Some performers dream of expanding their horizons by directing or writing plays, and Bernard Bragg was no exception. Starting with his earliest one-man shows in the San Francisco Bay Area, Bragg created his own repertoire, a skill that would assist him immeasurably years later.
Bragg began scriptwriting during his Gallaudet College days, where he wrote and directed a one-act play, Tomorrow Will Be Better. Following graduation in 1952, Bragg focused on his career as an educator; it would be years before he again drafted a play.
His NTD days provided another chance to experiment at being a dramatist. The original play My Third Eye was created by the troupe members themselves, and Bragg contributed a segment to the landmark collaboration. Once the tour closed, Bragg again set aside his role as a playwright, and concentrated on his life as an actor.
After Bragg left the NTD, he re-entered the classroom, first at NTID and then at Gallaudet. It was here that he resumed his interest in writing plays. Many of the plays he performed in were dramas; now he wanted to explore something lighter. From this beginning emerged the romantic comedy, That Makes Two of Us.
But Bragg didn’t just want to write general material; he also wanted to write something else, something more personal. He discussed this with his friend and colleague Gene Bergman, who suggested exploring the heart of the adult deaf community: the deaf club. The two men worked on this concept, and the collaboration resulted in Tales From a Clubroom. This play was commissioned by the NAD to be included in the program during its centennial convention in Cincinnati, Ohio. A successful premiere was followed by performances around the nation. Tales From a Clubroom is still being performed today; its latest revival was at NTID in 2006.
Bragg not only wrote both plays, but also directed them. He had explored for years the boundaries of acting, and had honed his craft as a mime and thespian. Now he wanted to take on the challenge of working behind the curtain by writing plays and directing them. His first two published plays offered him that opportunity: he directed both That Makes Two of Us and Tales From a Clubroom. Bragg’s repertoire had expanded: he was an actor, an educator, a playwright, and a director. Part of his new responsibilities as director stemmed from his work in the classroom: where once he was the student, now he was the teacher, and he wanted to help shape and tutor the next generation of actors.
During his tenure at Gallaudet, he continued to act on stage, which left him less time to explore his own interests, including writing. But after he had retired and moved westward to Los Angeles, he resumed his teaching career at CSUN. It was here that Bragg would again produce plays. At CSUN, he wrote and directed To Whom It May Concern; Laugh Properly, Please; and True Deaf. In addition to his published and produced material, Bragg completed another five unpublished plays.
Bragg’s scripts and directorial efforts weren’t limited to college campuses and the United States, however. In 1998, he worked with the German Deaf Theatre in Berlin, Germany, with the result ending in the play On the Eve of Golden Wedding Anniversary. This play, written and directed by Bragg, premiered in Berlin. The same company later translated Bragg’s play To Whom It May Concern, and produced it for a German audience in 1999.
The follow-up to this success came during Bragg’s collaboration with the “Theatre of the Silence,” a Hong Kong theatre company. His work with this troupe culminated in A Journey Into the World of Visual Wonders, which premiered in Hong Kong in 2003. A Director’s Note written by Bragg reflects on this experience:
I first visited Hong Kong in 1977 on my world tour as a goodwill ambassador and speaker under the sponsorship of the United States Information Agency. Two decades later, the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD), which I helped found in 1967, performed in Hong Kong. One of the deaf Hong Kong aspirants was invited to study under me at the NTD’s professional school for actors. Soon afterward, the Hong Kong Theatre of the Deaf was established. In 2000, yet another group was inspired to establish a theater of their own, called “Theatre of the Silence” (TOS). From a historical point of view, I am quite appreciative of my being invited this year to direct two new plays with the TOS, thus making it a full circle for me.
What is most exciting about our current work is that both the group and I are open to each other’s ideas and explorations. We are exploring theatrical innovations that may appeal to, astonish, or inspire not only deaf people but hearing people. In our new work, we introduce both English and Chinese poetry in a different form, utilizing the beauty, grace and power of Hong Kong Sign Language. We transform it into visual imagery by fusing both voice and sign, thus providing hearing audiences with the double benefit of hearing and seeing poetry at the same time. We also perform in mime but we are not confined to it. We are literate people. We can think, signspeak and dream. As is true of all deaf people around the world we are both visual and verbal.
In “A Journey Into the World of Visual Wonders,” we balance literacy with mime, which we present in a different form, using deaf people’s cinematic skills of expression. In “The Monkey’s Paw,” we employ silent acting without any signs, yet we emote visually in a sublimely dramatic, yet revealing way.
In sum, we do not use theatre to teach, inform or educate. We are out to entertain and enlighten any and all audiences in the world.
This last sentence encapsulated Bragg’s philosophy about his work and career: He sought and seeks to entertain and enlighten any and all audiences in the world.
A New Venture: Breeze Avenue
His latest project continues this theme: he theatrically directed an ASL segment of Breeze Avenue, an enormous artistic and literary “book” that includes music, architecture, art, dance, theater, video, and books in prose and verse. As the creator of this work, Richard Grossman, states:
Sections of the work draw upon information from geology, screenwriting, software development… astronomy, politics… metaphysics, literary and social theory… deaf theater, sleep theory, mathematics, choreography, photography… Documents are produced in Latin, Yiddish, Orkhon, Hebrew, Fraser, Sanskrit, Chinese, Hieroglyphs, American Sign Language, various forms of numeric and symbolic notation, and English.
The complete work contains “40 elements,” or distinct groups of texts. It’s first manifestation will be as a one-volume 3,000,000-page book available for reading at www.breezeavenue.com…
The ASL/deaf theater portion that Bragg helped coordinate is “a group of poems that are acted out in ASL and then converted through this process into 8th century Chinese…” Bernard Bragg was excited to work on a project of this magnitude and looks forward to Grossman’s release in the near future.