Theatre can make you lose your senses.
Or, at least for a moment, it can make you think you have.
Such was the case for the 2003 Broadway production of the musical Big River, which made the members of the audience fear for a moment that they had lost one sense in particular – their hearing.
Big River was a collaborative venture between Roundabout Theatre and Deaf West, an organization comprised of both hearing and deaf actors. The musical, which is a retelling of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” was both signed and sung at all times, with some characters being played by both a hearing and a deaf actor simultaneously. The creators of the show intended for the audience to examine the separation of the “able” from the “disabled” as the action onstage also questioned the racial divisions playing out onstage through the characters of Jim and Huck.
The central musical motif of the show, which repeats over and over, is a song called “I Am Waiting for the Light to Shine.” By the intermission, the audience is already well accustomed to watching the repetitive lyrics being both sung and signed. In Deaf West’s production, at the climax of the action of the play, the entire cast came onto the stage to sing a swelling, enormous, and very loud choral rendition of the song. However, in mid-sentence at one of the loudest moments of the entire show, all of the sound coming from the stage instantaneously dropped out - the singers stopped vocalizing but continued to sign and mouth the words, and the instruments stopped playing. The effect was so sudden and total that it had the intended effect for many audience members (including myself) of shocking them into momentarily feeling as though they had their hearing, and often produced a moment of visceral panic before people in the audience began to gasp and realize what had happened.
In addition to giving audience members the experience of feeling deaf for a brief moment, however, the experience also quickly led them to understand that the cast on stage could continue to communicate to them without sound. Because the lyrics had been repeated so often throughout the show, it was easy for the audience to grasp word for word what was being said for the duration of the song, which was silently signed.
This visceral example of theatre raises some important questions for us: How can an audience share in the physical realities of those on stage more often? How can bodily understanding of the events of a play be replicated in an ethically responsible way? How can theatre help the audience to feel and understand– not just emotionally, but with their bodies and their senses?
-Shannon Davies Mancus