Last night, I saw my first captioned play that wasn’t a musical. It was my first time at the Pittsburgh City Theatre, which was accommodating enough to add a second open captioned performance upon request. There’s even a Director of Education & Accessibility on staff.

My friend Laura — who I’ve known for years through the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing — drove in from Cleveland to see the play with me. Our seats in row EE were perfect, though we needn’t have worried as it’s an intimate theatre. The LED display for captions was hanging from the ceiling to the left of the stage. We could see the words fine, but the placement was less than optimal, because it wasn’t in the same line of sight as the action on stage. We could only read the words or watch the actors, not both. As a result, it was hard to enjoy and really benefit from the performances. The dialogue was also faster than normal, which didn’t help.

My friend Rachel (my oldest AG Bell friend) was on the TRIBES Outreach Committee for the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and is also an attorney with Equip for Equality. She says there needs to be more of a push to educate set designers on incorporating captioning into set design. It’s an issue on which they have yet to catch up. We were wondering if set designers are employees or contractors, and if they change for each play. Something to research…

Interestingly, there was a screen on the back stage wall that showed “subtitles” for the audience whenever characters used sign language. That’s right — this was a play with deaf themes, which is why it was interesting to see it with someone who also has a speaking deaf background. The story centers around Billy, who is deaf, and his dysfunctional family. He can’t follow their arguments and conversations, and when he asks what they’re about, he’s told the all too infuriating, “Nothing.” When he meets Sylvia, who was born hearing but is going deaf and has deaf parents, he’s introduced to the world of sign.

I have mixed feelings about the play. While I could relate to some of it, I’m bothered by misconceptions that audience members will now have. Billy is passive; he never tells his family that he’s sick of being left out, or that telling him “Nothing” isn’t good enough. Some families are definitely like his, but there are also many families (like mine!) that are inclusive. He also gets a job for the first time, but it’s lipreading tapes for cases. As a speaking deaf adult, Billy can get a job more easily than someone who relies on sign language to communicate. The play sends the wrong message in general about people with disabilities. And of course, when Billy gets his job, he makes up much of the translation and gets investigated!

The program has an article by the dramaturg at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, City Theatre’s co-producer of Tribes. She refers to the “Alexander Graham Bell Academy for Listening and Spoken Language.” Um, try that again. She talks about Deaf Culture and oralism, and quotes a Gallaudet University professor as saying, “…without access to a complete linguistic code during early development, it is difficult for deaf and hard of hearing children’s language acquisition to parallel that of hearing children. Fortunately, the language areas of the brain have no preference for language input.” Not only is this misleading, but it doesn’t mention the importance of the language window. Because of it, you can always learn sign later, but you can’t always learn how to talk.

I give a lot of credit to the actors, as they had to learn the (often rapid-fire paced) dialogue in addition to sign language and a British accent. For the deaf actor who played Billy, I’m sure this was especially challenging. Sylvia’s sign language was impressive in its naturalness.

It was interesting watching the sign language interpreters, because they were essentially giving a second performance. I personally would rather watch the actors and not see a performance secondhand – especially if I’m at the theatre! To each tribe his own.