Thursday, November 21, 2019
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Deaf actress Dawn Jani Birley plays Horatio in Why Not Theatre’s production of “Prince Hamlet.”

Actress brings Shakespeare to the deaf through sign language

Deaf actress Dawn Jani Birley developed a new style of American Sign Language to capture the poetry of Shakespeare

By Leah Siegel and Ayesha Amjad Siddiqi , in City , on March 20, 2019

Deaf actress Dawn Jani Birley developed a new style of American Sign Language to capture the poetry of Shakespeare. In this video, watch Birley tackle the challenge of making the theatre more accessible to the deaf.

Based in Toronto, the Why Not Theatre first debuted its production of “Prince Hamlet” in 2017. Since then, the play has toured Canada and won multiple awards for its diverse and innovative take on the original.

“Prince Hamlet” is in equal parts English and ASL, in which Birley plays Horatio, but also serves as the play’s narrator and translator. Birley signs the most pivotal moments of the play to bridge the divide between hearing and deaf audience members.

“When we discuss diversity in Canada, I have to question what does it mean, and for whom?” said Birley. “Most of us are still talking about inclusion and diversity, but deaf people never seem to be part of that. We’re at the bottom of the diversity list.”

Her work aims to change that.

“Prince Hamlet” ran at the PuSh Festival in Vancouver from Jan. 23 to 27 and continues to tour around the rest of the country.