The auditorium, strangely silent despite the full seats, is still with anticipation as a basket of earplugs is passed through rows of audience members not quite sure what to expect. Two performers take the stage, and music floods the room with sound. The song, “No Air” by Jordan Sparks, reverberates through the speakers, sending deep vibrations through the chairs and floor. Performers Tony Campbell and Tayanita Bob begin singing—though not with audible words. With eyes closed and faces writhing with emotion, their duet in American Sign Language (ASL) captures the audience’s attention as their hands and bodies give the song a meaning far beyond words.
This performance at the University of Oregon was one of 24 individual acts by students from Bold Expressive Arts Theater (BEAT), a performance group from Oregon School for the Deaf (OSD) in Salem, Oregon. The school is a K-12 boarding school for students whose hearing impairments range from being hard of hearing to completely deaf. Most wear hearing aids, and all communicate using ASL, though sometimes along with audible speech. The students dance and sign with music, despite being hearing impaired, thanks to hours of instruction from staff and volunteers, a quality set of speakers, and the volume turned all the way up.
BEAT is an after-school program at OSD that was founded in 2004 by counselor Jean Obray and career interpreter Bevin McNamara. While interacting with students in the OSD dorms, they observed students signing and acting to music in their free time. Inspired by the students’ creativity, Obray and McNamara created BEAT as an outlet for expressive performance. The program meets two nights a week for three hours, during which the group rehearses songs and gives each other feedback. Within the program, four students are children of a deaf adult (CODA), ten are hearing impaired, seven are completely deaf, and several others perform with BEAT as hearing volunteers.
Campbell and Bob, who performed the opening act, are both volunteers with BEAT. Bob, 17, is hearing impaired and a CODA. Campbell, 21, has no hearing impairments, but is also a CODA and became fluent in sign language while learning to communicate with his parents and brother, who are all hearing impaired. As two of the oldest and longest-standing members of BEAT, Campbell and Bob understand the organization’s deeper meaning and purpose: to encourage self-expression by communicating in a way that transcends signing. “BEAT is a place where you can let everything out and just feel even,” Campell says aloud while signing, his hands moving quickly to keep up with his words.
Hunter Morelli, a 16-year-old student with hearing impairments, is friendly, energetic, and eager to listen and speak to people with the help of his hearing aids. He became involved with BEAT two years ago when he began attending OSD. When he takes the stage at BEAT’s performance, Morelli shares a poem, a song, and two skits. The emotion during his interpretation of John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change” is infectious, causing everyone in the audience to clap along with the beat. “It feels great to perform,” he says. “I can feel the words coming down out of my hands, bringing it to the audience and making them go ‘Wow.’ That feeling is really strong.”
By signing and performing together, the students say they can relate to each other and their onlookers as they convey the story and feeling within a song. Happy songs are performed with smiles and fluid motions, while other songs are communicated through furrowed brows, jerky movements, and even tears. “When you’re signing, there is a totally different meaning to a song because each person interprets the song differently,” Bob says.
All of the students sign using ASL; however, each student has the freedom to translate a song as they prefer. Performance preparation begins with a student’s personal interpretation. After figuring out how he or she might like to express a song’s meaning, the student performs the piece to the rest of the group, which then gives feedback and guidance to ensure clarity for the audience. For audience members who don’t know ASL, the communication gap is bridged by body language and facial expressions.
During his performance of Linkin Park’s “Lost in the Echo,” 16-year-old Rigo Martinez’s gestures make it evident that he loves to perform. Martinez, who is hearing impaired but is able to hear and speak well with the help of his hearing aids, says his interest in music began as means of self-expression. The much-loved rocker of the group, Martinez has mastered a superstar hair flip and uses the full length of the stage to demonstrate the angst within his songs. After dazzling the crowd with a song, Martinez further amazes the audience by accompanying other students on the drums. He has been playing the drums since seventh grade and says he can hear the drums as he hits them, but he also focuses on feeling vibrations from the drums. “Performing moved me; it made me feel very passionate. And I felt the need to express something,” he says, adding that inspiring people is his main motivation. The most important part of his performance? “Never stop rocking.”
Each student brings his or her own personality and infuses it into a performance. BEAT may have begun as a form of recreation and a creative outlet for skilled students, but it has evolved into much more. “The students come to BEAT and show their true selves,” Bob says. “That’s why when you see some of the kids signing, some of them are actually crying because it shows who they really are—as a person, as a personality. That’s what it’s all about.”
BEAT is a group of students who choose to discover and define themselves not by their inability to hear, but by their ability to inspire. When they reveal their personalities on stage, the program becomes a platform for the students and the audience to know each other in a way that is not dependent upon hearing.
BEAT communicated this message and it resonated with the listening audience. They left their audience inspired—impressed by their skill and amazed by their heart. As the performance came to a close, the music faded and the audience’s ears were left ringing. BEAT bowed and exited as the crowd waved their hands silently signing a roaring applause.