Cat Brewer Brings Deafness to Performers’ Attention
The Alameda resident is making a documentary on the intersection of entertainers accommodating deaf patrons at live performances.
Cat Brewer is working on a documentary advocating access for deaf patrons at live shows, urging celebrities to commit to supporting the notion.
Photo by Chris Duffey
Cat Brewer was at a comedy show about two years ago when she saw a sign-language interpreter onstage, signing the show. Although Brewer had never thought about it before, suddenly she realized there were people in the audience who could not enjoy or even partake of the show; the comedy was lost to deaf audience members without the interpreter’s help.
“As hearing persons, we don’t often consider the access we have to things in our lives, especially entertainment,” Brewer said. That moment of realization was the inspiration for Brewer’s campaign to get comedians, musicians, and singers to participate in Sign the Show: Deaf Culture, Access & Entertainment—the name of her documentary-in-progress.
The 44-year-old is an Alameda resident who shares her East End condo with a roommate and her two beloved pit bulls. She teaches communications and public speaking at East Bay community colleges: Laney, Chabot, and Diablo Valley Community College. She’s also completed an Ironman triathlon and teaches spin classes.
But Brewer is not deaf, and has no deaf family members; her passion is not personal as much as a commitment to access for all. “They face a lot of challenges when they try to access live entertainment. I’m trying to bring awareness to their challenges.” She seeks “open access, or at least easier access, for the deaf in wanting to attend live entertainment.”
As someone who follows her bliss and her passions, once Brewer saw the lack of sign-language interpreters, she dived in. So she bought a camera, tripod, and a microphone, took an intensive filmmaking class in San Francisco, “and started knocking on doors, sending email, and using social media.” She asks performers, “What will you do to make your show, your music, accessible to the deaf?” Her purpose is to discuss “in a humorous, heartfelt, and insightful way, accessibility for the deaf and what it’s like to connect deaf and hearing audiences at live performances.” She often attends music festivals, where lots of musicians and comedians gather over a few days, making it easier for Brewer to do several interviews at one time. This year she’s headed to BottleRock in Napa Valley, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and Kaaboo in Del Mar.
At festivals, she aims for the front of the stage or side entrances where she can meet the performers. “I’ve tried to sneak backstage,” she admitted, but with the best of intentions. Public relations people tend to say no, but if she can get to the artist, face-to-face, “99 percent of the time, they say yes.”
The list of celebrities Brewer has interviewed spans several pages. She’s interviewed actors Jay Mohr and Brent Morin; comedians Andrew Santino, D. L. Hughley, and Sinbad; New York Times-bestselling author/comedienne Sarah Colonna; musicians Pete Monahan of Train, Tuck & Patti, Eddie Money, Michael Franti, and Kelly Clarkson (take a peek at the celebs listed on her website). Some 50 comedians have said yes, with musicians and actors close behind. “The power of social media has been incredible in providing me access” to celebrities, Brewer said. She often tweets directly to people she’d like to interview, and gets responses, usually favorable. “The people I’ve met have been so incredibly nice.”
In New York, Brewer met with the cast of an unusual production of Spring Awakening: Half the cast was deaf. “The show was captioned and signed, and it included the very first [wheelchair-bound actor] on Broadway.” She also has met and interviewed performers such as Steve Longo of Beethoven’s Nightmare, a rock band composed of deaf musicians; Nyle Demarco, a deaf actor and model who was a contestant on America’s Next Top Model, and numerous American Sign Language interpreters and deaf-culture activists.
A Johns Hopkins University study from 2011 found that nearly 20 percent of Americans have significant hearing problems that could affect communication. That’s a huge number of people who may be missing out on live events or the full-performance experience. The Americans with Disabilities Act declares that people with hearing disabilities be given reasonable accommodations to enjoy a show. Public performance venues must provide some kind of assistance, which might include a qualified sign-language interpreter and seating arrangements or lighting to allow a clear line of sight to the interpreter, according to the National Association for the Deaf.
Brewer hopes to finish filming her documentary and start editing this year, with plans to finish production by 2017. Thereafter, Brewer will enter her project in film festivals and work for change for the deaf.