An accomplished performer, writer, director, poet, and artist, Bernard Bragg’s career paralleled the flowering of modern-day Deaf theater, art, and prose, and continues to this day in the 21st century.
Bragg was born in Brooklyn, New York, on September 27, 1928, to deaf parents; his first home was in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, on Metropolitan Street. He became interested in theater at an early age, thanks to his father, Wolf Bragg, an amateur theater actor and manager. Bragg enrolled in the New York School for the Deaf, fondly known as “Fanwood,” where he graduated in 1947. One of Bragg’s earliest mentors was Robert F. Panara, who taught Bragg at Fanwood and nurtured his interest in the arts.
Bragg entered Gallaudet College (now University), where he studied theater under Frederick Hughes, a long-time professor who was himself deaf. He played lead roles in Molière’s The Miser, The Bourgeois Gentleman, and Tartuffe, garnering honors for his performances. In his senior year, he adapted and directed John Galsworthy’s Escape. His artistic skills during his college years were not limited to theater alone; in his final year, he won the Teegarden Award for Creative Poetry.
After graduation in 1952, he was offered a job at the California School for the Deaf (CSD) in Berkeley. Bragg moved to California, where he spent the next fifteen years on the CSD faculty. In addition to teaching, Bragg was assigned extracurricular duties as needed. These included supervising and directing student drama productions. In this manner, Bragg continued his love affair with the theater.
As a young deaf professional, Bragg participated in the larger deaf community, including directing shows for National Association of the Deaf conventions. He also gave occasional performances at the Los Angeles Club of the Deaf (LACD). It was a happy balance: a career sharing his love of English and the arts with new generations of deaf students, while keeping alive his personal attraction to and participation in theater.
Just four years later, in 1956, Bragg’s life changed irrevocably. The internationally renowned mime Marcel Marceau was near the end of his first tour in the United States, and one of his appearances was in San Francisco. Bragg went to see Marceau, and afterwards he went backstage to introduce himself.
One introduction and an impromptu “audition” later, Bragg found himself invited to France to study under Marceau. At the end of the school year in the spring of 1956, he went to Paris, where Bragg learned the art of mime from one of its most renowned practitioners. Afterwards, Bragg returned to the United States and Berkeley with a new passion: mime.
He continued working at CSD, but began to perform mime; over time, he was invited to entertain more and more, and eventually garnered bookings in various nightclubs in and around San Francisco, including such prestigious places as The Backstage, the hungry i, and The Outside at the Inside. His shows included both set routines and improvisations, and his reputation spread. Soon he was touring the United States, in addition to his regular club dates. His shows were not limited to theaters and nightclubs; he also was invited to perform at schools and universities. Bragg also began performing in a weekly television show in San Francisco called “The Quiet Man”, which lasted for three years.
Bragg’s new life excited him, and he gained recognition for his theatrical skills. But first and foremost, he was a teacher. He had no immediate plans to abandon his life at CSD; he wanted to satisfy the requirements for continuing his teaching career, and expand his knowledge in drama, both for his personal benefit and for that of the students he taught. He decided to obtain a master’s degree in special education, with a minor in drama. During the days, Bragg worked in the Berkeley Hills at the picturesque campus on Warring Street; at night, he crossed the San Francisco Bay and took classes at San Francisco State University. After graduating in 1959, Bragg continued his work at CSD; however, he continued performing and touring. Before long, he had expanded his tours and appearances to Europe.
But a continent away, events unfolded that led Bragg permanently to the stage, and away from the classroom for years. Inspired by Bragg’s emerging career in show business, Dr. Edna Levine, a New York University psychologist who focused on deafness and the deaf, began to envision a professional troupe of deaf actors. In 1961, she corresponded with Bragg about her brainchild. She enlisted others, including taking Anne Bancroft (who was then performing on Broadway in “The Miracle Worker”), Arthur Penn, and David Hays to Gallaudet College (now University) to see a campus performance of “Our Town.” By the mid-1960’s, Levine contacted Edmond Levy, Mary Switzer, Boyce R. Williams, and Bernard Bragg. Levine’s initial funding application failed, and the concept was put aside.
Before long, David Hays entered the scene. Hays had been set designer on “The Miracle Worker” on Broadway, and was now involved with the O’Neill Center in Connecticut. He persuaded Levine to allow him to take over the project. She agreed to his request with the understanding that Bragg be a part of the project. Without a moment’s hesitance, Bragg flew to meet with Hays and others in Waterford, Connecticut, in July 1966. Upon descending the stairs onto the tarmac, Bragg was greeted by Levine, who then turned and introduced Bragg to Hays. As Hays’ wife, Leonore later recounted during a television interview, “Once Bernard and David shook hands, all hell broke loose.”
A collaboration began between Bragg and Hays; their teamwork led to a new administrative organization, with Douglas Burke, Merv Garretson and Taras B. Denis serving as advisors. Bernard Bragg now had an important decision to make: would he continue his rising career as a mime, his life as a teacher in California, and maintain his comfortable home on Woolsey Street in Berkeley, or would he move back to the East Coast and work with a budding, yet untested concept that until recently had just been a gleam in Edna Levine’s eye?
At the end of the school year in 1967, Bragg packed his belongings, said goodbye to his friends, and began the long drive to Connecticut. He had lived in New York, Washington, D.C., and California; it had been an interesting journey from Metropolitan Street to Woolsey Street. Now it was time for a new scene, thanks to the National Theater of the Deaf.