60 Years of Stories! Florissant Valley Theatre of the Deaf
“The Theatre of the Deaf was created for deaf students to feel the same value as any other student. It is a place where they can communicate freely with one another using American Sign Language. It simply has transformed every student's life for the better.”
- Daniel Betzler, Theatre of the Deaf director of shows
The Terry M. Fischer Theatre at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley is well known for hosting live performances and events. Since 1978, it also has been home to the Florissant Valley Theatre of the Deaf.
“The Theatre of the Deaf was created for deaf students to feel the same value as any other student,” said Daniel Betzler, professor in deaf communication studies who is director of shows. “It is a place where they can communicate freely with one another using American Sign Language. It simply has transformed every student's life for the better.”
STLCC’s theatre began about 10 years after the founding of the National Theatre of the Deaf in Waterford, Conn.
“From the beginning, we sought to create high-level theatrical work, paired with the translation of ASL and the written word,” Betzler said. “It has always been a place for people of all hearing abilities.”
Before Florissant Valley’s Theatre of the Deaf, a valuable portion of students in the community were being left out, according to Marie McCool, adjunct instructor in the deaf communication studies department who also is the theatre’s manager and designer.
“By participating in these productions, deaf students were included, valued and seen as the capable people they were,” McCool said. “The theatre changed their lives through relationships, awareness and accessibility. They were given a place to communicate and engage with others of varying hearing ability while developing valuable skills to be used in the St. Louis community.”
Before 1990 and the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, STLCC-Florissant Valley was the only college in the St. Louis metropolitan area that required sign language interpreters in the classroom. As a result, the campus became a cultural hub for the Deaf community, enrolling about 65 deaf and hard-of-hearing students at any given time.
“Culturally, storytelling is huge in the Deaf community,” McCool said. “It’s natural for folks who are deaf to be storytellers. It truly is an occupation-based study program that connects the Deaf community to the same level of quality of life as hearing students.”
Starting in the spring of 1978 with the production of “The Man Who Laughs,” the theatre was a lifeline to the St. Louis area. It has provided a space for members of the Deaf community to interact and share their culture with people of all hearing abilities. For the first 25 years of its existence, the theatre put on one show per year.
That changed with the ADA, which ensured all colleges and universities were accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing students. While an important victory for the Deaf community, it also signaled a turning point for the Theatre of the Deaf. Since the passage of the legislation, Florissant Valley no longer has the student body of deaf and hard-of-hearing students that is vital for annual productions.
“The ADA brought justice, but STLCC-Florissant Valley was no longer the single place for the entire region,” Betzler said. “As all colleges and universities now require interpreters, the theatre’s operations grew smaller and smaller.”
The theatre’s last production was in 2017 and it now sits dormant, though there is hope it will continue to produce shows every few years.
Currently, STLCC’s ability to attract students of all hearing abilities to the theatre comes directly from its deaf communication studies program. Offering a robust curriculum, it provides students the opportunity to become proficient in ASL and to acquire certification in the state of Missouri. An important asset to the St. Louis community, students use skills learned in the program in a variety of careers such as special education and social services, along with translating at cultural events at places such as the Fox Theatre, The Muny and more.
“The impact of the theatre is invaluable and unending,” McCool said. “Students graduate with creative applied education in theater, paired with the ability to become a certified ASL interpreter. With an accessible and comprehensive liberal arts education for students of all hearing abilities, it enlightens and entertains the public on Deaf culture.”