Illustration by Dalton Webb

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Seen and Heard

Will Sound Theatre Company’s latest play launch a new era for Deaf theatre in Seattle?

There’s a line in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I’ve never paid much attention to, delivered by that most enthusiastic of overactor characters, Nick Bottom: “I could play Ercles rarely, or a part to tear a cat in, to make all split.” Coming as it does in the midst of Bottom’s densely Elizabethan diatribe about his thespian abilities, this bit about the cat usually gets lost between other, funnier lines. But when actor Ryan Schlecht delivers it in an ad hoc rehearsal room at Seattle’s Hearing, Speech & Deaf Center—his face deeply earnest, shoulders crunched together then spread wide as he wrenches his hands apart in a full-body ripping motion—I laugh like crazy.

I’m not the only one; the entire room breaks up at Schlecht’s riff, just one idea for an American Sign Language translation of Shakespeare’s beloved, magical rom-com. Schlecht is playing Bottom in Sound Theatre Company’s upcoming ASL-first production with a cast of Deaf and hearing actors, directed by Howie Seago, co-directed by STC artistic director Teresa Thuman and presented in partnership with Deaf Spotlight Presents.

The idea for the production took root when Thuman learned that local Shakespeare companies have a hard time getting their shows translated by an ASL interpreter because of the complexity of the language. That realization made her consider how Deaf audiences are robbed of seeing Shakespeare, an experience many of us take for granted.

“[ASL] is such a visual language in itself, which lends so much creativity and imagination, it seemed like a natural thing to incorporate it into the piece as a whole,” she says. “Midsummer is so much about your senses, and whether your senses are giving you the right information, that it felt like it would be a good first.”

This ASL Midsummer, which opens April 21 at 12th Avenue Arts, is part of a new wave of Deaf theatre in Seattle, itself buoyed by a rising tide of Deaf prominence in performing arts across the country. This isn’t new (Deaf theatre has been part of our national artistic fabric for decades) and it isn’t trendy (people aren’t trends). But it is an exciting moment for Deaf theatre and Deaf talent, as more and higher profile projects tap this underutilized talent pool and aesthetically rich language.

Seago hesitated when Thuman first reached out about collaborating on Midsummer, in part because of a too-common approach to Deafness in the theatre world. “[Theatres] often want Deaf people to be thrown in with other people with disabilities, but we don’t necessarily consider ourselves a disabled group,” he tells me in ASL through a translator. “We see ourselves as a cultural minority with our own language, our own cultural norms and values, beliefs and philosophies. So, many of us are wary about being incorporated in a dog and pony show.”

Seago was also leery of another ASL-focused project with hearing people in charge. “We’ve been oppressed for so long, and still continue to be, by people who think they know what Deaf people need.” Explaining those misgivings to Thuman, he says, changed his mind. “She was very understanding of my philosophy, and willing to work with me. We took it from there.”

Seago’s philosophy—making a production truly built for Deaf audiences and actors—was born of 30-plus years of performing experience. He’s been acting professionally since the mid-1980s, when lauded opera and theatre director Peter Sellars cast him in the title role in Sophocles’ tragedy Ajax, a project that took Seago all over the world. He’s worked extensively with National Theatre of the Deaf, acted in movies and on TV, and worked with heavyweights such as David Byrne and Philip Seymour Hoffman. In six seasons with Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF artistic director Bill Rauch was once Sellars’ assistant and tracked down Seago decades after Ajax) Seago has performed in shows from Into the Woods to Hamlet.

All this is to say, Seago takes a very long view. He’s seen a lot of programs come and go and fielded a lot of questions about isn’t it an exciting time for Deaf theatre from people like me.

Seago is the first to joke about his bona fides as name-dropping—he’s the first to joke about almost anything—while also acknowledging the impact he’s had as a Deaf performer. “To this day, I still get comments from people who saw and were influenced by my Ajax performances over 30 years ago,” he says. “Now we have so many more opportunities everywhere. We are entering a new era of what we in the Deaf community call Deaf Talent. Someone on Facebook called it ‘Deafenaissance.’ A new era. A very exciting time.”

