Working in the Theatre: Sign Language Theatre

[Music] [Ensemble singing] [Ensemble singing] You can’t talk about Deaf theatre in this country without mentioning Phyllis Frelich and Children of a Lesser God, because Phyllis was one of the founding members of the Naitonal Theatre of the Deaf. She was a remarkable woman and an extraordinary actress. [Ensemble singing] It’s an interesting story that Mark Medoff met her through her husband, who is a technical director, and became so infatuated with Phyllis, as a human being, as a performer, that he wrote a play that became a Tony award-winning play for Phyllis and she was remarkable in it. And I love the fact that Marlee Matlin played the role in the movie and won an Academy Award for it and now Marlee Matlin’s on Broadway
in Spring Awakening. [Actor delivering monologue] I spent the entire day thinking about your note. Truly, it touched me, it did, that you’d think of me as a friend. Of
course I was saddened to hear that your exams came off rather less well that you had hoped and that you will not be promoted come fall. [Music] Credit has to be given to the National
Theatre of the Deaf, which came out of a production of The Miracle Worker, and both Anne Bancroft and the designers
and Arthur Penn, the director, they were all interested in the theatre that was being done at Gallaudet College in Washington because obviously Gallaudet being the first college of the Deaf in the country, I believe, has always been a very enlightened institution and
they had a very rigorous theater program. So when Anne Bancroft and Arthur Penn and the designers went down to Gallaudet to do research, what they saw there inspired them to examine the idea of creating a theater that is just in American Sign Language. [Music] [Music] People would typically ask me, “As a Deaf actor, how do you do it? How do you dance? How do you memorize the steps?” And I said, “Just like any other actor; Deaf, hard of hearing, hearing, somebody in a wheelchair. We’re actors. That’s my skill, that’s my talent. We all have strengths, we are have weaknesses.” We need to give Deaf actors that opportunity. It doesn’t matter who that actor is; there needs to be that exposure and that education as to how to work with Deaf actors, rather than just moving forward with the status quo they need to have to confidence to know what to do and how to work with us. I think we’re breaking through on something but I think there’s a lot of work left. But it’s there. You have to be proactive, you have to be
assertive, you have to support the community, and you have to be willing to work with hearing people, educate hearing people, and often times you might think, well, I’m so sick of it, I don’t want to educate hearing people but you know what, it’s part of it. You have some good days, you have some bad days, and that’s the way it is. Theatre is the oldest form of social media that there is. This dates back to the Greeks, the idea of being able to communicate something, really drive something home to an audience, have them pick that up and take it home with them, rather than meet with these people
individually and try to spread a message. I think that’s what we’re continuing to try to do, only we’re framing it with deafness now, so hats off to you. [Music] I was the musical director of this opera
Four Saints in Three Acts, which is a strange opera under the best of
circumstances. The idea, of course, was what’s in the text? What can be translated into Sign Language? When you have a line like “pigeons on the grass, alas”; how to find those; “pigeons” was easy and “the grass” was easy, but “alas”, I think that was one of those signs that was invented for that particular thing. [Ensemble singing] Mama who bore me, Mama who gave me… American Sign Language is a language
that was invented and created in America. It’s truly the only American language and so it’s a language that is born of culture and so as hearing audience members are able to watch this movement while you’re hearing these lyrics, I think you are able to be absorbing twice the information that you would otherwise. [Ensemble singing] … come and find them. But when he comes, they don’t know how to go! One thing people might not realize is that ASL and English are really not analogous. They’re very much distinct languages so oftentimes what we’re signing in the show is very different than what we’re saying out loud so we really are doing a translation at the same time that we are giving the English lines. It’s not a verbatim word for word
thing in our hands. So the song at the top of Act II is
called The Guilty Ones, and there’s this lyric, “Who can say what dreams are? Who can say what we are?”, which is a very poetic lyric and it’s sort of a big idea and something you have to think about. So our signs are “Dreams in a jar… can’t. Us in a jar… can’t.” While we’re singing the English “Who can
say what dreams are? Who can say what we are?” Meaning you can’t box up your dreams, you can’t box up the idea of who we are. It’s a bigger idea than that. [Ensemble singing] … harmony and wisdom… Sign language was incredibly difficult
for me to learn. It was really the most challenging thing I’ve had to do as an actor and probably as a person. [Singing] Spring and summer, every other day… You learn the signs as choreography and then just from working with the Deaf people in our team and hanging out with the Deaf cast and working on your scenes, you start to learn the language. You start to learn your social signing and then you start to learn what it is you’re actually signing and then, this weird thing happens in your brain where you start to speak out loud what you’re signing and you start to sign what you’re saying. So it was easy-ish and then really hard and then it got easy-ish again. I’m sorry about what happened. Truly, I am. I understand why you’d be angry at me. I don’t know what I was thinking. Don’t! But how can I – Please! Please, don’t. Sign language to me is more than a language. I think it’s very personal. When I’m signing, I find it much easier to express my story or to say how I really feel. Sometimes I tend to be a little more peacefully quiet but when I’m signing, I say everything that I’m thinking by accident. There are of course challenges in using
an interpreter. American Sign Language is not a literal language so sometimes jokes are lost or metaphors don’t quite work and making sure everyone’s eyes are on the interpreter and everyone knows when to start, that’s actually one of the trickiest things to do, is to just get everyone together and and knowing when to start at the same time. You can’t just yell into a microphone; you have to really explain, we’re starting from the moment when Wendla steps off the bed. Is everyone together? Go. But it’s nice because it really focuses everyone. The amount of focus that is present in rehearsals for a show like this is truly extraordinary. I got involved at Deaf West
