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As Deaf Broadway’s creative team made the pivot from virtual performances to their inaugural live stage event for this fall, there were several production changes they had to consider. Among the first, says Deaf actress Alexandria Wailes, were pants.
“You’ve got to understand that on Zoom, no one dresses from the waist down,” the Deaf Broadway performer and Apple TV+ Little America actress jokes.
Humor aside, for the team behind “A Night with Deaf Broadway,” a re-imagined extension of scenes from the first act of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods for Wednesday’s event at the Lincoln Center marks an exciting and potential-filled chapter for them and theater at-large.
“Broadway has yet to really accomplish productions completely in American Sign Language with a fluently bilingual cast and creatives,” Wailes tells The Hollywood Reporter. “What is neat about Deaf Broadway and Into The Woods is that we witness not one or two actors signing text sporadically in a piece, but from the start to the end, full ASL from all 10 cast members.”
This collective of Deaf theater artists operates in a way rarely seen on Broadway, featuring Deaf people in creative leadership roles and in large ensembles working in an ASL-only production environment. Deaf Broadway members tell THR this is something that’s also largely non-existent beyond the stage.
“In general, Hollywood and the film industry has very little Deaf representation,” says Dickie Hearts, a gay BIPOC Deaf actor who has also appeared in TV projects like Tales of the City. “I would say maybe roughly once or twice a year there’s a Deaf role and the whole Deaf acting community auditions for it, you know? So Deaf Broadway is a nice opportunity to really create a space for all these Deaf performers.”
It’s an event Garrett Zuercher, Deaf Broadway co-founder and director of the Sept. 15 show, hopes can help the larger Deaf performance community garner more support and visibility from the professional theater industry.
“They’ll see that there was a need for this in more productions,” he says. “There are many incredible Deaf artists who have not yet gotten the support they need to really thrive.”
“I’m hoping that [audiences] leave with, ‘Why not?’ Why can’t we see many incredible Deaf actors working together?’” added This Close and Deaf Broadway actor John McGinty. “I hope that they leave knowing that Deaf actors can do musicals, all of us, together. It’s possible.”
Wednesday’s show follows six virtual productions featuring Deaf actors from around the globe since March 2020, when the all-volunteer group of theater professionals, amateurs and up-and-comers initially launched its endeavor run by Deaf artists for Deaf audiences.
Past shows include Sweeney Todd, Les Miserables and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a selection dictated by their own interests and creative resources, but also legal obstacles around video and script rights, says Deaf Broadway director of ASL Joey Caverly.
In particular, the Rocky Horror production, Caverly says, was “really heavily edited and rehearsed” compared to their other work.
The cast and creative team recorded a straight run on Zoom for five of their virtual shows, ensuring everything went well before uploading it online, where it was made available to view for two days. While not in the same room, Caverly says the actors showed impressive commitment, doing “costume changes, makeup, fully doing their hair, bringing in all of these amazing props,” in addition to some buying a light setup or even a backdrop.
For Rocky Horror, they worked with a scene-by-scene shot list, with Deaf Broadway interpreter Kimberly Hale serving as editor. “We found someone to volunteer their time to edit our footage, and I think it was over a full month’s worth of shooting. We shot individual scenes and individual bits. We set choreography, and then we put it all together.”
That impressive result caught the eye of the Lincoln Center, who reached out to the company “out of the blue,” Zuercher says, to see if they would be willing to produce a show as part of the venue’s Restart Stages, an outdoor performing arts center designed to help kickstart the revival of New York City’s performance sector.
For their in-person debut, the group is returning to Into the Woods, which was not only one of its biggest virtual successes but gave them a head start on quickly mounting the production. According to Zuercher, it also gives its Deaf cast “a chance to have fun and show their versatility as performers, something they very rarely ever get to do.”
“One of my favorite scenes is actually the finale when everyone is signing together,” he says. “I just love watching that visual harmony of 10 Deaf actors all signing the same thing in their own style and manner and characterization.”
But this Lincoln Center performance isn’t just a step forward for the team. It’s also a full-circle moment. Into the Woods is the very same musical that brought the group together. While Deaf Broadway’s launch coincided with the pandemic’s start, it’s ultimately a product of a Stephen Sondheim Zoom watch party organized to celebrate the prolific composer and lyricist’s 90th birthday.
During the event, Deaf Broadway members had to parse out the musical’s story and dialogue with the help of hearing friends. Keeping track of what was happening on screen was an act made more difficult by Sondheim’s trademark dialogue style — a twisty combination of quick cutaways and overlapping lines.
“The captions just don’t capture all of the things that are happening in the show,” Zuercher says. “Yes, they show the lines, but sometimes the captions aren’t fully complete about who says which line.”
This issue isn’t limited to watching screen productions of musicals either. During live stage performances, the closed captions provided by apps and even live interpreters don’t always do Deaf audiences, or the musical they’re watching, justice. “We go to shows, and we see the interpreters on the side,” says Shelly Guy, a Deaf Broadway actress. “So Deaf people see the show through the interpreters and through their interpretation.”
