Deaf Expressive Arts Festival

Dylan Doherty demonstrates for a photograph the ABC story he created and will perform Nov. 14 during the Deaf Expressive Arts Festival at Casper College.

Elysia Conner, Star-Tribune

One traditional story in the Deaf community goes like this: A lumberjack is chopping down trees and yelling “timber” as they fall. But one tree doesn’t fall. Soon, a doctor determines it’s deaf. So he spells “timber” in American Sign Language and, finally, the tree falls.

Lizzie Mason plans to tell this story and other traditional stories from Deaf culture at Casper College’s first Deaf Expressive Arts Festival on Nov. 14. The event includes presentations by members of the local Deaf community, like Mason, as well as students from the college and Casper middle and high schools. The event will showcase a variety of art — from signed storytelling and visual art to a traditional drum song and deaf humor.

The purpose is to expose students and the community to literary and artistic traditions in American Deaf culture as well as to involve the local Deaf community, Casper College ASL teacher Gail Schenfisch said.

The idea for the festival grew from conversations about increasing interest in ASL. About 365 students in the Natrona County School District are learning the language, along with about 55 more at Casper College, Schenfisch said.

“It’s exploding in Casper right now,” Schenfisch said. “I think just people are interested. It’s kind of a trend that’s happening around the U.S. — the recognition of ASL as a world language.”

Dylan Doherty is a world language major who’s enjoying learning a language that’s different than anything he’s tried before, he said. His classmate 

Sharon Plemmons signed up for the cultural credit toward her accounting degree, but she’s always been drawn to ASL and enjoys watching an interpreter at church.

“I’ve always thought it was so beautiful,” Plemmons said.

The Casper College class learned that deaf children first learn the alphabet and numbers not through songs, but by ABC stories, Plemmons said. During the stories, signers incorporate the shapes of each of the letters of the alphabet. The letters don’t have to correspond to words and can simply be used as part of gestures, student Audrya Tarango said.

“It’s like charades, but you have hand shapes of letters,” Tarango added.

Tarango started taking ASL classes at Casper College this semester because she plans a career in occupational therapy and wants to be able to talk with patients, especially children, who sign. She plans to sign an original ABC story at the festival.

The students look forward to seeing what others bring to the event.

“I’m excited because, being from the hearing culture, we knew nothing about the Deaf culture,” Doherty said. “I’m interested to see what their art forms look like.”

The event will include several interpreted stories for non-signing guests. As with any language, some stories and humor don’t translate as well, Schenfisch said. But the event is a chance to learn and experience a culture and its art.

“I want the people, the hearing and deaf people, hard of hearing people, the general population to come and really just be exposed to deafness,” Mason said as Schenfisch interpreted. “I want them to learn about what signs mean and the importance of signing.”

Chelsea Elertson, another Deaf community member, plans to perform a classifier story, which features hand shapes to represent nouns or verbs. Both are excited about the surge of students learning ASL and look forward to seeing them in action as they experience more of Deaf culture.

“I really just want to connect the hearing world with the Deaf world — to have that connection and have an understanding there to become one world,” Chelsea said through Schenfisch’s interpreting.

The evening will begin with a chance to mingle and look at artwork and other projects students created to explore Deaf culture and history, Schenfisch said.

“Part of the culture of being deaf is: when you have the chance to come and chat and talk, you come early and stay late,” she added. “So we’re looking forward to people being able to have a glimpse of what that might look like.”

Follow reporter Elysia Conner on Twitter @erconner

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