almost thirteen years ago. I got an audition for a production of Big River, the musical, that was being produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company and Deaf West on Broadway and I walked in to an audition room never having met a Deaf person in my life and since then it’s been and become a huge part of my life and career. [Ensemble singing] I have lived in the darkness for so long, I’m waiting for the light to shine! When I saw the Deaf West production of
Big River, I was really surprised and delighted at
how good it was. In the early days of the National Theatre of the Deaf, a wonderful man named Joe Layton, who is a Broadway director and choreographer, took the challenge of Sign Language and really had fun with it and took it to a place that I don’t think a normal director would have taken it. Because he was a choreographer, he was able to invent movement and have fun with movement. So when I saw a Big River I thought that Jeff Calhoun had really followed along the tradition of what Joe Layton had done. And then when I saw Spring Awakening, I think Spencer Liff has even taken it to a much farther degree of sophistication. I mean, the choreography in Spring Awakening; we would never have come anywhere near that kind of sophisticated choreography in the Four Saints in Three Acts that we did years ago. [Ensemble singing] It’s the bitch of living with nothing but your hand. [Continuing singing] Just the bitch of living as someone you can’t stand. If we close our ears as hearing people, what can we do to enhance the rest? So I’m trying to match visual
to sound at times. I’m listening to the harp playing, like what does that sound like? A harp sounds like the flicker of a candle. So I tried to integrate as much so that the Deaf audience was never left out of an intro to a song. I always kept saying to the design team, “How can we convey how the music sounds?” Through light, through choreography, through, at times, smell. [Music] I saw the Los Angeles production of
Spring Awakening back in June of 2015. Within fifteen seconds of seeing the show,
I knew that I wanted to take it to Broadway. [Singing] … for the new life. Something beautiful… This young girl stepped forward and started to sign what she was going though in her life as another voice voiced her thoughts as if they were coming from her head, which is so much of what musical theater
is about, right? The songs are really the thoughts
in someone’s mind. So to see someone sign these thoughts and have the voice coming from behind her, if you will, just moved me in a way that I had never seen before. [Singing] Mama, the weeping. Mama, the angels. No sleep in heaven or Bethlehem. Spring Awakening was a show that I did
on Broadway in 2007. The words are exactly the same and the
music is exactly the same and I loved being a part of that production but it had no Deaf element whatsoever. It was a completely different version of the
show but the the message remains the same, which is we must listen to people
in whatever way that means. We must be engaging with a population that maybe we don’t know how to. We have to figure out how to, or the
consequences are dire. [Ensemble singing] They light a candle and
hope that it glows… Spring Awakening, at its core, is a story
about the perils of miscommunication. So we went to D.J. and we said here’s the
idea; there is a hearing mother and a Deaf daughter and the daughter is asking where do kids come from and if the mother only knew the signs, that she had learned from her daughter, how would she be able to impart this knowledge with her hands? She wouldn’t be able to. So therefore this destructive chain of events would occur because communication was broken. [Ensemble singing] Oh, you’re gonna by wounded. Oh, I’m gonna be your wound. [Continued singing] Oh, I’m gonna bruise you. [Music] [Ensemble singing] Oh, oh, oh, oh. Where I go, when I go there, no more shadows anymore. [Continued singing] Only you there in the kiss and nothing missing as you’re drifting to shore. [Continued singing] Where I go, when I go there. No more weeping anymore. [Continued singing] Only in and out your lips, the broken wishes washing with them to shore. [Ensemble singing] Touch me! Touch me, all silent… Some of us knew Sign Langiage before we
started, some of us have learned Sign Language along the way, and you see the incredible result as you just
saw before you. What I’d like to do now is try to do the same thing with the audience, where all of us sign along with the performers on stage. It’s our job hopefully as artists and as theatre-makers to reflect nature and nature is a very wild and un-uniform thing. [Cheering and applause] [Music] The Americans with Disabilities Act was
passed in 1990, which meant that all arts organizations had to make sure that their facilities were accessible to people with disabilities. Knowing that they have this extra requirement has really lit a fire under arts organizations and under theaters and in the last ten years, there’s been a lot of advances. With technology, knowing that having
mobile applications and devices and online resources and technologies in
theatre has really opened up the opportunities. But it’s been a rocky road. We see ups and downs, the trajectory is generally upward, but people with disabilities are still finding it difficult to find roles on stage and also on in TV and movies. They find it’s hard to find plays about their
experience. Broadway needs to stand up and stand out
and show all different types of artists. Whether that’s authors, directors,
and yes, actors. We have a young woman in the show who is the first-ever woman on Broadway in a wheelchair. It has never happened before and believe me, when we figured that out, we were shocked. We were shocked! But it’s happened now on Broadway. There are more Deaf actors on Broadway
than there ever have been. This idea of incorporating Deaf actors
into a show, a woman in a wheelchair into a show; will have a slow ripple effect through
the rest of the world. [Music] Before producing Spring Awakening I had never had a conversation with a Deaf person in my entire life. Not one. I’ve been exposed to a world in a group of people that I never would have been exposed to if it wasn’t for this production and it’s been one of the most enriching experiences of my entire life because it opened my eyes and opened my ears to a whole different world of wonderful people, and most importantly, wonderful artists. Anything that you think is your limitation can actually be the thing that makes you so special and the perfect person for a project. I’m sure many of these actors grew up wondering how they were going to find a way in this business that is largely not inclusive of them, but it’s those very actors that have made this unlike anything on Broadway. It allows you to look at your own ability and think what about me that I think is a limitation could actually be my superpower? [Music]


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