In the Rehearsal Room and In Production
Casting, rehearsal and production experiences
The Arc of the Process: Stories and Remarks
“Last season, Baltimore Center Stage produced an evening of four short plays by Thornton Wilder, directed by Tim Vasen, Resident Director. Willy Conley, an associate artist, appeared in three of the plays. Willy is an actor who happens to be Deaf and is unafraid to explore the full range of his communication capabilities: ASL, gestural communication, and spoken English. What follows are excerpts from a letter from Willy to Tim:
From Willy: “Hello Tim – I’ve looked through the plays and here are my thoughts on each piece: In The Long Christmas Dinner, a) I could play Cousin Brandon who seems to develop a progressive hearing loss. Or, he could be hearing-impaired from the get-go…and become increasingly Deaf and loud. b) …perhaps I could play a servant (without lines) that serves all of the generations who doesn’t age and acts as a counterpoint to the whole play.”
Dennis notes “In our production, Willy played Brandon as suggested with an ear trumpet.”
Conley continues, “In Pullman Car Hiawatha – a) I see the Stage Manager using ASL and having his lines spoken by an offstage train conductor…I think it would give him an omniscient quality – seeing and hearing language in a 3-dimensional way. And, when he takes on the voice of some of the passengers, I could use my own voice, which would add another dimension… b) the character of the German workman could be Deaf and sign his lines, which the stage manager would understand and voice for the audience.” Dennis notes “In Pullman Car Hiawatha, Willy played the workman, credited as ‘Deaf worker’. In the original, the German worker is translated by the ‘Stage Manager'; it was an easy adaptation from German to ASL. Willy also appeared in this play as an ‘Angel’. Willy’s ascent to Heaven in this play, for example, took on additional meaning as he’d appeared earlier in the evening as ‘Malchus’ in Heaven.”
Conley continues, “In Now the Servant’s Name Was Malchus, I can see Malchus as Deaf and signing his lines with Gabriel voice interpreting as well as sign interpreting. We would have to figure out things like: wouldn’t the Lord know all languages? Or, maybe his not knowing signs could be one of his admitted delusions that he ‘could be useful to men’…. Dennis notes, “Malchus was the role Willy played. All other company actors were hearing.”
Tim Vasen adds: “When I asked Willy to be part of the Wilder evening, it was important to both of us that the characters he played… be enlarged by the fact they were being played by a Deaf actor. Willy’s range of communication skills brought us considerably closer to my overall goal for the evening which was to showcase Wilder’s nearly unlimited consideration of the countless perspectives that make up the human condition…to take the specific and transmute it to the eternal, to consider infinity in the course of everyday events. Willy added the unexpected perspective of gestural language to raise significant questions about the nature and limits of communication, and, most importantly, to contribute several bang-up acting jobs to three plays.”
“Casting directors don’t create story lines. In the case of E.R., the producer/writers decided, for character reasons, to make Benton’s character’s (played by Eriq LaSalle) son Deaf. Once that decision was made, the story was expanded and we were able to explore the issue of Deafness from many points of view – personally, culturally, medically– all of it was motivated by character.”
“In rehearsal, having a sense of humor is important. Sitting and talking with the Deaf performers and interpreters, and asking questions about Deaf culture and preferences was really helpful. Just getting to know the etiquette and ‘dos and don’ts’ was an important step. In the productions I directed, we spent a long time on a good translation of the script into sign. We spent as much time on the translations as we did in rehearsing the show. We have done five or six productions employing Deaf actors and artists, one with a Deaf director and each one taught all of us more about this process.
For me, it was a great exercise in dealing with focus, balancing between the spoken line and the signed line on stage. I learned to use and love the beauty of sign in the movement on stage and this ultimately helped to shape the action of the scenes. You have to consider lighting and set design as well as blocking to ensure that the sign can be seen.
It affected the rehearsal rhythm because you have to learn to go at a different pace to accommodate the interpreters and Deaf actors. It was like directing in two languages.
For cueing, we were already using cue lights for our hearing actors. So that process just had to be explained by the interpreters. During tech rehearsals, we used red and green lights on the stage so that the director or stage manager could stop the rehearsal, the Deaf actor would know by seeing the red light, s/he would be told by the interpreter when we would start back up and then cued on when to begin by the green light.
