After Bragg’s departure from NTD in 1977, he was jointly sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, the Ford Foundation, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), and the International Theater Institute to speak and perform across the globe. In 36 cities in 25 countries, he demonstrated and encouraged the use of sign-mime as a legitimate and robust form of theatrical creativity and cross-cultural communication.
Following this international tour, Bragg pondered the next stage of his life. He missed the classroom; how best to integrate his dual careers as educator and entertainer? The answer emerged in an offer from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) in Rochester, NY to serve as artist-in-residence. Bragg accepted the job. But a new life in Rochester was not to be; shortly after, he was extended a similar invitation from Gallaudet to be a visiting professor and serve as artist-in-residence there. For Bragg, this was a homecoming; he had left Gallaudet as a youth, full of energy and potential. Now he had the opportunity to teach and influence young Gallaudetians, just as his mentors Panara and Hughes had done before him. So Bragg once again packed his belongings, and resettled in the nation’s capitol.
While teaching at Gallaudet, Bragg continued to act, lecture, and consult. An important opportunity appeared when CBS produced “And Your Name is Jonah”; Bragg was hired as a technical consultant, at a time when deaf people were not offered such opportunities. He also performed in the movie, and coached Jeff Bravin in the title role. But acting and teaching were familiar roles; where was the challenge he had wanted?
Bragg found the answer in scriptwriting. He wrote a play back in college, and drafted a portion of NTD’s My Third Eye. Now he decided to explore the world of playwriting further. Bragg started with a romantic comedy, That Makes Two of Us. At the same time, Bragg also co-wrote Tales From a Clubroom with Eugene Bergman. Both plays premiered in 1980.
Still, in the middle of teaching, writing, and directing, he found time to continue performing. A former voice actor from the NTD, John Basinger, wrote a full-length play specifically for Bragg, The White Hawk. Gallaudet first staged the show, where it received positive reviews. The production then moved to Philadelphia, where it opened in 1981 to rave reviews at the Annenberg Theatre Center. Two years later, in 1983, Bragg presented a solo improvisational mime act at the famed Second City Theatre in Chicago.
By now, he had years of wonderful stories to share, and an interested audience wanting to know more about him. In response, Bragg completed his autobiography, Lessons in Laughter: The Autobiography of a Deaf Actor, which was co-written with Gene Bergman and published in 1989. He forged ahead on other writing projects, co-authoring Meeting Halfway in American Sign Language with longtime friend Jack Olson. He continued to travel overseas, both to perform and to lecture. During the summer breaks from his teaching duties, he acted, wrote, and taught. In 1994, he taught deaf Swedish actors at the prestigious Stockholm Academy of Dramatic Arts.
After fifteen years at Gallaudet, Bragg felt he’d concluded yet another chapter of his life, and decided to retire in 1997. But ending his days at Gallaudet did not mean the close of his career. It did not take Bragg long to return to the action: as he pondered his next move, Los Angeles’ Fountain Theatre offered him the role of Max in Sweet Nothing in My Ear. While he appeared in the play, he realized he missed California; he also knew there were more artistic opportunities in the entertainment capital than in the nation’s capital.
Bragg purchased a home in the Hollywood Hills, and began new ventures. He taught a theater course at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). While at CSUN, Bragg wrote and directed To Whom It May Concern, True Deaf, and Laugh Properly, Please. He occasionally performed and consulted at Deaf West Theatre, located in North Hollywood, California, a personal and professional involvement that he continues to this day.
Over the years, Bragg has been granted honors and awards, ranging from receiving an International First-Class Merit from the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) in 1975 to an appointment as Consultant on Cultural Affairs for the NAD to an honorary doctorate from Gallaudet University in 1988. In 2001, he was granted a Lifetime Achievement Award from WFD. As part of his legacy, Bragg has pledged financial commitments connected to deaf theatre, signed arts, and deaf cinema, with a major bequest to Gallaudet University. Bragg also intends similar funds for seven other deaf-related institutions and organizations close to his heart.
As of 2008, Bragg is far from retired. He continues to lecture, write, consult, and perform nationally. His days are now a mix of work and pleasure; perhaps consultation at Deaf West, or stopping by CSUN. Luncheons and outings with friends, and the private joys of writing, painting, and participating in the community. Yet he continues to take the stage by storm when the opportunity arises: his latest endeavor was a one-man show, “Theater in the Sky,” in 2007. The 14-city nationwide tour touched the four corners of the country; its proceeds of $55,000 benefited both the NAD and the WFD.
For Further Information
For more information on Bernard Bragg’s life, see his autobiography, Lessons in Laughter. For additional background on the National Theatre of the Deaf, see Signs of Silence: Bernard Bragg and the National Theatre of the Deaf by Helen Powers, or Stephen C. Baldwin’s Pictures in the Air: The Story of the National Theatre of the Deaf.