Being heard: UGA deaf ministry opens lines of communication

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By Adam Wynn

The Tin Man, played by Zack Jarrell, wins the heart of Morgan Crawford’s Wicked Witch during a UGA BCM presentation of “No Place Like Home.” Much of the cast learned American Sign Language specifically for their roles in the deaf-friendly jukebox musical. STEPHEN DRANE/Special

ATHENS — With a performance that has been described as a jukebox musical, audiences might expect fun music and plenty of interesting things to hear.

Yet the intended audience for “No Place Like Home,” a recent production from the Baptist Collegiate Ministries at the University of Georgia, came to see the performers speak with their hands.

“Everything performed on-stage will be in American Sign Language,” Haley Beach, student leader of the deaf ministry and one of three directors of the show, explained prior to the performances. Amara Ede and Jami Dillard served as co-directors with Beach.

The newly-formed Deaf Ministry at the UGA BCM has already formed some wonderful bonds with the deaf community at the University and in Athens. And, this summer’s play has only served to radically increase the young ministry’s reach.

During one performance, campus minister Nathan Byrd spotted a pair of deaf sisters excitedly signing to each other about how they were enjoying the show. One of the girls told their family after the show they had never met anyone else like them.

Through two performances over the last weekend in July, the BCM sat nearly 300 people.

“Some of these people would never come in contact with this. They’d never step in a church, but they would be a part of this. They can see the light that believers shine,” Beach said. “It’s just such a blessing for them to see someone who cares about them so much that they would learn their language for them.”

Building an environment

Even though the entirety of the show was geared towards deaf and hard of hearing audiences, there were accommodations made for audience members who did not understand ASL.

Music piped through the speakers from the tech booth. Meanwhile, voice actors read the script offstage so all audience members could follow along.

That being the case, it was this deaf-first mentality that actually meant the most to the deaf portion of the audience.

“We wanted them to be in a completely deaf-friendly space and just provide adjustments for the hearing audience,” Beach explained. “Everything would be deaf-friendly.”

Providing such an environment obviously brought forth unique challenges for Beach and the rest of the cast and crew.

Learning when to perform certain lines, for instance, was a problematic change.

“In a normal production, there are certain cues and things like that to listen for,” Beach acknowledged. For every new challenge, though, there are solutions.

“We had to implement things like a stomp at the end of the lines so [deaf actors] could feel the floor move and we had to have changes in lights,” he added.

With all of the unique elements coming together, it was perhaps even more important than in most productions that everything happened with particular synchronicity and perfect timing.

Beach praised her cast and crew, of course, for their hard work and immensely talented performances.

“We told the actors that we knew they were working hard, but they had to understand that the crew was working twice as hard,” Beach applauded.

A new tradition from an old one

The idea for this new production actually came about from one of the BCM’s annual traditions, a dinner theatre show that serves as a fundraiser for SendMeNow and sends summer missionaries all over the world. The BCM started providing ASL interpreters for any deaf audience members so they could enjoy the dinner theatre shows, but the accommodating service had mixed results.

“It was hard for people to watch the interpreter and see what was on stage … and so they were just missing all of it. We wanted to provide something for them,” Beach mentioned.

Though admission to “No Place Like Home” was free, it raised $850 with generous donations for SendMeNow.

While the show was designed primarily for deaf audiences, the cast and crew also saw a happy blend of deaf and hearing contributors.

Some of the voice interpreters for the hearing audience were hard of hearing, so they were able to follow the signs on the stage.

Most of the performers were without impairment, though, and learning ASL as a second language just for the sake of the show.

“They were performing in a language that wasn’t theirs. We wanted them to have the signs correct, but people in the audience know you’re performing in a language that you’re not a native speaker of. There aren’t many deaf friendly spaces, so for us to be providing something like this, the audience is just appreciative,” Beach said. “We told the cast to have fun. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

“The nice thing about the deaf community is that they’re very forgiving. They’re used to having to adjust and they’re such patient people,” Beach added. “And we’re doing this for God’s glory, it’s not for ourselves.”

A ministry [not] by accident

The Scarecrow charms Dorothy, played by Connor Griffin and Nikki Dhinoja, respectively, during a presentation of “No Place Like Home,” a jukebox musical performed by the Baptist Collegiate Ministries at UGA. “No Place Like Home” was an entirely deaf-friendly musical that was put on by the BCM’s new deaf ministry. STEPHEN DRANE/Special

Moving forward, Beach hopes the production can actually include more deaf actors in future iterations.

Beach, entering her third year at the University, came to lead the deaf ministry almost completely by accident. During her freshman year Beach signed up for the new ministry.

She learned ASL to serve as an interpreter during dinner theatre, proceeding to serve as a camp counselor at a deaf summer camp. Then, she fell into the leadership position by default when the two seniors in charge, Lindsey Thompson and Sarah Hendricks, graduated.

“I asked the two girls in charge what they had planned for next year. They said, ‘We’re both graduating, so you’re in charge now,’” Beach recounted, laughing.

After praying about it and seeking God’s will, Beach realized she was doing exactly what God wanted her to be doing.

“I’m not comfortable with it yet, but I know this is exactly what you want me to do,” Beach told God in her prayer.

A new world opened

As so often happens, after her experiences with the deaf ministry, the Lord has showed Beach that He wants her serving in this capacity beyond college. Beach changed her major several times in college, never really sensing peace with it until God led her to study to become an ASL interpreter.

A new world opened up for Beach through the ministry. Now, she has developed extensive personal relationships in the deaf community, and they have responded in kind.

According to Beach, many deaf people feel isolated from the world at large because of a natural communication barrier. When people like Beach take the time to learn their language and get to know them, it brings the world home and lets members of the deaf community feel like they can be a part of it.

“I never really felt such a sense of community until I met the deaf community,” Beach explained. “They’re such a tight-knit community, but they’re not exclusive. And that’s rare.”

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