Mimi Kenney Smith – Producing Artistic Director, Amaryllis Theatre Co. Executive Director, VSA arts of Pennsylvania (2008)

In spite of the fact that for the past six years or so I have walked with crutches, my primary, lifelong disability has always been the fact that I don’t always think before I speak.  A few years ago I was invited by the then Non-Traditional Casting Project to attend a meeting of disabled and non-disabled theatre artists.  In the breakout group to which I was assigned, a number of people who had just worked with DeafWest on the tour of Big River had spoken of the fact that it was so easy to work with that group, and that it had been an altogether great experience.  Others in the group talked about similarly positive experiences. Speaking within a group that included producers who had not yet included artists with disabilities, this was exactly the kind of comment that encouraged them in the right direction.  As a producer who works with artists with disabilities all the time and who normally advocates for other theatres to do so, I should have added equally positive comments.  Instead, I said that working with actors with disabilities can also be a “pain in the ass,” but I felt it was more than worth the effort.

My comment was a reaction, not to the work, which I love, or to the artists, who are exceptionally dear to my heart and some of the best in the United States, since we audition nationally.  It was a reaction against the idea that producing inclusive theatre is easy as pie (which isn’t easy either, by the way) and something we should expect everyone to do and do well immediately.  In fact, even if you want to produce and direct inclusive theatre as I do, you have to realize that it means more money and frequently more time, and to do it really well takes experience, the same as directing physical theatre or Shakespeare or producing new plays.  But, while BFA and MFA programs regularly offer classes in those subjects, classes on translating Shakespeare into ASL, or designing a set that allows wheelchair-using or blind actors to move freely, or creating costumes for “voicing” actors in an ASL production so that they recede into the background when only their voice is needed or an actor who needs to make a quick change from a seated position, or directing a musical with a Deaf and hearing cast do not exist.  So you’re basically on your own, making many mistakes as you go—hence the expensive, time-consuming, tripping over your feet “pain in the ass.”  But as you continue in the work, you also find solutions that not only provide transparent inclusion of artists who deserve to be seen, but that expand the boundaries of the art—much more than worth the effort.

A few examples may help to make the case.  Our first production in 2000 was a translation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night into American Sign Language directed by Peter Novak, now of the University of San Francisco, a brilliant, multi-talented actor/director/dramaturg who had been brought up among the Deaf children his father had worked with at the Michigan School for the Deaf.  Peter assembled a group of the country’s best Deaf actor/translators and an equally talented, ASL-fluent actor/playwright to work on a line-by-line translation of the play into ASL.  The work was expensive and time-consuming, taking more than a year and a half to complete but it rendered, by all accounts, the most dramaturgically accurate, stunningly theatrical production of Shakespeare in ASL to date, a translation that not only made Shakespeare completely accessible to Deaf audiences, but that clarified obscure or archaic language for hearing audiences through the combination of the physical/gestural ASL and the oral/aural poetry of Shakespeare.

Serving as Assistant Director as well as Producer for the first time, I absorbed as much as I could from the translation and production process, struck each day by the thrilling artistic choices made by everyone involved and stunned by the fact that, after having acted in Shakespeare for more than 30 years, I had missed so much that ASL brought to life.  One section in particular sticks with me to this day.  ASL actor/poet Peter Cook played Feste, the clown in Twelfth Night, and participated in the translation, especially in the songs he would perform in the play.  Of particular success was Cook’s translation of “Come Away, Death,” about an unrequited lover who prefers death to life without love. In the performance, alternately playing Death, the lover and his beloved, Cook used a combination of ASL, mime, gesture and the shifting viewpoints common to film to create a full-body performance of the song that surpassed most vocal interpretations of the short, 16-line song.  Not having to depend solely on the words, he was able to show Death marching step by step towards the lover, the lover being shrouded inch by inch and lowered into the ground foot by foot, the beloved searching for the grave and weeping, tear by tear, creating a rhythm in physicality that reflected the rhythm of the written song.  Performing the song in silence, with Shakespeare’s words captioned on a moon-shaped screen behind, Cook mesmerized the audience in a way that few traditional performances could.

A few years later, we commissioned and developed a touring musical production about relationships between Deaf and hearing teenagers.  The choice to create a musical instead of a play on the subject was determined after focus groups with Deaf and hearing students both, surprisingly, told us that music was the most important thing in their lives.  The cast featured five actors, two Deaf and three hearing, and at one point we wanted all of them to sing, some vocally, some in ASL, facing the audience.  Since Deaf actors get their cues from either reading lips or seeing the signs, in both cases facing the other actor and not the audience, this posed a problem.  We could have re-blocked, of course, but instead decided to see what we could figure out.

Working with our sound designer and our managing director’s brother, an engineer, we started with a piece of equipment already familiar to the sound designer: a tactile sound transducer that absorbed sound and translated it into vibration.  It is designed to be attached to the underside of a seat, but because we wanted it to give the actors their cues through their feet, the transducer needed to be mounted into the floor.  As a touring show, however, that was not possible, so we tried mounting it to plywood, but the plywood was so porous that it absorbed the vibration itself, making it ineffective as a pathway to the stage floor.  Next, we mounted the transducer in the center of something with a little more density, one of the iron disks used for weightlifting.  The iron worked as a medium to guide the vibration to the floor, but the whole thing shifted across the stage with the vibration.  Again, we couldn’t use screws to stabilize it with a touring production so we eventually came up with the idea of using the gel used by hospitals for ultrasound technology and—voila! —our Deaf actors were able to perform the song facing exactly the same way as the rest of the cast.

