Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Maryland School for the Deaf students write, perform original play

From Ellicott City Patch:

Last May, students from Maryland School for the Deaf stole the show at Baltimore’s Center Stage when they performed Understanding, a play they wrote about the implications of being deaf in a hearing world.

“The students were asked to perform in front of hundreds of people—the house was packed—and there wasn’t a dry eye in the place when they were done,” recalled Susan Maginnis, a teacher who served as the manager and interpreter for the troupe of 18 middle school students.

Their play was one of more than 350 submitted by Maryland schools vying to be among the half-dozen that would be performed by professional actors at Center Stage as part of the theater’s annual Young Playwrights Festival. Not only was Understanding selected, but the students themselves were invited to perform it—a rare honor.

Now, they hope to repeat their success.

The students are rehearsing another original work that resulted from a series of collaborative workshops held at the school this past fall and winter on what it means to pursue their dreams.

They will perform the new work, entitled Shine, for parents, faculty, students and friends at the school on March 24 and then, with luck, will be selected by Center Stage as a 2011 honoree, meaning it will be staged there.

Drama enhances communication skills

“Obviously, I get very pumped up about this. It really is very exciting,” said Maginnis, while seated in her classroom on a recent Friday afternoon.

Maginnis pointed out that deaf kids are predisposed to dramatic interpretation because of their nonverbal communication skills. “These kids are able to show me better than hearing kids. They have fewer inhibitions when it comes to acting.”

The teachers working on Shine guide students to translate that confidence into other parts of their education. The production's co-directors are Stella Antonio-Conley, a drama teacher at Maryland School for the Deaf (MSD), who is deaf, and Oran Sandel, a professional actor and director with Center Stage.

Sandel's participation is the result of a grant Center Stage received from the VSA–The International Organization on Arts and Disability, an affiliate of the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.

“Oran is great. He connects with the kids so well—he just has a way—gentle but intense. Plus, he’s learning sign language. That means the world to these kids, that he would make the effort. It validates them,” said Maginnis.

“What a lot of people may not realize is that American Sign Language is a complete, natural language,” said Maginnis. “This means that English is a second language for deaf children, and we have to teach them both. This is a bilingual school.”

In addition to language skills, socialization is an important aspect of deaf kids’ education. This is a twofold process—not only do the children have to adapt to the hearing world, they also have to learn to fit in the deaf community.

“Growing up in a hearing family can be challenging,” said Antonio-Conley, the only deaf member in her family of 10. “I didn’t realize I was deaf because I used speech to the best of my ability and my family could understand me. When I was 10, my mother heard about a new school that was being set up by a group of deaf Peace Corp volunteers from Gallaudet University," said Antonio-Conley, who was raised in the Philippines. "My parents sent me to that school, and it was at that point that I began to understand and accept myself as a deaf person.”

Sandel believes that drama is a great way to practice social skills so kids can feel more comfortable wherever they are. "It improves problem solving, [teaches] empathy for others, [makes young people] more flexible and resilient [and helps them] understand the value of taking risks and being in the unknown,” said Sandel.

The school in Howard County provides a safe environment for students to learn.

“Most kids feel a huge relief in coming [to MSD],” said Maginnis. “A good number of our students transfer here after not being very successful in public schools. For many, this is the first place they’ve been where everyone can communicate and participate in everything that’s going on.”

One hundred students attend MSD, which includes prekindergarten through eighth grades. Approximately half of the school’s middle school students have attended the school exclusively while the other half transferred in from other schools.

MSD students come from communities throughout Maryland. Roughly 30 percent stay in a dormitory on campus two to five nights per week—some out of necessity because they live too far away to commute daily and others because they crave the social environment that an all-deaf dorm offers.

After they finish the eighth grade, most students will attend MSD’s high school in Frederick.

The show goes on
It’s too early to tell if this year’s production will merit the same kudos as last year’s, but that really isn’t the point, according to Antonio-Conley.

“I want to help give the students and families positive ways they can connect and deepen their relationships," she said. “We have planted the seeds to send these students out into the world and hopefully see them continue to grow as artists. Theater is a wonderful tool to help kids learn to accept who they are, be proud of it, and show it to the world. Really, once kids have embraced that, they can be successful in whatever they do.”