“Having accessible shows leads to a greater interest in participating in the creation of art,” says Richard Costes, an actor and director who’s worked with companies including Steep Theatre and Rasaka Theatre Company since moving to Chicago from Ohio in 2014. His feelings on accessibility in theater are personal, as he is deaf. Along with other deaf artists, including Christopher Schroeder and Ethan Hart-Cook, Costes has launched a new company called Chicago D(ART), as in Deaf Art, dedicated to bridging the gap between deaf and hearing artists and audiences.
“The deaf community is often an afterthought in mainstream discussions about diversity,” says Costes. “But here in Chicago, there are so many great allies who are working to make theater more accessible to their audience members.”
Indeed, in recent seasons several local theaters have committed to offering open-captioned or American Sign Language–interpreted performances as well as other kinds of inclusive initiatives like touch tours and audio description.
Others have made a point of incorporating deaf and hearing-impaired artists into the work onstage. In 2015, Red Theater Chicago and Oracle Productions had great success with R+J: The Vineyard, a production of Romeo and Juliet that incorporated deaf and hearing actors, using ASL and supertitles; Costes and Schroeder were in the cast. Recently, Chicago Children’s Theatre partnered with Neverbird Project, an integrated deaf/hearing youth company, to stage an adaptation of Pinocchio featuring a young deaf actor in the title role.
“Theater companies are reaching out to bring the incredible talent that these deaf poets, actors, writers and artists have to their stages,” says Costes. “More and more, theaters are reaching out to us to find ways to support the deaf community.”
Chicago D(ART) stages its first production in July at Steep’s Edgewater space, with Costes directing Police Deaf Near Far, about a fatal encounter between a deaf activist and a police officer.
“There’s an intersectionality with the stories of other marginalized communities interacting with police officers,” says Costes. “Many deaf individuals, including myself, have had scary interactions with officers of the law who are unaware of our deafness and take our noncompliance as a threat rather than simply not hearing or understanding them.”
See Police Deaf Near Far at Steep Theatre July 24–Aug 9.