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Ike Schambelan (Jan. 20, 1940 – Feb. 3, 2015). Schambelan, a longtime New York City-based theater director who featured blind and disabled actors in prominent roles in an off-Broadway company, died in the Bronx due to cancer. He was 75. Schambelan (pronounced SHAM-buh-lin) was the director of the Theater by the Blind (now known as Theater Breaking Through Barriers) for more than 35 years. The company produced works by Brecht, Shaw, Agatha Christie, A. R. Gurney, Lanford Wilson and Arthur Miller, among others; an original Sherlock Holmes mystery by Judd Woldin, “Murder in Baker Street”; and many Shakespearean plays.

In 1979, Schambelan, a regional and Off-Broadway director, began directing readings of radio plays for the vision-impaired, a job that morphed into working with blind and other disabled performers in community workshops and at community centers and libraries.

That same year, he founded Theater by the Blind, a company that highlighted blind and disabled actors. It was officially formed in 1980.

Until 2008, when its name was changed, TBTB was composed of sighted and blind and visually impaired actors and writers. Since then, the company has been an amalgam of actors and playwrights with and without physical disabilities.

In an interview with Independence Today writer Kathi Wolfe in 2012, Schambelan said that he was spurred on by his childhood memories of his grandmother and his passion for theater.

“My grandmom went blind when she was 6 and lived with us until I was 10. We went to the movies together,” Schambelan told Wolfe. “I’d sit on her bed, brush her hair and listen to Lux Radio Theater. Through her, I came to associate theater, love and blindness.”

Schambelan said that he also found inspiration in “Children of a Lesser God,” the Broadway production of the Tony Awardwinning play by Mark Medoff about the romance and marriage of a deaf woman and a man who can hear. It starred a deaf actress (Phyllis Frelich) and a hearing actor (John Rubinstein).

TBTB later produced three plays by playwright, poet and actor Lynn Manning, who is blind.

“I did it more to support my directing addiction than to be a good guy,” said Schambelan, who did not have a disability. He once wrote: “I have two deep artistic ambitions -- to change the way the world does Shakespeare and to increase the acceptance of people with disabilities. Doing ‘Hamlet,’ ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream,’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ it's been wonderful to feel the company take my ideas and leap forward with them, to see their own powers grow through working on Shakespeare and to feel my increasing sureness about my approach. The universality of the plays makes the use of actors with disabilities absolutely right."

Performers with and without disabilities don’t have a problem working together, Schambelan said in the Independence Today interview. “The mix has always been easy. Actors like to work with different kinds of people. Plays are all about the truthful connection between actors. Blindness and other disabilities become an irrelevance for the actors.”

Schambelan also directed at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Playwrights Horizons, The New Dramatists, The Pittsburgh Public Theater and the George Street Playhouse, among other locations. He also was the artistic director of the Woodstock Playhouse and the Austen Riggs Theatre. Isaac Hillel Schambelan was born in Philadelphia to Benson and Beatrice Schambelan. His father worked in a number of fields, including photo engraving, and his mother at one time was principal of a school inside a state hospital.

Ike Schambelan graduated from Swarthmore and received a doctor of fine arts degree from the Yale School of Drama. He worked in advertising and later at the Austen Riggs Center, a Massachusetts psychiatric treatment facility, using theater as a therapeutic tool. For a short period, he ran a children’s theater program at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven.

Survivors include his wife, Joan Duddy; a twin brother, Howard; and another brother, Morrie.

Audree Norton (Jan. 13, 1927 -- April 22, 2015).
Norton, the first deaf actor to be featured on an American network television show and whose battle for acceptance furthered the careers of deaf actors who followed her, died at her home in Fremont, Calif. She was 88.

With her appearance on the CBS crime drama “Mannix” in September 1968, she became the first deaf actor in a featured role on U.S. network television. She played a deaf woman who reads the lips of a man in the act of plotting a kidnapping.

In the late 1970s, she and her husband, Kenneth Norton, who is also deaf, auditioned for the roles of the parents in “Mom and Dad Can’t Hear Me,” an ABC Afterschool Special about a hearing teenager (played by Rosanna Arquette) with deaf parents. We

According to Norton in John S. Schuchman’s 1988 book “Hollywood Speaks: Deafness and the Film Entertainment Industry,” the show’s casting director told her, “Of all the people, you and your husband won the roles, but you are out because the director is afraid to use deaf actors and actresses.”

The show was broadcast in 1978, with the mother and father played by two hearing actors, Priscilla Pointer and Stephen Elliott. The Nortons subsequently filed a complaint with the Screen Actors Guild and enlisted the help of other deaf actors.

The protest went nowhere, and Norton never again worked in television. Her cause, however, raised public awareness of the plight of deaf actors and smoothed the way for those who followed. In 1986, deaf actress Marlee Matlin won an Oscar for her role in “Children of a Lesser God.” In 1989, the Los Angeles Times reported that before the fight over “Mom and Dad Can’t Hear Me,” only 33 percent of deaf characters on TV were played by deaf actors compared with 78 percent 10 years later.

Deaf actors had regular work during the U.S. silent-film era but had been little used since the advent of talking movies. Norton helped change that. In 1967, she became one of the founding members of the National Theater of the Deaf, the first company to present regular productions in American Sign Language. A.S.L. arose spontaneously among deaf Americans in the early 19th century. But by the 1960s, it had long been stigmatized as a crude pidgin English.

With the National Theater, Norton performed on tours across the United States, on Broadway and in Europe. In addition to “Mannix,” Norton’s TV resume included appearances on “Family Affair,” “The Streets of San Francisco” and the short-lived ABC drama “The Man and the City.” At the time of her death, Norton was an emeritus professor at Ohlone College in Fremont, where she taught English, psychology and drama.

Audree Lauraine Bennett was born in Great Falls, Mont., and became deaf after contracting spinal meningitis when she was 2. She moved, with her mother, to Minnesota, where she attended what is now the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault. She excelled at drama there and also became enamored with classic literature. In 1952, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Gallaudet College (now Gallaudet University), married classmate Kenneth Norton and settled in Sulphur, Okla., where her husband taught at the Oklahoma School for the Deaf. The couple moved to San Francisco in 1961.

In 1976, Audree Norton received a master’s degree in rhetoric and public address from California State University in Hayward.

She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Gallaudet in 2012.

Survivors include her husband; a daughter, Nikki; a son, Kurt; two grandchildren; and a great-grandchild. Another son, Dane, died in 1990.

* Compiled from various sources

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