04 January 2015

'Visible Language': Signing (and Singing) a Musical

[Two schools of thought in teaching the deaf arose in the 19th century in Washington, D.C., symbolized by the leaders of those two intellectual streams: Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) and Edward Miner Gallaudet (1837-1917). Bell, the inventor of the telephone, first became known for trying to find ways for the deaf to communicate and Gallaudet took the idea further, believing that the deaf, like people with hearing, could manage advanced education.  Gallaudet was named the first principal of the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind, later renamed first Gallaudet College and now Gallaudet University, the nation’s, and probably the world’s, premiere higher-education institution for the hearing-impaired.  The conflict drew in the First Lady of the United States, Caroline Harrison (1832-92; wife of 23rd President, Benjamin Harrison), who’d been a music teacher, as well as the most famous of all the deaf students, Helen Keller (1880-1968).  

[This historical tale is the subject of an unusual play, Visible Language with book and lyrics by Mary Resing and music by Andy Welchel, told musically in both spoken English and American Sign Language.  WSC Avant Bard, a 24-year-old troupe (formerly known as the Washington Shakespeare Company) specializing in classic theater, and Gallaudet University’s Theatre and Dance Program co-produced Visible Language and WSC Avant Bard artistic director Tom Prewitt directed.  All performances of the musical, performed at Gallaudet from 21 October to 16 November, were in ASL and spoken English, and all were captioned.]

by Celia Wren 

[This article appeared in the “Arts & Style” section of the Washington Post on 26 October 2014.]

Sometimes, a historical showdown begets memorable theater — think of the political struggles recalled in Shakespeare’s history plays, or the courtroom clash that inspired “Inherit the Wind.”

Now a new work is joining the canon of dramatized historical conflict. “Visible Language,” a world premiere musical in American Sign Language and English, evokes a famous 1890s blowup between Edward Miner Gallaudet and Alexander Graham Bell over methods for teaching the deaf. With a book and lyrics by Mary Resing, music by Andy Welchel and a cast of deaf as well as hearing actors performing in ASL and English, the musical runs through Nov. 16. 

“Visible Language” tells a D.C. story: Edward Miner Gallaudet was the first president of the college that became Gallaudet University. Bell, better known as the inventor of the telephone, also worked as an educator of the deaf; he lived in Washington for part of his life. The disagreement between the two hearing men laid out in Washington’s political circles: Gallaudet advocated for the use of sign language in --deaf education and communication, while Bell believed it was critical to teach the deaf to speak and read lips.

The heart of “Visible Language” is “this ideological battle over the future of deaf education. And we see that play out between two strong-willed men in Washington, D.C.,” at a time when the city was coming into its own as a locus of power, says Ethan Sinnott, director of Gallaudet’s theater and dance program.

It’s an inherently dramatic story, but Resing says she stumbled across it only after Open Circle Theatre asked her to pen a musical that featured both speech and ASL. It wasn’t terra incognita for Open Circle, which focused on including people with disabilities in professional theater and which mounted a 2007 version of Jason Robert Brown’s “Songs for a New World” that made use of ASL. 

Resing has a passion for dramatizing local stories, an interest she pursued as artistic director (until 2013) of Maryland’s Active Cultures Theatre. So to find a topic for her new project, she canvassed the local deaf community, asking “What is the story that deaf audiences think needs to be on the stage?”

“Unanimously, the response was the story of Alexander Graham Bell and Edward Miner Gallaudet and the fight over speech versus signs,” she remembers.

Resing came to realize that the quarrel between the men reflected their different backgrounds as well as their educational outlooks.

Gallaudet’s father, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, had been a pioneer of education for the deaf in the United States and a proponent of signing. (He is Gallaudet University’s namesake.) Bell’s father, on the other hand, had been a teacher of elocution who developed Visible Speech, a system that broke speech down into elementary sounds and that proved useful in teaching the deaf to vocalize.

Bell and Gallaudet both believed that they had the best interests of the deaf community at heart, Resing says.

“Gallaudet advocated for sign language because it was very easy to teach” and thus cost-effective, making it possible to educate “as many people as possible,” she says.