The same solution allowed us to include another Deaf actor in a wordless production in mime and music of Tuesday, directed by physically trained actor/director Stephen Patrick Smith and written and choreographed by world-renowned mime Jewel Walker.  The production, featuring seven actors opening and closing four doors in rhythm, performing in movement and mime onstage while backstage making incredibly quick, choreographed costume and prop changes, all synchronized to music, won two Barrymore Awards, one for ensemble and one for choreography.  All of the actors in that production had been cast because of their physical theatre experience; no one outside the production even knew that one of them was a profoundly deaf actor who “heard” the music through his feet.

Recently, we’ve worked with a number of blind actors: Lynn Manning, Pamela Sabaugh and David Simpson.  Lynn and Pamela, both of whom lost their sight after years of sightedness, required only their own specific techniques for using scripts and mapping the stage.  Lynn used a script provided online through his tiny personal computer that was equipped with voice recognition and recording capabilities, while the stage for his performance became a grid made with rope covered in the kind of adhesive-coated rubber matting used to cover power cords; Pamela used a script provided in 36-point type, while her set was painted with different color values to highlight the different levels on the floor.

David’s case was different. Born blind, he used a Braille script and wanted to get used to the set, a living room in an Irish cottage, as he would if he were moving into a new apartment. We had the furniture and props set for him from the first rehearsal and allowed him time before rehearsal to roam, touch, and get comfortable.  What was most interesting about working with David was realizing that certain gestures commonly understood in sighted culture and in theatre are not understood in blind culture.

For example, I wanted David to threaten to beat up his “brother” using fists in the usual “put up your dukes” stance that would be common for sighted actors.  But when I used those words to tell David what I wanted him to do, he had no idea what I was talking about.  So I told him to put his fists in front of him as if he were threatening to hurt someone.  But the gentle, 6’5” creature that David is, he didn’t even know how to make a fist.  He closed his fingers down but held them straight towards his wrist and left his thumb pointing up instead of having it enclose his curled, tightened fingers in the traditional fist.  In this particular play, David was playing a blind person, so as a director I was faced with balancing the accuracy of a gesture that a predominantly sighted audience would immediately understand with the accuracy of life as the blind man would experience it in this cottage.  At David’s suggestion, I stood back to front with him, having him put his arms around mine with his legs touching mine to feel exactly where everything goes, and then let him keep his version of the fists and not working to make sure the stance was perfect from a sighted point of view.  The audience recognized the gesture but, more importantly, also recognized throughout the play a level of authenticity that could not have been produced with a sighted actor in the role.

I could give many more examples, but the point is that, aside from the extra money some of this costs, most of the time working with an inclusive cast is exciting, challenging in the best sense and joyful.  When things haven’t worked out right it has been because we’re still learning, working through the individuality of each actor’s or director’s or designer’s—as well as each production’s—needs.  We’re always starting with a new slate, rarely able to use the same tricks we know will work, but I think that’s a plus, not a problem for an arts organization.  The only tiny, “pain in the ass” moment peripherally connected to money occurred when we had to justify to a wide-eyed accountant why we had purchased a gallon of K-Y jelly (one of the trade names for ultra-sound gel) and I have to say I was tempted not to give him the right answer.  The work is more than worth the effort, but that’s not all that’s needed to make inclusion widespread, and I guess that was the real point of my original comment at that meeting.

As a country and as a theatre community, we need to increase funding for inclusive production work: we have to fund out-of-town-actor housing and transportation so that we can hire the best disabled actors in the country, making sure they’re working and inspiring other disabled artists to their level of achievement; we have to fund individualized accessibility for artists; and we need to fund PR and marketing to ensure that when they succeed, everyone knows it. We need to find ways to make accessibility for audiences easier and cheaper—sharing equipment, training theatre staff and developing new resources, and to jointly develop audiences for inclusive and accessible work.  We need to admit more artists with disabilities into college and university theatre programs and make sure that they address issues of inclusion from all angles of production, not just acting.  As a theatre community, to begin with, we need continually to open our auditions and our workshops and classes to artists with disabilities and we need to see productions that include artists with disabilities. We need to make sure that we all know who’s doing what in inclusive theatre, even if it’s not on as large a scale as Big River.  We need to make time to go to theatre conferences and participate as artists, not accessibility experts.  And we need to create a community of producers and directors who can learn from and support each other so that when newcomers in the field take the plunge, their chances of success increase from the first production.

Many individuals and organizations are working on this already, including the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.  Maybe the next time they invite me to a meeting I’ll make sure my lifelong disability, the one about the thinking and speaking, gives a more accurate, inclusive idea of what our tough, joyous work really is.

Mimi Kenney Smith,

Producing Artistic Director, Amaryllis Theatre Co.

and Executive Director, VSA arts of Pennsylvania

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