In terms of communicating with Deaf artists off site, we have a TDD and the production department has a TDD. We also use e-mail. For the one Deaf artist we brought in, we bought a ‘hotel package’ that included a bed shaker for the TDD (it shook the bed when the TDD ‘rang’), a light relay system to flash when someone knocked on the door, and we provided a TDD in the room.
“Rehearsing Skin of our Teeth (Delacorte Theatre, Shakespeare in the Park, New York City) with Monique Holt was mindblowing. She stopped the rehearsal room one day when she asked if I wanted her to use a New Jersey accent in her role. Whoa!
In assigning her her roles, I intentionally chose a sound engineer in the second act. This was to break open the stereotypes and was also highly theatrical. I could do this because Monique is a very talented and versatile actress.”
“We gathered a talented cast of Deaf actors to bring to Milwaukee to work on Our Town with my resident company. I asked each of the Deaf actors to take turns spending 30-45 minutes at the beginning of each rehearsal as instructors. The hearing company members learned sign and learned that the newcomers had a skill that they now needed as well as a rich and beautiful language all their own. As a result, everyone in the rehearsal hall was quickly on equal footing.”/p>
In rehearsal, we discovered a number of artistic possibilities. For example, while George and Emily had their famous ladder scene, the choir, perched on a catwalk, continued to sing but only in sign language, a gentle visual counterpoint to the conversation of our young couple.”
Director Kenneth Albers: “Some years ago, I directed Italian Straw Hat for the National Theater of the Deaf of Chester, CT, that toured the U.S. for two years. I was astonished by the depth and variety of the language of sign and by the expertise of the Deaf artists. I recall one moment when a speaking actor was using a Peter Sellers ‘Clouseau’ accent in one of the scenes. I asked him to tell the Deaf actor, Frank DaTolla, for whom he was speaking, what he was doing. There was a brief conversation between the two; we began the scene, and, all of a sudden, Frank’s sign language featured an accent. When we opened the play to a largely Deaf audience, they responded with gales of laughter!”
From Deborah LaVine regarding her experience of directing A Streetcar Named Desire at Deaf West Theatre: “Despite the joyful working relationship, there were communication issues during the initial stages of rehearsal. I had assumed every word I spoke in English was being translated literally into sign language. Consequently, I assumed certain critical pieces of information about the play were being given to the actors through my interpreter. That wasn’t the case. Once I realized that I shouldn’t rely (completely) on another individual to relay my thoughts and ideas, I became more free and open in trying to find a common language that the actors and I both understood. We found a visual language where I physicalized my ideas more and relied on English less. I believe the Deaf actors and I actually created a makeshift sign language out of my crude but expressive beginning signs. They were very patient with me and as our trust in one another grew, we relied less and less on complicated interpretations of my English and became very instinctual with each other.
Through this experience, I learned that sign language onstage lends a grace and visual amplification of the theatrical story. It provides a physical rendering of emotion that becomes a powerful visceral experience for the audience whether they are familiar with sign language or not.”
“I cast Mary Vreeland as Kattrin in Mother Courage. It’s a huge play and her character is onstage for nearly the entire play. The character does not speak. I felt it was important to cast a Deaf actor because there are so few opportunities for roles available to Deaf performers. She worked with two interpreters throughout the rehearsal period, one on either side of the room, so that wherever she looked, she would know what was happening.”
While Kattrin has no dialogue, she is hearing: therefore, in the process of rehearsal, we developed a system of visual cues. For example, when Katrin was in the wagon, we were able to cue with a little car that was connected to a remote controller; in another instance, the cue was when another character put a book down, and so on. It worked well.
On another occasion, I cast Monique Holt as Cordelia in King Lear. In Shakespeare’s time, the characters of Cordelia and The Fool were played by the same person. It made sense for The Fool to speak Cordelia’s lines as Cordelia signed. We also wanted to establish that the character of Cordelia was the child of a much later marriage, and that The Fool and Cordelia had a closer relationship. Therefore, in our production, The Fool was the only other character who signed fluently. Their relationship also helped to explain why The Fool was so upset for Cordelia in the course of the play.