The rise of Deaf theatre in America began with National Theatre of the Deaf, founded in 1967 with support from actor Anne Bancroft after her eye-opening experience performing on Broadway in The Miracle Worker, the story of Helen Keller. Not only was NTD a fertile place for training and performance opportunities for Deaf artists, it helped destigmatize sign language among Deaf people, who in those days were commonly taught to lip-read, while also introducing theatregoers to ASL by presenting its shows in both ASL and English.

Our modern “Deafenaissance” can fairly be attributed to Los Angeles-based theatre company Deaf West Theatre, which earned a Tony nomination for its 2003 ASL production of Broadway musical Big River performed by a cast of hard-of-hearing, hearing and deaf actors, including Schlecht. With Big River, Deaf audiences were finally able to watch the performers, rather than split focus between the action and an ASL interpreter, because every moment in the show was both signed and spoken.

DWT again lit the fuse in 2015 with the first Broadway revival of the Duncan Sheik/Steven Sater musical Spring Awakening; Seago appeared in the show’s LA production. A fluid blend of ASL’s physical vocabulary with choreography and the voices of hearing actors, the musical earned raves from critics across New York and kicked off a new conversation about Deaf opportunities there, including a 2016 NEA Roundtable on Creating Opportunities for Deaf Theater Artists.

Today on Broadway, Dawson’s Creek dreamboat Joshua Jackson and newcomer Lauren Ridloff are currently in previews for a revival of Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, directed by Tony winner Kenny Leon and co-produced by Nyle DiMarco, the first Deaf winner of America’s Next Top Model. The play-turned-film, about the romance between a hearing speech teacher at a school for the Deaf and a Deaf former student who insists on using sign language rather than learning to lip-read, launched a national conversation about deafness in the 1980s, and made a star out of Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar for the 1986 film. At the 2018 Academy Awards, The Silent Child, about a deaf girl who learns to sign, won Best Live Action Short, and director Rachel Shenton delivered her acceptance speech in British Sign Language. Director Guillermo del Toro’s Best Picture winner The Shape of Water stars Sally Hawkins as a mute woman who works in a government research facility in the 1960s, and communicates via sign language.

Yes, high-level visibility is important. But it’s also important to remember that Hawkins is a hearing actress. “A huge bane for Deaf Talent is the persistence of hearing actors being cast for Deaf roles,” Seago says. “It seems to never end. We wish producers and directors would get creative with how to utilize and accommodate Deaf Talent onstage and in films.”

Seattle stages have seen a noticeable increase in Deaf talent in recent years, thanks in large part to the organization Deaf Spotlight. “Deaf Spotlight has been instrumental in nurturing Deaf performers locally for the last several years by starting off small,” says Schlecht, who became artistic director of the organization’s theatre program, Deaf Spotlight Presents, last year. “After producing a few theatrical productions, hosting museum tours, providing ASL storytelling nights and film festivals, they have created a vibrancy never seen in Seattle.”

Howie Seago (left) and Jeremy Peter Johnson portrayed the Wolf and Wolf Voice, respectively, in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of Into the Woods. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Deaf Spotlight shows like 2015’s God of Carnage and Sound, a co-production with Azeotrope Theatre later that year, proved that Seattle has both the talent and appetite for Deaf theatre. Larger local arts organizations took notice. ACT Theatre began its 2017 season with Nina Raine’s Tribes, a hugely popular off-Broadway play about a young man who’s grown up as the only Deaf member of a hearing family. This summer, The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the 5th Avenue Theatre will star a Deaf performer.

Midsummer’s inclusion extends beyond a few actors. Its design and stage management staff are both Deaf and hearing, a learning opportunity for everyone involved. Of its 18-person cast, nine are Deaf actors and nine are hearing actors. Some of the Deaf actors have little experience with Shakespeare; some of the hearing actors have little or no experience with ASL. But in combination, these varying levels of expertise are strengths.

“Every role has been cast twice,” Thuman says. “There’s someone speaking it and someone signing it. Even if it’s an actor who can speak the role and sign it, they will only be doing one at a time because of the complication of the syntax of the language. You really can’t have one person doing both.”

Simultaneous communication, or SimCom, is a common method in Deaf theatre in which performers sign and speak at the same time. “That’s a big pet peeve in our community,” Seago says. “When people sign and talk, you can’t help but drop signs, usually. The spoken language takes precedence, so the signs become sloppy. They start losing meaning.”