By contrast, teaching a deaf person to speak can be labor- and time-intensive. But, Resing says, Bell thought the practice was necessary: He feared that reliance on signing would leave deaf people isolated from mainstream society and economically disadvantaged.

Resing strove to reflect these issues in her book and lyrics for the musical. Suzanne Richard, Open Circle’s artistic director, was for a time attached to the project as co-director with Tom Prewitt.

Part-way through the musical’s development, Open Circle went on hiatus. Prewitt was not willing to let the musical lapse, too. 

After he assumed the artistic director post at WSC Avant Bard in 2013, that company signed on as co-producer with Gallaudet.

Speaking in ASL in an interview at Gallaudet, with an interpreter translating, Sinnott says he felt the project was a good one because “Bell and [Edward Miner] Gallaudet are two iconic figures within the deaf community, and, irrespective of whether history has a deaf or hearing lens, there is always a tendency to mythologize and romanticize the titans of an era.” 

For instance, he says, many deaf people view Bell as “the bad guy — the Darth Vader of this story,” because Bell was interested in eugenics and how eugenic measures might lessen the incidence of deafness in the general population. That line of inquiry can seem horrifying today.

At the same time, Gallaudet is “easily framed as a champion,” which is simplistic in a different way, Sinnott observes.

“Part of the importance of this show and production is that it challenges people to take a look at what actually happened rather than subscribing to just the flat, non-nuanced” and “larger-than-life” versions of the characters, Sinnott says. In general, he says, theater should push people outside their comfort zones.

“Visible Language” may do just that with its approach to bilingualism. The musical tells its story in both ASL and English without recourse to role-doubling or translators who stand outside the world of the story. Instead, Resing wrote scenes and songs in which deaf and hearing characters converse in both languages. For instance, a scene chronicling a chat between Bell and Gallaudet becomes bilingual because a deaf character, Ennals Adams Jr., is present, and for his benefit, Bell and Gallaudet sign as they speak.

But because there is no constant source of simultaneous translation, the musical’s voiced and signed dialogue tracks sometimes diverge. Occasionally, a deaf character will sign a witticism that a non-ASL-conversant theatergoer may not understand, for instance. Deaf and hearing audiences who are not fluent in the other form of expression “won’t have exactly the same experience — but they will have parallel experiences,” says Prewitt.

The potential resonance of the strategy — and the related logistical challenges — were evident at a rehearsal in early October. Aaron Kubey, director of artistic sign language, and assistant director Tyler Herman were polishing a duet that featured the characters of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, Keller’s teacher. In the scene, the deaf and blind Keller (played by Gallaudet graduate Miranda Medugno, who is deaf) and Sullivan (played by hearing actress Sarah Anne Sillers) arrive in Washington. The two characters express their excitement and anxiety in a duet: Keller signs, and Sullivan sings words that are close to Keller’s but not identical.

During the rehearsal, Herman tried to sync the signing and singing with the music. Meanwhile, Kubey urged Medugno to be more expressive when conveying Keller’s bewildered reactions to the vibrations and smells of a Washington train station.

In offering these suggestions, Herman spoke and Kubey signed, and an interpreter translated each remark into the other language so everyone could be on the same page. (Prewitt says two ASL-English interpreters were scheduled for each rehearsal — standard procedure to accommodate simultaneous conversations and interpreters’ need for breaks, he said.)

Kubey, as one of the key deaf artists involved in a production whose writer, composer and director are hearing, was also keeping an eye on a macrocosmic goal. As he put it in an interview, speaking through an interpreter, he has worked with assistant director Charlie Ainsworth (who is deaf) “to make sure that the deaf perspective is recognized, valued, and accurately incorporated” in the musical.

Kubey’s additional duties include making sure that the actors sign in a way that is consistent with their characters. An older, high-status character would likely use a more formal signing style, whereas a young student character might sign in a more casual way. The style of expression needs to be as consistent as it would be in a speaking role. After all, “sign is our voice,” Kubey says.

It’s all in service of the play’s broader theme, which, in Resing’s words, is that “everybody wants to be heard, everyone has something to say” despite “all the ways communication can go awry.”

“Communication is never simple,” Resing says. “It just isn’t.”

