Famous deaf actor Bernard Bragg has maintained a lifelong connection with the NTID Performing Arts Department throughout his storied career beginning with his lifelong friendship with Robert Panara to his time as a visiting professor at NTID. Today, Bragg’s personal collection of correspondence, photographs, articles and other memorabilia is being shared with students as part of the RIT/NTID Deaf Studies Archive.
As a child, Bragg enrolled in the New York School for the Deaf where he first met his mentor, Robert F. Panara, the first faculty member at NTID. Through the years, Bragg would play many lead roles and direct numerous plays. Upon graduation from Gallaudet University, he was hired to teach English at the California School for the Deaf at Berkeley and was one of the youngest teachers ever hired at the school.
Bragg’s performances were also influenced by Marcel Marceau’s pantomime style and he possessed a self-described “burning desire” to develop his talent with help from Marceau, eventually studying alongside him in Paris.
In 1966, Bragg cofounded the National Theatre of the Deaf with New York University psychology professor Edna Levine and Broadway set designer David Hayes. Within about a year, the team managed to receive enough government funding to get the theater up and running. They also received an offer from NBC for an hour-long special, Experiment in Television, which made history as America’s first televised performance in American Sign Language. National Theatre of the Deaf toured as the country’s first deaf theater company.
Despite his success as a performer, Bragg always maintained a strong commitment to education, earning a master’s in special education while juggling his teaching job at California School for the Deaf and professional performances. Now retired, he continues to teach, coach and perform and has visited Rochester many times to conduct workshops with NTID theater students.
As tribute, museum studies students Jean Pietrowski and Allison Thompson have curated an exhibit from Bragg’s collection, which is on display in the RIT Museum through April 2015.