Bernard Bragg is best known as a performer. From his earliest days at school sharing stories in the dormitory and watching his father perform in amateur theatrics, Bragg has studied theater and cultivated his skills as an actor, mime, and storyteller.
He did not develop his skills alone, however; through the years, Bragg has acknowledged debts to people such as Robert F. Panara and Frederick Hughes. He has also recognized past teachers and counselors at Fanwood (New York School for the Deaf) such as Max Friedman, Kaplan Greenberg, and Raymond Jackson. His theatrical training started under Panara and Hughes, and progressed to French giants of the stage from Marcel Marceau to Etienne Decroix. Bragg feels a special affinity with one of his mentors, Jean-Louis Barrault. While Marceau was strictly a mime, Barrault was, like Bragg, both an actor and mime.
Additionally, he worked and collaborated with numerous performers and writers over the years, from fellow actors at NTD to colleagues at NTID, Gallaudet, and CSUN to a rising young generation of performers, writers, and filmmakers. Through the creative process, both Bragg and his peers taught and learned from each other. Finally, Bragg has studied under and learned from directors and teachers including Joe Chaikin, Gene Lasko, and Peter Brook.
Bragg’s earliest performances were in high school, where he participated in and helped plan plays. After graduation, he entered Gallaudet College (now University), where he studied and acted in classical theater, especially Molière; he starred in three of Molière’s plays: The Miser, The Bourgeois Gentleman, and Tartuffe. In his senior year, he directed John Galsworthy’s Escape.
His path to stardom began on the stages of local deaf clubs and conventions, including NAD. In 1956, Bragg met the world-famous mime, Marcel Marceau, who invited Bragg to study with him in Paris that summer. Bragg’s lessons in the art of pantomime expanded his skills and knowledge, and led him to ponder a new career as a mime.
Upon Bragg’s return to California and teaching at the California School for the Deaf, Berkeley, he worked evenings as a mime. Soon, he secured dates and gigs at well-known clubs such as “the hungry i,” which propelled him to further prominence. His appearances led to a three-year engagement performing on the weekly television show “The Quiet Man,” produced and aired by San Francisco’s KQED channel. Additionally, Bragg did televised performances of classic plays and stories such as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Beginning in the 1960’s, Bragg has performed at NAD conventions, from his 1966 show “Moments Preserved,” where he showcased sign-mime to the Deaf community, to his 1978 performance in The Merchant Gentleman in Rochester, to his most recent appearance in Palm Desert in 2006, as part of “A Tribute to ASL and Deaf Culture.”
1967 inaugurated Bragg’s most visible period as a performer, as he first helped to found the National Theater of the Deaf (NTD), and then NTD’s Little Theater of the Deaf, a division focusing on bringing theater and storytelling to youth. Over the next ten years, Bragg acted in and toured with NTD globally, from its first tour of twenty cities in five weeks to engagements in countries such as Holland, Yugoslavia, France, and Israel. Additionally, NTD performed twice on Broadway in the late 1960’s.
The original NTD production My Third Eye was ground-breaking in several ways; not only did it portray the deaf experience to a broad segment of society, it also was the first time NTD had a deaf director. Bragg was responsible for the third episode of the play, a piece titled “Manifest.” Bragg was not the only member of the troupe to be awarded such duties. Dorothy Miles wrote and directed the fourth piece, called “Sideshow.” The hard work contributed by cast members over the years culminated in NTD’s receiving an Tony award in 1977 for Theatrical Excellence.
Over the years, Bragg not only performed overseas, but taught and served as artist-in-residence, from his 1973 stint with the Moscow Theater of Mimicry and Gesture in Russia to his class at the Stockholm Academy of Dramatic Arts. He again served as artist-in-residence at NTID, and a third time at Gallaudet. At CSUN, Bragg taught theater and produced dramatic performances for the benefit of the campus and the community at large.
While Bragg originally became famous as a mime, his performing range covers a variety of formats, from anecdotes to poems to classical plays to kabuki-style performances to sign-songs to improvisational theater. For example, in 1962 at Gallaudet College, Bragg gave a one-man show titled “A Mime’s Three Theaters,” where he performed such songs as “Oh, Susanna” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and performed suggested topics and challenges issued by D.C. area drama critics as well as faculty and staff members at Gallaudet. At NTD, Bragg performed in Puccini’s opera, Gianni Schicchi, interpreted William Blake’s poems in Tyger! Tyger! And Other Burnings, brought to life ancient mythology in Gilgamesh, and helped portray the Welsh world of Dylan Thomas in Under Milkwood and A Child’s Christmas in Wales. NTD’s original plays such as My Third Eye, Parade, and Priscilla, Princess of Power allowed the troupe, including Bragg, to bring their particular brand of ASL and their own life experiences and knowledge to the stage.
Even after leaving NTD, he has collaborated and acted with other companies, including Deaf West Theatre, where he had roles in Sleuth and A Christmas Carol. He also performed in Sweet Nothing in My Ear at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. As a director, he worked with the German Deaf Theatre and the Hong Kong-based Theatre of the Silence.
Los Angeles is the show-biz capitol of the world: deaf people are not immune to the lure of acting, directing, and producing. In recent years Bragg was fortunate to work with a new generation of deaf filmmakers. In 2004, Bragg acted in and directed DJ Kurs’ script “Two Worlds Apart”, a production sponsored by Communication Service for the Deaf. A couple years later, Bragg was again recruited to act in a deaf-produced film, Mark Wood’s “Wrong Game,” which premiered in 2007 to national audiences. However, his speciality remained the one-man show, which he has continued in various incarnations over the years.
His latest production is his one-man benefit showcase, “Theater in the Sky.” Upon the tour’s completion in April, 2007, “Theater in the Sky” had earned $55,000. Bragg has donated the proceeds to WFD and NAD; Bragg personally appeared at the WFD’s Congress in Madrid, Spain, in 2007 to present $25,000 to the international organization. In the summer of 2008, during NAD’s biennial convention, Bragg will present $25,000 to the NAD. (To learn more, visit “Theater in the Sky.” )