[Visible Language ran from 21 October to 16 November at the Gilbert C. Eastman Studio Theatre, Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Ave. NE.  Visit www.wscavantbard.org or gallaudet.ticketleap.com.]

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by Nelson Pressley

[This review was originally published on 30 October 2014 in the “Style” section of the Washington Post.]

“I want to communicate,” goes an early chorus of the musical “Visible Language,” and that fundamental message is delivered in song, American Sign Language and supertitles projected above the small stage at Gallaudet University.

That range of expression is the real drama of this fascinating show, which hinges on the 1890s debate between telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell and Edward Miner Gallaudet, the university’s founder and its president for decades. Bell, who also worked as an educator of ­hearing-impaired people, believed that they should be taught to speak, and the less dogmatic Gallaudet favored sign language. By mixing hearing and deaf actors in a production that communicates in so many ways all at once, “Visible Language” makes the debate engagingly immediate.

To be clear, this collaboration between Gallaudet’s theater program and the 25-year-old WSC Avant Bard is far from the most polished show in town. The acting is highly variable, the scenes move in blunt strokes and the production makes a disappointingly dull villain of Bell, whose wife, deaf from age 5, was taught lip reading and continued to speak.

Still, Mary Resing’s script and Andy Welchel’s bright, jaunty songs (with lyrics by Resing) make plain how deep and personal the issue is. A black student named Ennals, appealingly played by Aarron Loggins and based on a real student at Kendall Green (as Gallaudet was known at the time), is full of potential. Will signing — not speaking — limit the options of students like him? Helen Keller, played by the wonderfully expressive Miranda Medugno, arrives with Anne Sullivan (a nicely tart Sarah Anne Sillers), and they finger-spell and sign, with Keller even taking speech lessons from Bell.

Perhaps Bell — the subject of a one-man dramatic bio by PBS newsman Jim Lehrer last year — can’t help but come off as imperiously smug here as he insists on audible speech, and actor Harv Lester doesn’t really come up with more than one note for the role. In the teaching scenes with Keller that include a quick sardonic chorus, Bell’s method is so time-intensive and expensive (and unsuccessful, as dramatized) that it comes across as elitist. The pupils, played by Gallaudet students, understandably resist.

If the drama sometimes flattens out, director Tom Prewitt’s surprisingly big production is consistently multilayered. A four-piece band (piano, bass, drums and reeds) is positioned above the small stage, and 16 actors play the historical figures and composites. By creating such a densely populated village, Prewitt and Resing boldly explore the conflicts while celebrating the variety of ways to get one’s message across. (Aaron Kubey is credited as director of artistic sign language, which apparently draws from older and current versions of ASL.) Everyone wants to be understood, and “Visible Language” makes you want to lean in and understand.

[Visible Language: Book and lyrics by Mary Resing, music by Andy Welchel. Directed by Tom Prewitt; music director, Elisa Rosman; choreography, Tyler Herman; choreography for “I Want to Communicate,” Kriston Pumphrey; scenic design, Ethan Sinnott; lighting, Annie Wiegand; costumes, Elizabeth Ennis; sound design, Neil McFadden. Visit wscavantbard.org or gallaudet.ticketleap.com.] 

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[A related theater event took place earlier this year at Washington’s Studio Theatre.  I think it’s appropriate to look at this somewhat different instance of deaf actors and acting, this time in a non-musical, and how hearing actors and directors work together with hearing-impaired performers on the professional stage.  The following article was originally published in the “Arts” section of the Washington Post on 5 January 2014.]

by Peter Marks

A hearing cast and crew working with a deaf actor in Studio’s ‘Tribes’ is an eye-opener for everyone.

On the first days of rehearsal, when everyone tends to be a little formal, anyway, Michael Tolaydo was conscious of dealing even more gingerly with a castmate, Joey Caverly, because he is deaf.

“I think it’s part of my nature, but at the very beginning I felt that I needed to treat or talk or ask questions a bit too carefully,” the longtime Washington actor said of the settling-in period for “Tribes,” Nina Raine’s comedy-drama of iconoclastic parents and drifting offspring, at Studio Theatre. And why mightn’t he? Working with a deaf actor was, despite his many years of service on the stage, new to Tolaydo, and it took a small amount of contact to understand that interpersonally speaking, he didn’t have to adjust much at all.

