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Set Designer Founds Famed Theatre of the Deaf

National Theatre of the Deaf
Courtesy DAVID Hays

David A. Hays '52

In 1967, Anne Bancroft and Arthur Penn were inspired. The famed actress and director had just finished work on The Miracle Worker, a film based on the true story of Helen Keller.

They wanted to create a company that would provide a stage for deaf actors, directors and designers in the theater world—and the federal government was eager to bestow money on such a project.

But it wasn’t until David A. Hays ’52 stepped in that the National Theatre of the Deaf took shape.

Hays brought so much success as the company’s artistic director that in its very first year of existence, the company mounted its first national tour. Its first stop was at Hays’ alma mater: the National Theatre played to a sold-out house at the Loeb Drama Center.

The man who created the National Theatre stayed for three decades, keeping the company together after it was shaken by an embezzlement scandal in 1994. He moved from his original position as artistic director to run the company’s administration and fundraising operations.

The famed stage designer saved the company he had founded and it now boasts of being the first American theatrical group to have worked on all seven continents.

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David A. Hays came to the theater world by accident in high school. When he injured his shoulder in a friendly game of football, it ended his opportunity to play on the school basketball team. Instead, he turned to theater productions, where he discovered that his true interests lay in theatrical design.

“Scenery and design incorporated the things I love like drawing, sketching, and making things,” he says.

At Harvard, Hays was a fine arts concentrator and worked for the Harvard Drama Club and the Hasty Pudding Theater. As a sophomore he began what became a three-year apprenticeship at the Brattle Theatre, in the days when it still showed plays and musicals. Under the guidance of the company’s head designer, Hays worked on about 50 productions.

Those projects inspired him to apply for a Fulbright grant to work at the Old Vic, one of London’s oldest theaters and legendary throughout the English-speaking world. He became an apprentice there, too, and worked on productions directed by famed Shakespeareans Lawrence Oliver, John Gielgud and Peter Brook.

Returning from England, Hays continued his studies at the Yale Drama School and received a master’s degree in 1955 from Boston University’s School for the Arts.

At BU he advocated successfully for the creation of a School of Theater Arts. And he actively worked to create a drama program at his alma mater to match the caliber of that at the Yale Drama School.

“It did not make sense to give credit for Shakespeare on paper and not also towards serious work in performing Shakespeare on the theater stage,” he says.

Hays even wrote a letter urging the University to give credit toward theater productions but received few enthusiastic responses.

“It’s very hard to change things at Harvard,” he says.

In 1955, with Boston theaters, the Yale drama program and even his stint at the Old Vic behind him, Hays moved to the center of the theater world.

He worked in New York for 15 years as a stage designer and produced set and lighting designs for more than 50 Broadway plays, 30 ballets for George Balanchine, productions at Lincoln Center, as well as seasons at the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Connecticut.

But even after he won awards for his off-Broadway designs and earned several Tony nominations, when the National Theatre of the Deaf came along in 1967, Hays turned away from stage design and found a new love in his theatrical life.

“My life as a designer is really of the past,” he told a Harvard Magazine interviewer in 1976. “The National Theatre of the Deaf is my passion. That is what I care about.”

He served as a producer and director for the company for 30 years, and though he retired in 1996 his daughter, Julia Klebanow ’77, remains actively involved in the theater.

Hays’ National Theatre, a professional acting troupe made up of both deaf and hearing actors, has been widely credited with bringing sign language out of the shadows and expanding the boundaries of theatrical expression.

The company combines speech, sign language, dance and pantomime in a way that Hays describes as “a major dimensional form of poetry.”

“When you think about it, it is possibly the only new theater form of the second half of the 20th century,” Hays says.

In 35 years, tours have brought the National Theatre of the Deaf to all 50 states, and the group was the first to play in Communist China in 1986 and the first to travel to South Africa after the end of apartheid in 1992.

During his time at the National Theatre’s helm, Hays also returned to Harvard—this time as a teacher, rather than a student. For two years in the late 1970s, he taught a modern drama course that brought professionals from the field of theater into the classroom in order to teach students about the different crafts and arts that go into the theater trade.

“This way when students would go into a play, they would understand all the complex things that go into making the play and end up enjoying it more and in a deeper, fuller way,” he says.

In his first year as an undergraduate, Hays had divided his time between theater and the College sailing team. But after that he found that apprenticing at the Brattle Theatre took up so much time that he couldn’t pursue both interests at once.

He sailed throughout his life but it wasn’t until his lifelong career in the dramatic arts was well established that Hays found more time to devote himself to the seas.

In 1980, he and his son, Daniel, earned a major award for sailing a nine-foot dinghy from Florida to the Bahamas. And six years later, they became the first Americans ever to sail around Cape Horn in a vessel less than 30 feet long.

Their trips to the southern tip of South America and elsewhere inspired them to write an account of their world-wide sailing adventures in 1995 titled My Old Man and the Sea.

The book became a best seller. But when Hays tries to say what drove him to write it, he explains it as a matter of compulsion, not of choice.

“Sailors can’t help but write,” he says.

The success of My Old Man and the Sea brought Hays a new career in writing. In 2001 he published his second book, Today I am a Boy, detailing the renewal of his Jewish faith when he studied for his bar-mitzvah at the age of 66.

Among his many awards for lifelong work, including the National Governors’ Arts Award in 1992, Hays said he takes most pride in his Harvard Arts Medal. He received the medal in 1999, the fifth recipient of an award that honors distinguished Harvard alumni who achieve excellence in the arts and achieve public good through their artistic endeavors.

With the award, he joined illustrious company—before him, it had gone to John Updike ’54, Bonnie Raitt ’72, Pete Seeger ’40 and Jack Lemmon ’47.

And an exhibit this spring at the Harvard Theatre Collection featured Hays as one of several alumni who have led lives as designers for the stage—a profession that, looking back, he feels was his true calling.

“I love to design,” he says. “I didn’t have a choice. You just do what comes your way.”

—Staff writer Anat Maytal can be reached at maytal@fas.harvard.edu.

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