Because theatrical productions generally lack full visual ASL access, Deaf attendees seldom have the chance to experience Broadway’s sprawling musical canon the way hearing people do. The pandemic, which forced many into extended isolation, has exacerbated this existing issue for the Deaf community, and not just when it comes to the musical arts.
“About 90 percent of Deaf children are born to hearing parents, and now during COVID, they’re stuck at home with no access to language, no language modeling, struggling to communicate, maybe in a household where they’re expected to lip read,” Zuercher says.
“There’s so much about our communication mode that really does dissipate when you’re communicating virtually,” adds Wailes. “There’s freezing, there’s lags in speed, there’s so much body language and physicality that is flattened in a 2D space.”
That’s why the group’s work over the last year and a half has served as a lifeline to language and identity for Deaf children, according to the “countless parents” who have sent Deaf Broadway messages.
“Deaf Broadway really shows not just the captions, but it gives younger generations more exposure to who they can look up to, what opportunities they have in the world and continues to show Deaf kids in Deaf schools maybe what they’re missing,” says McGinty.
Their virtual shows provide 20 native language models for children to watch from home, giving the performances’ audiences the “chance to see musicality and how it’s related to sign language,” McGinty adds.
“That experience was so enjoyable because each character had their own corresponding Deaf performer, so you could see very clearly the individual character, the individual lines, how the characters interacted, how they played with each other,” Zuercher says of working on Deaf Broadway’s first virtual production, Sweeney Todd.
Now, as both the country and theater industry begin to re-open, Deaf Broadway is preparing to bring their more visually clear and accessible performances of popular musicals out into the world. Some of that has required the same kind of production approach as their Zoom shows, which are produced with the significant work of a director of ASL.
Because Deaf Broadway strives to offer a visual experience for its Deaf viewers that is equivalent to what a hearing audience experiences, the director of ASL isn’t adapting the script of the show word for word. Instead, they’re analyzing and then extrapolating its larger message.
“You have artistic sign language really helping connect these beautiful concepts so the audience can understand the meaning behind the work,” Guy added.
During that process for the Sept. 15 performance, Deaf Broadway also had to create language to help Deaf viewers get a complete theatrical experience. “Anytime the bean is dropped into a hand in Into the Woods, you hear like a ‘Ding!’ So I went back and forth with Joey. How do we show the sound?” Zuercher says. “And we came up with a physical representation of what that sound is conveying. A Deaf audience is already missing part of the experience if we leave out just that one sound.”
Having the camera at the group’s disposal for Zoom performances helped make the show’s visual dialogue and sound clearer. But as the team convened over four weeks of rehearsals — first over Zoom and then in-person while abiding by limited room capacity and clear face mask COVID protocols — changes to those translations made more sense for the Lincoln Center event.
“With an in-person audience, we have to remember that some people will not be sitting as close as others, and so we may have to make some choices that are different so that they’re clear for the audience wherever they’re sitting,” says Zuercher.
Deaf Broadway’s actors also told THR that the shift from virtual to in-person resulted in the group adapting some cues they developed during past performances. According to Guy, the virtual shows involved the actors working with the captions, sheet music and the score to establish their cues.
“I’m looking at the screen [and] I can see the performer. I know when to sign, I’m following the captions, I’m following the rhythm. I can see all the people moving,” she says. “Now on stage, I see the audience. I don’t have anything in front of me. It’s a different kind of challenge for me, personally, to sign along with the captions. But also now there’s three people behind me that are signing at the same time.”
For the Lincoln Center performance, the team established a set of in-person cues, including counting or stomping, that would ensure the actors start, stop and come in at the right times while the film is projected onto the back of the stage complete with sound.
“Deaf Broadway is providing complete access for the Deaf actors as well and not thinking, ‘Oh, they can’t hear the music’ and leaving it on the Deaf actors to figure it out themselves,” Guy says. “We get to take over a musical and change it into something that we have ownership of with visual music and our visual world.”
The result is that productions, including Wednesday’s, are as fully accessible to their performers and creative leadership as the audience.
“For us to be in a Deaf space, it feels very freeing,” Zuercher says. “It feels like I’m not trying to follow the lip-reading, I’m not trying to catch up. I know, and I trust that everyone in the room is on the same page and understands everything the same way.”
While the Lincoln Center performance is just one step towards bigger things for the group of theater artists, it’s also a clear opportunity for Broadway to learn from their informed and fully inclusive approach. Hearts says he hopes the industry will understand that to become Deaf allies and advocates, they need to put Deaf people in all behind-the-scenes positions, especially creative leadership roles.
“We already have Deaf folks on Broadway, but I would love to see a fully Deaf group on Broadway with Deaf directors, Deaf producers — Deaf everything,” he tells THR. “That’s something that we still haven’t really seen at any level.”
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