Because of a Sign
American Sign Language & Women’s Music
A conversation with Timothy Near and Holly Near, May 2022
Click here to read more about topics covered in this conversation
This interview is about how Art, Artists and Activism led our world closer to inclusion of, and appreciation for, the Deaf artist and Deaf community. We focus on aspects of the journey from invisibility, lack of opportunity and lack of accessibility towards a great visibility, increased opportunity and expanded accessibility.
Some rough background: as late as the 1970’s most hearing people only knew about the Deaf community because they had read about Helen Keller. Many Deaf people isolated themselves socially from the hearing world to avoid its negative judgements and insensitivity. Basic information was not easily accessible. There was little or no captioning on TV. It was unheard of to interpret a play, a concert, a political debate, a town hall meeting. The hearing world was for the most part ignorant of the deaf world and the amazing talents it had to offer.
In this interview Holly Near’s sister Timothy, Obie Award-winning actress and theatre director, reflects about a time in the 1970’s/1980’s when she acted/toured with The National Theatre of the Deaf as a hearing actress. She honors what she learned from them and expresses her huge respect for Deaf actors and their craft. Holly remembers a day when Timothy had become fluent in sign language. Holly had written a song for her about being sisters. Timi loved it and then asked Holly, “Would you like to see your song?” Holly said yes. Timothy began to sign. Holly saw the beauty and the power in this vividly expressive language. She wanted to share this with her audiences.
Over the next few years Holly, singer/songwriter/feminist leader/cultural worker, would invite Timothy to the stage to sign one or two songs during her concerts. The sisters charmed the all-women audiences with the beauty of sign language moving to the rhythm of the song. The sisters also spoke of accessibility and how the concerts should be fully interpreted to provide Deaf women the chance to learn, grow and participate in the women’s movement. The sisters asked: why should any woman be left out of this pivotal moment in feminist evolution?
And being the visionary that she is, Holly went on to work with a full-time interpreter, Susan Freundlich, making all her concerts fully accessible to the Deaf. Other singers followed suit. Timothy traveled to Eugene, Oregon to direct a dance company called The Wallflower Order and taught them a signed poem by deaf poet, Dorothy Miles. Timi’s sister Laurel choreographed the poem and this signed dance-poem became an anthem for feminist revolutionaries. It still is performed by The Dance Brigade in San Francisco. It is called If I Were I.
Activists inspired by the power and passion of sign language at women’s music concerts began to work towards creating accessibility for the deaf community for all public gatherings: concerts, rallies, debates, theatres, press conferences, town hall meetings. Many hearing people were inspired to learn sign and became interpreters.
Timothy knew nothing about sign language until she was invited to do a workshop led by The National Theatre of the Deaf, (aka NTD). It changed her life. Founded in 1957, NTD provided a place where Deaf actors could practice their art and hone their skills. For years talented Deaf actors were shut out of the field of theatre and film. NTD provided them with highly respected teachers, skilled directors and high quality production values as they toured major theaters around the world. They often played to hearing audiences. They inspired hearing people to open their eyes to a segment of society rendered invisible by society’s fear of what is different. They provided a new and exciting image of talent, intelligence, beauty.
In this interview, Timothy speaks of the many Deaf actors who went on to strengthen visibility and respect for the deaf community through their innovative creativity:
Linda Bove, a regular on Sesame Street.
Ed Waterstreet, founder and artistic director of Deaf West.
Julianna Fields on Captain Kangaroo.
Phyllis Frelich, Tony Award-winner for Children of a Lesser God.
Freda Norman on Rainbows End, actress at Deaf West, Berkeley Rep and Deaf Poetry Series on WGBH ABC Captioned News.
Dorothy Miles, actress and feminist poet.
While Timothy continued her career as an actress/director in theatres across the U.S., she appeared as a guest artist on Sesame Street representing a hearing person who learned sign and could communicate with her Deaf friend, Linda (Bove). She also directed Freda Norman in Good Person of Setzuan at Berkeley Rep…in perhaps the first regional theatre production to star a Deaf actor in a play. She worked with Freda to create and perform signed poetry by Deaf Poets for WGBH ABC captioned news. She presented Deaf West’s production of True West at her theatre, San Jose Repertory Theatre.
It takes a village of artists and visionaries to remove fear and to shine light on what is genius. It has been 45 years since Timothy joined the National Theatre of the Deaf and lovingly signed a song to her sister about sisters. This was a catalyst for Holly, an influential artist with a large audience of doers. Today it is not at all unusual and completely normal to see a wide variety of events being interpreted for the Deaf. It is not unusual that mothers talk to their babies with sign language.
And here we are 60 plus years since the founding of The National Theatre of the Deaf and today, in 2022, NTD alum Troy Kotsur, became the second Deaf actor (after Marlee Matlin in 1987) and first Deaf man to win an Academy Award.
A conversation with Candas Barnes and Holly Near, July 2022
See What I Say
Taking ASL to the Lesbian Feminist Movement via Women’s Music
Because of a Song Conversations
Interpreted in American Sign Language
We called on women who have been interpreting women’s music for decades to sign the conversations presented in this archive. They continue to do great work in their communities as interpreters, as allies, and I thank them for their generosity and skill. – Holly
Conversations with Conversations with Rhiannon, Vicki Randle, Judith Casselberry, Ginny Z. Berson, Krissy Keefer, Lakota Harden, Liche Fuentes, June Millington and Ann Hackler, Angela Wellman, Elizabeth Seja Min, Barbara Higbie, Ellen Seeling and Jean Fineberg, Sally Roesch Wagner, Peggy Berryhill, Patricia Thumas, and Crys Matthews and Heather Mae