To make the spoken and signed text come together, Monique had to create an ASL (American Sign Language) script to parallel the Shakespeare text being spoken. It was complicated and both actors worked very hard to be exactly in sync with one another. It worked beautifully. For much of the production, the character of Lear is disconnected from his humanity. When Lear is angry with Cordelia, both Monique and the Lear actor had to find ways to work so that his character’s needs and hers were both honored in terms of the communication issues. By the end of the play, in the ‘recognition scene,’ the character of Lear had learned a few signs and Cordelia had learned to speak a few words. Also, Cordelia’s two sisters learned a few signs they could incorporate at appropriate places. Also, at the end, the character of the King of France signed as well.
In this production, we developed a number of visual cues. Many of them were not spoken and often were not delivered by a character looking at Cordelia. In both productions, it was a good experience for the hearing actors to be involved in creating cues with the Deaf actors. Then, the cues became so much a natural part of the production, we all forgot they were even there.
We then revived King Lear last summer and it played in an open-air amphitheatre that seats 4,000, much larger than our home theatre space. We were concerned that the sign language would get lost but it didn’t. It was no problem at all and read very well. Monique made it work.
Both productions have been great experiences.” (As point of information, some of the staff at The Shakespeare Theatre knows some sign language, the theatre maintains a TDD, and they provide at least one signed performance of every production.)
Independent director and choreographer Jeff Calhoun on directing Oliver! at Deaf West Theatre (from an interview with Ed Waterstreet and George McDaniels):
“Directing a musical with Deaf people was something I’ve never done and to my knowledge, hasn’t ever been done. I thought to pull this off would be beyond special, it would be completely unique in the theatre. And it was…
I realized with a Deaf audience, you focus the attention around the signing. At first, the sign was the focus and I choreographed around it. Then, I realized that the sign was the choreography. Once I understood that, I let the sign take us where I needed the audience to focus at any given time.
Visual cues were important to tell Deaf actors when to begin signing songs and to keep them in sync with hearing actors musically. We also had to translate lyrics into sign language. Literal translations aren’t possible because ASL doesn’t correspond exactly to English. Therefore, the visual poetry took precedence.
There’s no doubt in my mind that for a hearing audience, the whole experience of watching this story being signed while also hearing it, enhances the story. Directing Oliver! was the most fulfilling experience of my career.”
Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director, Mark Taper Forum: “When we produced Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God at the Mark Taper Forum 20 years ago, before we brought it to Broadway, it was not just another production; the experience changed the entire culture of the theatre. We brought Ken Brecher, a cultural anthropologist, on staff at that time as Associate Artistic Director to work with us. The impact of sign language and Deaf culture was integrated into the theatre at every level: in addition to serving the needs of Deaf artists in the production such as providing certified interpreters for the audition and rehearsal period, the Mark Taper staff was offered sign language classes, the box office was trained regarding the needs of Deaf audience members and ways to communicate effectively, we purchased a TDD for the box office and for the marketing department, we established a marketing initiative to attract and serve Deaf audiences and hired a Deaf staff member to run it – a program still in place today, and we established a policy of providing signed performances for all of our mainstage productions.”
Linda Hartzell, Artistic Director, Seattle Children’s Theatre: Years ago, Billy Seago and Howie Seago approached us about creating a Deaf Youth Drama Program. They secured a large Department of Education grant. (Previously, we had provided sign interpreted performances.) We started in earnest with productions employing Deaf actors and teaching and mentoring Deaf students by Deaf artists. Eventually the grant money came to an end. We had no outside means to continue it, but we decided to preserve and support the educational aspect of the program and Billy and Howie have done a great deal of work in funding their program through grants. It is still the only program of its kind in the greater Seattle area. It has had a huge impact on our school-age Deaf community in particular. And we have developed and kept a Deaf audience for our sign interpreted performances.
We have quite a large Deaf audience base because we have offered sign interpreted performances of every production for years. However, when sign is incorporated into the main thrust of the performance, it makes a huge difference in the Deaf audience member’s experience.”