“What’s also been interesting is that I don’t in any way see Joey as someone who’s ‘special,’” Tolaydo said, a few weeks into the rehearsal period. “I see him as special as an actor. I don’t see him as special because he doesn’t hear.”

It is noteworthy that in an art form so receptive to experiments with language – and in a city housing the nation’s flagship college for deaf students, Gallaudet University – the opportunities for hearing and non-hearing actors to coexist onstage remain incredibly rare. Some troupes with a heavy emphasis on the physical have made inroads in and around the city: Faction of Fools, a commedia dell’arte company, is now based at Gallaudet and offers some roles to deaf students, and the movement-based Synetic Theater in Crystal City has cast actors who are deaf, principally in its wordless reinterpretations of classics.

Limiting employment possibilities further is the reality that few deaf characters find their way into mainstream plays, “Children of a Lesser God” and “The Miracle Worker” notwithstanding. And even when they do – as in the case of the recent Pulitzer Prize-winning “Clybourne Park” – the role of a deaf person often goes to a hearing actor.

That is one reason that “Tribes,” a play that explores family miscommunication in many forms – including in the way it treats a deaf son – can be such an extraordinary crossover vehicle. The pivotal role of Billy, the deaf young Englishman in love with a woman who is the child of deaf parents and gradually losing her own hearing, has been going to deaf actors since its world premiere at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2010; a subsequent, highly regarded off-Broadway production, which ran for nearly a year, featured Gallaudet alumnus Russell Harvard as Billy.

In the Studio production that begins performances Wednesday, director David Muse has followed that practice, casting Caverly, a 2011 Gallaudet graduate who played Billy last year in a production in Boston. And in so doing, Muse not only is, like Tolaydo, collaborating with a deaf actor for the first time, he’s also taking a crash course in how to make deaf artists and audiences full partners in a theatrical venture. 

For the 24-year-old Caverly, a native of Royal Oak, Mich., “Tribes” is that actor’s dream role, a meaty dramatic part in a rip-roaring play for an influential company. To boot, the family dynamic Raine conjures struck very close to home. He, too, is the son of hearing parents. “As a deaf person, reading that play, it reminded me of my own growing up,” Caverly said, sitting in a Studio lobby with an American Sign Language interpreter and some other members of the production. “I mean, it gave me chills.”

Muse said he never seriously considered casting anyone but a deaf actor as Billy. But fully integrating the performance of an actor whose presence calls for additional pairs of ears and eyes in the rehearsal room requires some stretching by a theater company. “It was a lot of work, even more than I anticipated,” Muse said. “Much of it I’ve figured out as we’ve stumbled forward.”

‘Living in the deaf world’ 

“Tribes” takes place in the London household of Tolaydo’s Christopher and his wife, Beth (Nancy Robinette). He’s an academic, she’s a writer, and both have raised their three children in a home of free-thinking, progressive ideals. They’re such laissez-faire guides that they’ve never bothered to learn – or to teach their deaf son – to sign, and in their determination to treat Billy exactly as they do their hearing children (played by Richard Gallagher and Annie Funke), we get a sense of the shortcomings of their choices. It’s far from the only issue in the play, but in its examination of the relationship between Billy and girlfriend Sylvia (Helen Cespedes), and theirs to the rest of his family, Raine explores the emotional fault lines in what Ben Brantley in the New York Times called a play “that asks us to hear how we hear, in silence as well as speech.”

To help him with the play’s treatment of deafness, Muse turned to Ethan Sinnott, chairman of the theater department at Gallaudet, who in bringing Faction of Fools to the university campus was acting on his ambition of finding more post-academic possibility for his students. Muse said he’d learned that for rehearsals alone, he needed the services of not one but two sign-language interpreters, so that they could spell each other and the deaf participants in the show would not be left out of conversation at, say, rehearsal breaks.

Katrina Clark, a hearing Washington actress fluent in ASL, was hired as lead interpreter, with the responsibility of coordinating the other interpreters; half a dozen would be required, both for the rehearsal period and for deaf or hard-of-hearing audiences. During the run, 11 performances will be signed or captioned, and one will be described via audio. 

