Theater Brings Deaf Actors Into The Artistic Fold (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Local Theater Brings Deaf Actors Into The Artistic Fold

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:08
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and on today's show, we're roaming through a theme we call Going Places. Earlier in the hour, we met a woman who's endeavored to ride every bus line and visit every train station in the Metro system and we ventured to the far reaches of Assateague Island with a man who specializes in wild animal contraception. In this next story, though, we're going to journey back in time to the royal castle of Elsinore where a certain Danish prince is reuniting with two longtime friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who were sent for by the king and queen.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:49
But if you listen closely here, you may notice our prince is the only character talking out loud.

MR. MATTHEW R. WILSON

00:00:58
If you love me, hold not off. Will send for her or no?

SHEIR

00:01:01
And yet, he isn't the only character talking. The actors playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are deaf and obviously you can't see it over the radio, but they're using American Sign Language or ASL to communicate their lines. In fact, though, a hearing actor is playing the prince. He's signing some of his lines, too.

WILSON

00:01:18
I am but mad north, northwest. When the wind is southerly, I know a -- from a --.

SHEIR

00:01:28
We are in a black box theater at Gallaudet University at a rehearsal for Hamlecchino: Clown Prince of Denmark. It's a new version of Shakespeare's "Hamlet." This one combines hearing performers from the Helen Hayes award-winning theater company Faction of Fools with students from Gallaudet, the federally-chartered university for deaf and hard of hearing students.

SHEIR

00:01:49
Faction of Fools specializes in comedy dell'Arte, a 500 year old tradition of physical comedy incorporating improvisation, masks and stock characters. You know, your starry-eyed lovers, your boasting heroes, your greedy old men, etc. Last year as the Fools kicked off their third season they became artists in residence at Gallaudet. Hamlecchino is the second play they've staged here and as for where that title comes from...

WILSON

00:02:13
There's a servant character from Commedia dell'Arte named Arlecchino, the wily underdog who is the butt of the jokes but then in the end maybe gets vindicated.

SHEIR

00:02:22
Matthew R. Wilson is directing Hamlecchino and performing the title role.

WILSON

00:02:26
So the experiment was what would happen if we took "Hamlet," this philosophical prince, and performed him in the style of the Commedia character, Arlecchino.

SHEIR

00:02:36
You put together Hamlet and Arlecchino and what do you get?

WILSON

00:02:39
Hamlecchino.

SHEIR

00:02:40
As Faction of Fools artistic director Wilson says, a partnership with the University for Deaf and Hard of Hearing students makes perfect sense.

WILSON

00:02:47
Commedia from the beginning was developed to tour from city to city all across Europe, which meant that it had to deal with language issues. So they developed a style where the physical story-telling can stand on its own and a lot of the work.

SHEIR

00:03:02
And given the innate physicality of ASL.

WILSON

00:03:05
It doesn't seem to me to be a leap at all to combine Renaissance art form that's interested in multi-linguism with American Sign Language.

SHEIR

00:03:13
Gallaudet senior Amelia Hensley agrees, but as she's rehearsed the role of Rosencrantz, she's also discovered surprising differences between ASL and the masked art of Commedia. Here she is speaking through interpreter and Faction of Fools member Lindsey Snider.

MS. LINDSEY SNIDER

00:03:27
(Through interpreter) It's interesting because deaf culture it's so important to have facial expression. It's part of the language. We tend not to use our legs, but with Commedia, I have a mask and your facial grammar is moot because of the mask. So now it's so important that I use my whole body and I got so sore because using my body so much in rehearsal.

SHEIR

00:03:48
But Hensley says she appreciates the new skill. She also appreciates that in this production Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren't just being portrayed by deaf actors. They're being portrayed as deaf characters.

SNIDER

00:04:00
(Through interpreter) So we're signing, but there's no voice translation and I thought, how's the audience going to understand? And then you start to recognize that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are in their own little world where only Hamlecchino can understand them. And then we have the king and queen, our relationship with the king and queen, we have no idea what's going on with them. They have no idea what's going on with us, which is something that's very common with hearing-deaf relationship.

SHEIR

00:04:25
But speaking through interpreter Katrina Clark, Gallaudet Theater Arts' chair Ethan Senate says he hopes the new partnership will take that hearing-deaf relationship and strengthen it, not just at the theater but in the theater industry.

MS. KATRINA CLARK

00:04:38
(Through interpreter) When it comes to deaf people in theater, it's been a slow process to have them become more involved in the field because of the cost of interpreters, the adjustments and accommodations that need to be made. That's not to say that there's discrimination in the field, but it's difficult as a deaf person to figure out how to break into this industry.

SHEIR

00:04:59
Which is why Senate is thrilled that Gallaudet students will be able to learn from working professional actors. Under the new agreement Gallaudet provides Faction of Fools with rehearsal and performance space and Faction of Fools casts one or two students in its productions. It's also been leading classes in Commedia, Acrobatics and other skills.

CLARK

00:05:17
(Through interpreter) Students here at Gallaudet I want to give them the best resources and tools that they can have to be able to compete in this hearing field. I'm trying to create some sort of model within in the university setting that can help students network, transition, improve their odds.

SHEIR

00:05:35
Of course, that model hasn't been without challenges. After all, Faction of Fools is a hearing company. Rachel Spicknall, who portrays Horatio, is among the few who know any sign at all. Matt Wilson has learned a bit as well but Spicknall says the dynamic has been fascinating to watch especially at the Hamlecchino cast first workshop.

MS. RACHEL SPICKNALL

00:05:54
The best exercises were the ones where the teacher, the assistant director, where he didn't let any of us use any language and it was all gesture.

SHEIR

00:06:03
And those scenes were fantastic she says, but when the actors were instructed to repeat the scenes, this time talking aloud or using sign...

SPICKNALL

00:06:10
We stopped moving. It was like you stopped doing Commedia in that moment. You stopped communicating with the audience. All of a sudden, you were caught up in your head and the language.

SHEIR

00:06:18
So the lesson, she says, is simple.

SPICKNALL

00:06:20
You don't need language-language because you can communicate with each other and the audience through this other universal thing.

SHEIR

00:06:29
Of course, that said, interpreters are present at rehearsals.

WILSON

00:06:32
And that's really important obviously so that we have access and we can all have the conversation.

SHEIR

00:06:37
But a lot of the times, says director Matt Wilson, especially as everyone gets more comfortable with one another, they do without interpretation.

WILSON

00:06:44
Then just go, "No, I know what you mean." So we're developing our own personal language I guess.

SHEIR

00:06:49
A language that doesn't necessarily include as our Danish prince would say, "Words, words, words."

SHEIR

00:07:03
Hamlecchino runs from April 26th through May 19th at Gallaudet's Elstad Auditorium. For more information and to see photos of all those masked actors in action, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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