Gil Eastman was born into a hearing family in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1934. He communicated via speechreading and writing on paper with his parents and fingerspelling with his two brothers. At the age of three, Eastman became a resident student at the American School for the Deaf, where he learned American Sign Language.
Eastman graduated from the ASD in 1952. Some favorite memories include taking summer classes at an art studio, and role-playing movies the boys had seen during the previous weekend. After he first expressed his desire to become a pilot, his mother pointed out that his Deafness would prevent him from pursuing that dream. Due to his exceptional intelligence, a teacher at ASD encouraged him to attend Gallaudet University.
In 1957, Eastman was offered a job as a commercial artist for the Traveler's Insurance Company in Hartford, but the Gallaudet Dean of Students at the time--George Detmold--offered Eastman the opportunity to establish a theatre department at Gallaudet, and the rest is history.
The early years became the stuff of legend for the one-man theatre department. Eastman taught courses, directed plays, located props, built sets, designed costumes, and performed all the other myriad responsibilities demanded by each production. At the same time he took classes at Catholic University, without the appropriate support services such as sign language interpreters, and became the first Deaf person to receive a Master of Fine Arts degree in theatre.
Eastman continued to direct at Gallaudet. After translating Antigone into American Sign Language (which turned out among the American College Theatre Festival's finalists and performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC), he incorporated a revolutionary technique: the readers were to voice ASL verbatim for the benefit of nonsigning audiences. He later wrote and published Sign Me Alice, a play with all deaf characters based on Shaw's Pygmalion and Lerner's My Fair Lady. Subsequent plays followed, such as Laurent Clerc: A Profile. Improvisations from students contributed to a third play, Hands. Ten years later, after What? and Aladdin and His Magic Lamp, Eastman wrote Sign Me Alice II. After the Deaf President Now movement, he wrote Can-Do: A Revue. He recalls fondly George W. Veditz's urging the preservation of ASL: "It is my hope that we all love and protect our beautiful sign language as the noblest gift God has given to deaf people."
In 35 years with Eastman at the helm, the theatre department flourished. It moved from its cramped space in Chapel Hall to the current Elstad Auditorium, grew to seven faculty and staff members at th time, and a complete theatre arts curriculum was for the first time designed for Deaf students. Multitudes of those students went on to be successful Deaf theatre, television, and film artists.
Eastman helped found the National Theatre of the Deaf, having been recruited by David Hays one summer to teach a class in nonverbal communication to roughly 30 hearing students at the NTD's training programme. The wily Hays "forgot" to supply a sign language interpreter and Eastman had to adjust by improvising a system of basic gestures to communicate with those same students. Out of this came Visual Gestural Communication (VGC), a technique developed to help sign language students sign more fluently. VGC became the focus of a book he wrote, From Mime to Sign, and has since then become one of the core course requirements for Gallaudet theatre majors.
The National Theatre of the Deaf took Eastman on for their summer programs from 1967-1971, where he developed an impressive repertoire as an actor, playing numerous roles such as Horatio in Hamlet and the Yeoman in The Tale of Kasane. Performing with the NTD proved to be fruitful; he played Jay with the NTD on NBC-TV's Experiment in Television in 1967.
In the late 1980s, Eastman became a familiar face to the viewers in mainstream America when he became a co-host for the first deaf Emmy Award-winning news magazine program, Deaf Mosaic, which featured stories of deaf people all over the world. He also travelled the world giving workshops on Visual Gestural Communication, and lecturing extensively on the life of Laurent Clerc, based on his research and keen interest in "the father of Deaf education in America."
Eastman published in 1996 Just a DEAF Person's Thoughts, a corpus of experiences, quotes and ideas about being Deaf.
He is survived by his wife, June (AAS-'61), two daughters, Alison and Ingrid, four grandchildren, Jessica, Jordan, Daniel, and Emily, and many family, friends, and admirers.
Gallaudet University hosted a memorial service for Gilbert Eastman on Friday, April 6, 2007. This date also began a two-week run of the Theatre Arts Department's revival of Gil's play, Sign Me Alice, which was first presented by the Gallaudet University Theatre on April 6, 1973.
His memory, spirit, and legacy lives on, for the black box theatre at the Elstad has been named the Gilbert C. Eastman Studio Theatre.
"Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee." -Ralph Waldo Emerson