The Hensley/Harvard Test Applied to Theatre

Erin Karll

Required reading for any casting director should be the following two articles by Russell Harvard and more recently Amelia Hensley for onstage blog where two amazing members of the acting community discuss what it is like to be in the industry and Deaf. 

Most people may be familiar with the ‘Bechdel test’. Simply put Alison Bechdel began to test film and television programs on their female characters. Some requirements are that the female characters have names, talk to each other, and discuss a topic other then the main male characters. She noticed that many female characters lacked depth and were often deemed unimportant to the plot. The musical based on her autobiographical graphic novel ‘Fun Home’ turns that on its head and shows what a female lead can accomplish. With that in mind I offer a suggestion of asking similar questions about diversity in casting with deaf talent. 

Distinguished members of the theater community, I present this test for creative teams in all aspects of film and theatre to use while casting or making other choices for their productions. Starting at the beginning and having the decision makers analyze their choices can open many doors and allow for more diverse productions. Opening the minds of creative people to new possibilities can be difficult and rewarding at the same time. A few simple changes can give any production a new and profound message and allow access to a culture that thrives on storytelling. 

First question would be: Is the character written as d/Deaf or Hard of Hearing?  -side note deaf, with a lower case/small ‘d’ means the person can not hear Deaf, with a upper case/big ‘D’ mean a person who embraces the Deaf culture and uses sign language.-  Many literary pieces are written with culture and history engrained into the plot. The best way to present that onstage or film would be to have someone who experiences those things. As stated in Amelia’s wonderful article, that does not happen often when it comes to deaf stories. Local theatres will cast a hearing Helen Keller for a production of ‘The Miracle Worker’ and miss the message of the plot about communication and finding a way to connect. Recently a theatre wanted to cast a hearing actor for the role of ‘Billy’ in ‘Tribes’. The plot of ‘Tribes’ is about finding a community and connecting with a language. Without Deaf people there would be no sign language. If the character is written as d/Deaf or Hard of hearing cast an actor that is deaf or Hard of Hearing. Establish and outreach with local Deaf Clubs, contact other theatres in your area to see if they have connections, and search #deaftalent  on social media. These are simple ways you can cast correctly. 

The second question to ask is : Does this character have to hear? This can be used to test for all levels of diversity also. Does the character need to hear to move the plot forward? Most of the time is answer is no, and casting with diversity in this context can make a production feel modern. You can look at examples from National theatres of the Deaf like Deaf West and New York Deaf Theatre. Productions of musicals from Deaf West went on to receive Tony award nominations. With simple changes to staging anything is possible in a show. I gave a few examples last year with my wish list for deaf theatre productions. Russell is correct in his assessment that any story can be told through a Deaf character. 

The last question that should be ask is, If for some reason #deaftalent can not be cast what can I do to make the production accessible? Providing a licensed and qualified sign language interpreter is a start. Offering captioned performances or devices that can be used during any performance benefits everyone with minor levels of hearing loss. Also if it is seen by the audience on a regular basis then people will not see it as a distraction or a perk, but a necessity. 

Using these simple question could turn a production into so much more.  The use of deaf talent, and hearing actors passing on the roles that have them portraying someone with a cultural background they do not have experience with, is vital when telling stories about deaf culture and in general. Storytelling is vital to the Deaf community and to ignore their contributions and damper the current stunning group of talent would be to the detriment of the theatre community as a whole.