And interpreters weren’t the end. “Ethan said right away, ‘Well, you need to have another member on the production, and you may not even know it,’” Muse explained, recalling how Sinnott introduced the idea of recruiting a director of artistic sign language, “as a bridge between communities – a dramaturge of signing.”

The consulting position went to Tyrone Giordano, an actor and yet another Gallaudet graduate who’s performed with companies such as Los Angeles-based Deaf West Theatre, which among other achievements staged a highly successful version of the musical “Big River,” with both hearing and deaf actors. It falls to Giordano not only to make sure that the signing is accurate and fluidly handled, but also to ensure that the experience of deafness is accurately portrayed.

He’s a sort of ambassador of deafness. “Basically, I have to make everything look authentic,” he said, through one of the interpreters. “It’s the whole embodiment of living in the deaf world.”

His job was especially relevant for Cespedes, a hearing actress who had never signed before being cast as Sylvia. “Tribes” presents peculiar challenges to hearing and deaf actors alike. While Caverly has to create the illusion that Billy knows only rudimentary sign language, Cespedes has the opposite task: playing the daughter of deaf people, she must look as if she has been signing all her life.

Studio enrolled the actress in a month of ASL classes in her home city of New York and had her work with a private tutor, and then brought her to Washington to spend a week at Gallaudet. A lover of languages, Cespedes embraced the immersion, and her interactions with students helped her develop a grasp of some of the nuances of a system of communication wholly foreign to her.

“I would say that really, as a novice, what I’ve learned is how it’s really in the face,” she said, of the act of seeming fluent. “How the signer uses their face and doesn’t use their face is an instant giveaway.” (Members of the production cited the debacle at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, and the immobile face of the impostor at President Obama’s side, as an example of exactly how not to look as if you know how to sign.) Giordano has been Cespedes’s guide, using a video camera and other tools to help her refine her technique. 

“He’s been an incredible resource and teacher and helper for me, and he’s made a lot of those choices about how we’re going to express something,” she said.

Of her assignment in her scenes with Caverly, and being the one who is supposed to be the authority on ASL, Cespedes laughed as she recalled something the actor confided to her: “It’s my job to be bad,” he said, “to make you look good.”

The give-and-take 

At a recent afternoon rehearsal onstage in Studio’s Mead Theatre, the cross-talk had an extra dimension. Muse sat in the front row, presiding over a stop-and-go run of the opening scene, as Clark signed for Caverly, seated at a long kitchen table with the rest of his dramatic family. Giordano sat a few rows back, occasionally signing with someone on the other side of the room.

“It’s ultimately about figuring out what the family’s like and what Billy’s role is in it,” Muse said to the actors, before suggesting that Caverly rise from the table, to separate himself and begin to give an audience some sense of his isolation. “Feel free to take a little bit of focus, if you know what I mean,” Muse said, as Caverly gazed at both him and Clark. “Take a minute to establish yourself.”

Caverly, who explained in a subsequent e-mail that “due to the emotional turmoil that the play has, it can be taxing on me,” was not feeling this particular suggestion from his director.

“I don’t think I get up,” he said, through Clark. “I think I settle down here.”

Muse dropped the idea and moved on. Reflecting on the exchange afterwards, the director said Caverly “remains one of the most open actors to attacking scenes in different ways,” but in this case seemed to think the notion was stage-y. In the give-and-take, it was another learning moment for Muse.

“I’ve found that in terms of adjustments I’ve had to make, it really doesn’t have to do with the communication piece,” he said. “It has to do with my paying attention to things I never had to before. For instance: Is the shirt a signer is wearing patterned or solid? If you have too much pattern, it can distract a deaf audience member. Or if there’s a big sequence of signing, am I staging it in a way that it’s open to everyone in the audience?”

The practical concerns even apply to the seating at the kitchen table. “Joey or Ty would say, ‘That’s not where he would sit.’ It all has to do with the reality of a deaf character in that place,” Muse said. “And when they say it, I think, ‘Of course!’” 

[Tribes by Nina Raine was directed by David Muse, Studio’s artistic director.  It ran in the Studio’s Mead Theatre at the Logan Circle home of the troupe from 8 January-23 February 2014.]

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