He continues, “One thing we have to be aware of is how the hearing actors feel about sharing the limelight with a Deaf co-actor. If they’re speaking for a Deaf actor, their ego has to be intact enough for them to be comfortable with being fully attentive and giving that focus to them, and vice versa.”

It is an exciting moment for Deaf theatre and Deaf talent, as more and higher profile projects tap this underutilized talent pool and aesthetically rich language.

Seago and Thuma are closely considering how casting informs the storytelling—who is Deaf and who is hearing and how that affects the power structures on stage—and making sure Deafness doesn’t become a cheap shortcut for otherness. Deaf actors are human beings, not metaphors.

For example, one of Midsummer’s lovers, Hermia, is pressured by her father Egeus to marry Demetrius. If she is Deaf and he is hearing, what does that mean for the story? What does it mean if a hearing character uses their voice against a Deaf character, as Demetrius might do toward the doting Helena, who pursues him as he pursues Hermia?

“He will be actually yelling, maybe not even signing,” Seago says. “I have to figure out how that language is going to be translated to the Deaf audience if we’re not actually interpreting it, so that’s what I’m looking at. We’re trying to show those elements of power and oppression.”

He’s also inventing new ways to negotiate these dual languages. Most ASL-English shows have a one-to-one actor ratio: One actor signs a role while another speaks it nearby. In Midsummer, Titania and Oberon are played by hearing actors, and their fairy retinues may share ASL duties, so the hearing actors can move freely around the stage while their ASL translation moves with them in a way that is both legible and beautiful.

As Seago and Schlecht bat ideas back and forth in the rehearsal room at HSDC, laughing and experimenting, I reconsider my entire previous experience of table work. In the script that they’re working with in this early rehearsal, half the page is blank. On one side of the page, Shakespeare’s script has been broken apart line by line. Opposite each line, a blank box where the ASL translation will be recorded. Today, this team is going line by line, trying out ideas, making sure the spoken English and the signed ASL take roughly the same amount of time—a real trick, considering the languages use an entirely different grammar and syntax. It’s a slow, deliberate process, as they build both the ASL translation and the physical comedy of the language all at once.

Every moment will be built first and foremost for a Deaf audience—a rare occurrence. Even in high-profile shows like Spring Awakening, hearing directors often compromise legibility for aesthetics, wittingly or unwittingly. To make truly inclusive work, theatres must hire qualified Deaf directors, as well as actors. “Why wait?” Schlecht says. “The change must happen. Now.”

As is also the case for many underrepresented groups, there are plenty of roadblocks to equity and inclusion among Deaf artists, such as a befuddling lack of imagination among casting directors, a problem Seago rapidly diagnoses. Lack of exposure to Deaf talent leads to “naive fears of how complex it might be to work with a Deaf actor,” he says. Then there is the cost of hiring interpreters—oftentimes in theatre, interpreters are paid more than the Deaf talent or Deaf directors. Most galling though, is the idea that a hearing actor can take a crash course in ASL and then act naturally like a Deaf person. “The most irritating comment is, ‘oh, acting is acting,’” Seago says.

Schlecht and Seago are working hard to spur change. Schlecht came up through now-defunct training programs at National Theatre of the Deaf and Deaf West, as well as a Deaf Youth Drama Program at Seattle Children’s Theatre founded by Seago and his brother Billy Seago, which has now been lost to budget cuts.

“Deaf Spotlight successfully brought Deaf Drama Camp back two years ago, but the problem is that it was only provided to Deaf students locally,” Schlecht says. “There needs to be more programs like it around the nation for kids.” Theatre’s benefits for Deaf students, he explains, are many: increasing interaction skills with a diverse range of people, developing better cognitive skills in reading English when ASL is their primary language, building self-confidence and learning from Deaf role models who share the same culture and language.

Deepening the bench of Deaf talent in Seattle takes time, resources and creativity. The Midsummer team is working to build a thriving Deaf theatre community—which really means a thriving and inclusive theatre community. As Thuman puts it, once you realize how much of our culture reflects a very narrow understanding of what’s normal, there’s no turning back.

“That’s the basic thing, to awaken audiences to the many different ways to be human,” she says. “There’s no limit.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs April 21–May 12 at 12th Avenue Arts.