The festival will draw students, ages 14-18, from 10 schools around the country — including from Texas, Minnesota and Oklahoma — to perform theater, as well as dancing, storytelling and visual vernacular.

The students will take part in a mix of workshops, trainings, and other social opportunities, said David Kurs, the artistic director of Deaf West Theatre, a Los Angeles-based troupe that coins itself as “the bridge between the deaf and hearing worlds.”

On Saturday night, the general public will get to see performances from the students and the stars that have been helping train them. The performance is Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind’s Salt Lake City campus, at 1655 E. 3300 South, Salt Lake City. Admission is free. The performances also will be streamed live at deafwest.org.

Audiences attending Saturday’s performances will find themselves fully immersed in deaf theater, Tanner said. Interpreters will be on hand for introductions and basic explanations, but not during the performances themselves, she said.

“People who come to watch it and observe it will get to feel it in the first language, the natural language in which it was developed,” Tanner said. “To experience different performances that way, I think, will be a great experience for those people who are hearing people who don’t know sign language either.”

One of the guest performers is Daniel Durant, who last month won a Screen Actors Guild award as part of the ensemble cast of “CODA.” That movie — about a fishing family in Massachusetts whose one hearing member (Emilia Jones) learns she has a talent for singing — won four awards at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and is nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Actors performing sign language are featured in two of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees. Besides “CODA,” which also stars supporting-actor nominee Troy Katsur and past Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, the Japanese movie “Drive My Car” includes a character who communicates in Korean sign language — and it’s through sign that she delivers the film’s final speech, as part of a performance of the classic “Uncle Vanya.”

It was the classics — and a lack of access to them — that prompted Tanner, associate superintendent of the deaf at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind (USDB), to launch the high-school festival in the first place.

For years, students at USDB attended the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City, competing in — and sometimes winning — the festival’s high-school competitions. Tanner said she complained that the judges didn’t critique the deaf student actors, but the interpreters voicing the actors’ dialogue.

Tanner said that the Shakespeare festival for years provided American Sign Language interpreters so her students could watch the festival’s professional performances. In 2019, she said, organizers told the school that they would have to start providing their own ASL interpreters. Instead, USF provided tablets that streamed closed captions.

Frank Mack, USF’s executive producer, said this week in a statement, “the festival provides live closed captioning performances to every play we produce each season. Live captioning is fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Tanner pointed out that it’s difficult for deaf students to read captions and pay attention to the visual performance on the stage simultaneously. Also, she said, Shakepearean English is difficult to understand, whether you’re deaf or not.

USDB, another school and the Utah Association of the Deaf sued USF, Mack and Southern Utah University in 2019, alleging that the festival had violated the ADA by not providing sign language interpreters. A judge dismissed the lawsuit the day after it was filed.

Having lost in court, Tanner took a different approach. She thought there had to be some high school level theater competitions for deaf children, but there was nothing. Tanner said her reaction was: “Game on, we’re going to do it.”

USDB first started partnering with Sunshine 2.0, a professional traveling theater troupe from Rochester, N.Y. Deaf West signed on later.

Those groups, Tanner said, offer her students more than the Shakespeare festival could. “They don’t know it from the vantage points of a deaf person, they don’t know what that’s like. They can’t give that advice. They can’t teach my students that whereas Sunshine 2.0 and Deaf West can,” she said.

Plans for the new festival were put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced organizers to hold last year’s inaugural season as a virtual event.

Kurs, the artistic director of Deaf West, said that “before the pandemic hit, we did this type of work on a smaller scale here in the Los Angeles area with different schools and programs in the surrounding area. We would send teachers out to different campuses to teach and provide classes and then host performances.”

When the pandemic began, Kurs said they realized Zoom calls would allow the troupe to scale up.

Tanner said having the students work with actual deaf actors provides a level of “prestige and professionalism” that helps the overall competition — and gives students the chance to become well-rounded individuals.

“In schools, we typically focused on academics, academics, academics. But children are much more than just academics,” Tanner said. “They’re a whole being and they have a whole aspect that they can develop and cultivate.”

For this year’s festival, student actors at the participating schools have been taking part in weekly online workshops since January. They also have been writing their own works, and blocking and rehearsing them to perform in Salt Lake City.

There are no common themes in what the students are writing, Kurs said, but the process has been “fascinating.”

“When you think about deaf kids getting together, [you’d think] typically they write about their culture and language, but that’s not the case,” Kurs said. For example, one group is developing a work of science fiction. “When you have full access, everything else really kind of drops off,” he said. “The deaf side of things, all that language. It’s more about ‘I want to tell my story in the scenery that I want to provide.’”

Kurs said theater is a natural venue for people who are deaf.

“We’re natural born communicators,” Kurs said. “We know how to communicate with our hands, our faces and our bodies naturally and we don’t use these skills often enough, and it always breaks my heart to see a deaf kid give up on a dream like this and make a different decision.”