“Communicating with hearing people became a bit of a barrier for me,” said Runge, who is deaf herself. “Interpreters are expensive, and I had to work around that.”
Runge pursued opportunities around the country. It was nothing new for the Iowa native, who moved a lot while growing up and graduated high school in Waterloo, Belgium. After college, she visited Deaf West Theater in California and the National Theater of the Deaf in Connecticut.
“I continued my search and felt like something was still missing,” Runge says. “I was really passionate about living in Colorado.”
So the actress and director -- who first participated in theater at age 11 -- returned and three years ago established Rocky Mountain Deaf Theatre in Denver.
Runge spoke via an interpreter with CPR News about the company and her upcoming performances in Colorado Springs.
CPR: Tell us more about the evolution of Rocky Mountain Deaf Theatre (RMDT).
Nicki Runge: At first, I had a mentor to help start the business. But really I was the only one working in my home office. I was very diligent about reaching out to people. A lot of volunteers helped support my business as it grew until I was able to hire a staff, a booking agent and assistants. Colorado is not a very artistic state such as California or New York, where the draw is more. So I decided to become more of a traveling type program, which I established last year with “Six Women In Search of a Perfect Play.” So it was outside of Colorado that I started to do this and it became very successful. Now I have seven employees and we still work out of my home in Brighton. I have done 11 productions in the Denver area and we’re spreading out. It’s making us in the deaf community more accessible throughout Colorado.
CPR: How does RMDT stage its productions?
Nicki Runge: It’s hearing and deaf together on the stage. We’re signing American Sign Language (ASL), and the hearing individuals are also actresses speaking their parts. It becomes an equal production so that everyone gets to be involved and enjoy it. Sometimes it’s just ASL on the stage only and the voicing might be over a microphone.
CPR: What is the story behind "Six Women In Search of a Perfect Play"?
Nicki Runge: The playwright Raymond Luczak is deaf. He originally wrote this play about women from Pakistan. I asked him if he could tweak the story to involve six deaf women and sub deaf culture for Pakistani culture. He agreed, which I was extremely ecstatic about. It’s about a woman who grew up oral her whole life. And she doesn’t know how to sign, but she wants to set up a deaf theater group. There are six different deaf characters and it’s all about how their lives intertwine. I am the actress who plays all six characters and there are different styles of signing to match each one. Then the voice actress uses different voices and intonations for each character.
CPR: And there is a workshop element too?
Nicki Runge: Yes, in Colorado Springs we will have two kinds of workshops, one focused on middle and high school students who want to learn ASL and who want to be involved in a production to understand deaf culture within the theater world. There will also be a workshop for interpreters that provides a continuing education units (CEU) certificate. Maybe they want to work on voicing skills to match characters on stage too. Voice actress Kate Rickers will help teach that.
CPR: In what ways do these productions impact people from the hearing community who don’t know ASL?
Nicki Runge: I want them to have some more exposure to language and linguistics and to see another side of another culture. We’re welcoming people, we want them to become a part of this. My goal is to bring together the hearing community and deaf community so they can share an enjoyment. I’m also thinking about working with Kate to work with theatrical interpreters so that the hearing theater groups could offer some interpreting services so that deaf individuals can have access to those plays too. We want to establish something of that nature throughout all of Colorado so that interpreters can coexist within other theater groups.
Rocky Mountain Deaf Theatre presents “Six Women In Search of a Perfect Play” at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center this week. A special student performance takes place at 1 p.m. on Jan. 22, followed by three performances Jan. 23 - 25.
In 2015, the company plans to perform nearly 40 productions throughout the United States and one in France. Runge will premiere two new productions later this year.