ASL SLAM Provides an Artistic Outlet for Denver's Deaf Community

There’s a lot more than drag-queen bingo and karaoke on the entertainment menu at Hamburger Mary’s; at the end of each month, the bar is transformed into a space where members of the deaf community can perform in front of a live audience for ASL SLAM. This Saturday, March 28, special guest Ryan Commerson, the local filmmaker who made The Audacity to Exist, will be spotlighted at ASL SLAM Denver.

ASL SLAM got its start in New York City in 2005 as an open mic night with the name ASLian Poetry and Storytelling Night, which pushed the notion that ASL could be used in poetry performances. By 2010, emerging artist and poet Douglas Ridloff had taken over and expanded the concept to satellites in Denver and Boston. While ASL SLAM began as an event, it is now an organization “highlighting deaf storytellers, poets and artists,” one that “has always been a fervent supporter of ASL as a visual art form,” Ridloff says.

“Over the last few years I’ve focused on making ASL SLAM more than just a local open mic event,” Ridloff explains. “Our roster now includes a rotating monthly schedule of events — from open mic nights with locals and tourists to visiting performing artists to spotlight interviews with interesting deaf individuals who made contributions in one way or another and film showcases regarding the deaf or done by deaf filmmakers. Each month ushers in a different program and different audiences.”

This month’s ASL SLAM will spotlight Commerson and his documentary The Audacity to Exist. Commerson is the founder of Facundo Element, a nonprofit based in Boulder that serves as a tool for deaf people - or Sumains, Commerson’s proposed and preferred term - to tell their stories while providing a more well-rounded “deaf education.”

“This is the film that exposes the criminality behind ‘deaf education,’” Commerson says of his documentary, which follows a family with two  young deaf children and the daily obstacles and judgments they face. It ultimately asks the question: Do deaf people have the right to exist as they are?

“I met Donna Mahoney and Marian Lage while a student at Arizona State University,” Commerson saus. “When they married and gave birth to two vibrant, intelligent and awake young Sumains, they called me and asked, ‘Our boys are deaf! What should we do?’ They both grew up with deaf parents and have witnessed constant atrocities faced by deaf people from all walks of life. They knew exactly what their boys will be dealing with and wanted a different life for them. We agreed on one thing: Let’s make a movie.”

Commerson’s team at Facundo Element is comprised entirely of deaf individuals, with the exception of the sound technician for films. This month’s ASL SLAM will provide Commerson with an opportunity to garner more support for his film while celebrating other emerging artists in Denver’s deaf community.

“Naturally, as a Sumain, I am intrigued and a passionate believer in the power of sign language to bring humanity closer together,” Commerson says. “Since deaf people are historically disenfranchised, I see ASL SLAM as a vital ‘third space’ for us to find ‘our voice,’ which is why I have been to each and every one of the ASL SLAM Denver events since its inception. This Saturday is an important opportunity to get the word out, and possibly attract donors and investors to help fund the film. We need about $150,000 to complete the film.”

Each ASL SLAM event offers opportunities to learn about sign language and other aspects of the community. Rachel Blythe, the artistic director for ASL SLAM Denver, says voice interpreters will be present to voice her interview with Commerson.

“Usually, the ASL poems and stories that are shared during open stage are not voiced since the intricacies of the ASL work get lost in translation,” Blythe says. “Because this is a live interview [with Commerson] and includes a dialogue, it will be fully voiced for the non-signers.”

Attending ASL SLAM and learning about The Audacity to Exist could help people challenge their ways of thinking about the deaf community, and further a nation-wide dialogue on what what it means to be “human,” Commerson says. “When people attend ASL SLAM, they'll understand that sign language(s) is a very rich human language,” he adds. “It is not a ‘deaf language,’ as many have been led to think. It is the language of the people.”

ASL SLAM starts at 6 p.m. Saturday, March 28, at Hamburger Mary’s. Tickets can be purchased online for $8 or $10 at the door. Interested performers can contact Rachel Blythe to be added future lineups for ASL SLAM Denver. For more information about Facundo Element or The Audacity to Exist film, visit

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