Bernard Bragg, at 90; pioneering deaf actor who brought sign language to the stage
WASHINGTON — Bernard Bragg, an actor who broadened the boundaries of the stage by co-founding the National Theatre of the Deaf, a path-breaking company that provided a showcase for deaf performers such as himself and the elegant beauty of sign language, died Oct. 29. He was 90.
His death was announced by the National Association of the Deaf, which did not provide details.
Mr. Bragg described himself as ‘‘practically born into the theater.’’ His father, like his mother, was deaf and had started an amateur acting troupe for the hearing-impaired. However great his love of the stage, the younger Bragg harbored little hope for a career in acting until 1956, when he attended a performance by Marcel Marceau, the world-renowned French mime, in San Francisco.
Mr. Bragg, then teaching at the California School for the Deaf, was entranced by the power of Marceau’s art. ‘‘After I saw Marceau’s performance, I said to myself, if he can do a two-hour show without saying a word, why can’t I?’’ Mr. Bragg told a publication of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., where he taught and performed from 1978 to 1995.
After studying under Marceau in France, Mr. Bragg began appearing in nightclubs and theaters in the United States, becoming known as ‘‘America’s master of mime.’’ He would also become, in the description of the Washington Post, ‘‘the leading deaf theatrical performer in America, the man who invented theater as a professional career for the deaf.’’
‘‘Every actor who is deaf and who steps on a stage today or in front of a camera owes a debt of gratitude for the path he forged over 50 years ago,’’ the Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, wrote in an e-mail.
‘‘He ventured into waters that no one before him had ventured into,’’ she continued, ‘‘creating a wave that not only washed over me but anyone who wanted to be an actor and who happened to be deaf or hard of hearing.’’
In 1967, seeking to expand performing opportunities for the deaf, Mr. Bragg helped start the National Theatre of the Deaf in Connecticut. His co-founders included Edna Simon Levine, a psychologist who specialized in deafness, and Broadway set designer David Hays, who had worked on the production of ‘‘The Miracle Worker’’ that starred Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan, the tutor of Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind.
In short order, the company had attracted widespread attention with performances on Broadway and around the world. In 1977, it received a special Tony Award.
Mr. Bragg attracted audiences far beyond the deaf community with the wild expressiveness of his performances.
‘‘Combining sign language with the separate medium of mime, he works in an amalgam that passes the traditional boundaries of either,’’ Beryl Lieff Benderly, the author of the book ‘‘Dancing Without Music: Deafness in America,’’ wrote in the Washington Post. ‘‘He makes stories, poems, characters startlingly alive and at the same time newly mysterious.’’
As a mime, he delivered bravura displays in which he portrayed every animal on Noah’s ark and every instrument in an orchestra. In his acting — an art form he said he found less ‘‘lonely’’ than mime — he expressed the poetry of William Blake in sign language, in addition to acting in a range of roles on stage and screen. In the 1970s, he performed in 25 countries in a tour sponsored by the US Information Agency.
Later in life, he found success with his 2007 one-man show, ‘‘Theater in the Sky,’’ a collection of sketches about his travels around the world. The show raised $55,000 for the National Association of the Deaf and the World Federation of the Deaf.
Bernard Nathan Bragg was born in Brooklyn on Sept. 27, 1928. American society at the time was largely unwelcoming to the deaf, who often were assumed to be intellectually disabled.
When he was growing up, ‘‘sign language was a no-no,’’ he recalled years later in an essay in the Post. ‘‘I was told to keep my hands at my sides; it was considered shameful, clownish, to be seen signing in public. Today people pay to see my sign.’’
His parents placed him at the New York School for the Deaf, an experience that he recalled as traumatic. He was weeping in his room when, to his surprise, a watchman appeared with a piece of candy.
‘‘I wondered how he knew that I was crying and not asleep,’’ Mr. Bragg recalled in his memoir, ‘‘Lessons in Laughter’’ (1989). ‘‘The sound of my crying must have alerted the watchman, as it could not have alerted my parents for the simple reason that they were deaf themselves.’’
He graduated in 1952 from Gallaudet, a university that caters to deaf students and where he participated in campus theater as an actor and director. After resettling in California, he received a master’s degree in special education from San Francisco State University in 1959. During his time in San Francisco, he had a local television show, ‘‘The Quiet Man.’’
Even as his artistry reduced barriers between the deaf and hearing worlds, certain walls remained. He was once engaged to a hearing woman, he wrote, but the engagement was called off after his deaf friends asked to throw a party for the couple. ‘‘I’m marrying only you, not your friends,’’ Mr. Bragg recalled his fiancee saying.
‘‘What she failed to understand was that she would be marrying only part of me,’’ he wrote, ‘‘since my deaf friends are part of me, too.’’
He had no immediate survivors.
In his approach to theater, Mr. Bragg crafted his performances with both the hearing and the deaf in mind. ‘‘You have to be visually articulate, which requires articulation, a certain exaggeration, and a sense of economy,’’ he told The New York Times.
‘‘Remember, we don’t ‘act,’’’ he continued, signing the quotation marks around the last word. ‘‘We really live our parts.’’