Ac­tor helped pave way for the deaf

Calgary Herald - - YOU - EMILY LANGER

Bernard Bragg, an ac­tor who broad­ened the bound­aries of the stage by co-found­ing the Na­tional The­atre of the Deaf, a path­break­ing com­pany that pro­vided a show­case for deaf per­form­ers such as him­self and the el­e­gant beauty of sign lan­guage, died Oct. 29. He was 90.

His death was an­nounced by the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of the Deaf. Other de­tails were not avail­able.

Bragg de­scribed him­self as “prac­ti­cally born into the the­atre.” His fa­ther, like his mother, was deaf and had started an am­a­teur act­ing troupe for the hear­ing im­paired. How­ever great his love of the stage, the younger Bragg har­boured lit­tle hope for a ca­reer in act­ing un­til 1956, when he at­tended a per­for­mance by Mar­cel Marceau, the world-renowned French mime, in San Fran­cisco.

Bragg, then teach­ing at the Cal­i­for­nia School for the Deaf, was en­tranced by the power of Marceau’s art.

“Af­ter I saw Marceau’s per­for­mance, I said to my­self, if he can do a two-hour show with­out say­ing a word, why can’t I?” Bragg once told a pub­li­ca­tion of Gal­laudet Univer­sity in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., where he taught and per­formed from 1978 to 1995.

Af­ter study­ing un­der Marceau in France, Bragg be­gan ap­pear­ing in night­clubs and the­atres in the United States, be­com­ing known as “Amer­ica’s mas­ter of mime.” He would also be­come, in the de­scrip­tion of The Wash­ing­ton Post, “the lead­ing deaf the­atri­cal per­former in Amer­ica, the man who in­vented the­atre as a pro­fes­sional ca­reer for the deaf.”

“Ev­ery ac­tor who is deaf and who steps on a stage to­day or in front of a cam­era owes a debt of grat­i­tude for the path he forged over 50 years ago,” the Os­car-win­ning ac­tress Mar­lee Matlin, who is deaf, wrote in an email.

“He ven­tured into wa­ters that no one be­fore him had ven­tured into,” she said, “cre­at­ing a wave that not only washed over me but any­one who wanted to be an ac­tor and who hap­pened to be deaf or hard of hear­ing.”

In 1967, seek­ing to ex­pand per­form­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for the deaf, Bragg helped start the Na­tional The­atre of the Deaf in Con­necti­cut.

In short or­der, the com­pany had at­tracted wide­spread at­ten­tion with per­for­mances on Broad­way and around the world. In 1977, it re­ceived a spe­cial Tony Award. Bragg at­tracted au­di­ences far be­yond the deaf com­mu­nity with the wild ex­pres­sive­ness of his per­for­mances.

“Com­bin­ing sign lan­guage with the sep­a­rate medium of mime, he works in an amal­gam that passes the tra­di­tional bound­aries of ei­ther,” Beryl Li­eff Ben­derly, the author of the book Danc­ing With­out Mu­sic: Deaf­ness in Amer­ica, once wrote in The Wash­ing­ton Post. “He makes sto­ries, po­ems, char­ac­ters star­tlingly alive and at the same time newly mys­te­ri­ous.”

As a mime, he de­liv­ered bravura dis­plays in which he por­trayed ev­ery an­i­mal on Noah’s ark and ev­ery in­stru­ment in an or­ches­tra. In his act­ing — an art form he said he found less “lonely” than mime — he signed the po­etry of Wil­liam Blake in ad­di­tion to act­ing in a range of roles on stage and screen.

Later in life, he found suc­cess with his 2007 one-man show, The­ater in the Sky, a col­lec­tion of sketches about his trav­els around the world. The show raised $55,000 for the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of the Deaf and the World Fed­er­a­tion of the Deaf

Bernard Nathan Bragg was born in Brook­lyn on Sept. 27, 1928. U.S. so­ci­ety at the time was largely un­wel­com­ing to the deaf, who of­ten were as­sumed to be in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­abled.

When he was grow­ing up, “sign lan­guage was a no-no,” he re­called years later in an es­say in The Post. “I was told to keep my hands at my sides; it was con­sid­ered shame­ful, clown­ish, to be seen sign­ing in pub­lic. To­day, peo­ple pay to see my sign.” Bragg ’s par­ents placed him at the New York School for the Deaf, an ex­pe­ri­ence that he re­called as trau­matic. He was weep­ing in his room when, to his sur­prise, a watch­man ap­peared with a piece of candy.

“I won­dered how he knew that I was cry­ing and not asleep,” Bragg re­called in his 1989 mem­oir, Lessons in Laugh­ter. “The sound of my cry­ing must have alerted the watch­man, as it could not have alerted my par­ents for the sim­ple rea­son that they were deaf them­selves.”

He grad­u­ated in 1952 from Gal­laudet, a univer­sity that caters to deaf stu­dents and where he par­tic­i­pated in cam­pus the­atre. Af­ter re­set­tling in Cal­i­for­nia, he re­ceived a mas­ter’s de­gree in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion from San Fran­cisco State Univer­sity in 1959.

Even as Bragg ’s artistry re­duced bar­ri­ers be­tween the deaf and hear­ing worlds, cer­tain walls re­mained. He was once en­gaged to a hear­ing woman, he wrote in The Post, but the en­gage­ment was called off af­ter his deaf friends asked to throw a party for the cou­ple. “I’m mar­ry­ing only you, not your friends,” Bragg re­called his fi­ancée say­ing.

“What she failed to un­der­stand was that she would be mar­ry­ing only part of me,” he wrote in The Post, “since my deaf friends are part of me, too.”


Deaf ac­tor Bernard Bragg stud­ied un­der the fa­mous French mime Mar­cel Marceau.

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