Tribes at JMU continued…

I wanted to share with everyone an update on my continuing conflict with directing Tribes at James Madison University this coming spring. Please see my previous posts for more information.

I have continued to receive negative feedback from the Deaf community about using a hearing actor in a Deaf role. Before Thanksgiving break began I put out a casting call searching for Deaf/Hard of Hearing actors who would be willing to come to JMU to be the role of ‘Billy’ in my production. The deadline to make a decision is fast approaching and I have no one interested in this role. The person who agreed to come out here to be the ASL master will not come out if there is not a Deaf actor in the role. If he does not come, I must drop the show.

I hope you understand the emotional struggle this has caused me. This is my favorite show, and it is a show I know JMU needs to see. Also, if I drop the show, it very well will be the last chance I have to direct at JMU again. It will break my heart if I have to drop it. If you have any ideas on what I should do, I welcome them. Or if you are a Deaf/HH actor who is interested in helping me out, please contact me. Please email me, gilchrkr@dukes.jmu.edu, if you would like to discuss my options. The deadline for a decision is Wednesday, December 3rd.

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TRIBES CASTING CALL

CALLING ALL DEAF/HARD OF HEARING ACTORS!

My name is Kelsey Gilchriest and I am directing a production of Tribes at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I am looking for a Deaf/HH actor to play the role of Billy. I am looking for someone who would be willing to relocate without pay. My school does not have any Deaf/HH actors, and I would like to portray Billy as authentically as possible.

If you are interested, PLEASE upload a video containing your name, where you are from, your age, and a 1-minute contemporary monologue in ASL, and another 1-minute contemporary monologue spoken and signed simultaneously. Casting will be happening on December 10th. The show will rehearse from January 14th until February 26th, and the performances will be from February 27-March 3.

I can provide housing if needed, and this show would be a great resume builder! Please email me if you have any questions! You can send me your video at gilchrkr@dukes.jmu.edu

Tribes at JMU

I recently found out that I have the honor of directing the play Tribes in the Studio Theatre at James Madison University next semester. It is one of my favorite plays, and because of my passion for Deaf culture and American Sign Language, it is the perfect show for me to direct in my time here at JMU. The play has a wonderful message and is the perfect way to spread awareness at my university that, unfortunately, has not embraced Deaf culture as much as I would hope.

At JMU, the Studio Theatre policy is that you must cast JMU students only in your show, and unfortunately JMU does not have deaf students on campus. So, after receiving negative feedback from the Deaf community about casting a hearing actor in the role of Billy (a deaf character), I struggled very much with my decision to do the show or not. At this point the students and faculty had passed Tribes, so I could definitely direct the show in the spring, but I was concerned about whether or not I should continue with my plans to direct it.

For those unfamiliar with why I struggled, I will explain. The feedback I received from the Deaf community is mostly regarding the fact that they believe a hearing actor should not play a deaf character. I completely understand why; this play is relatable to most of the Deaf community. Also, speaking from a Deaf advocate perspective, this play allows Deaf actors to be in the hearing theatre scene; it is to their advantage that they are Deaf. From the information I’ve gathered (and I do not want to presume to know everything about the Deaf community, because I don’t) the hearing theatre world does not give Deaf people the opportunities that hearing people are given. So it is understandable why casting a hearing actor in a deaf role would be a perfect example of the hearing community presuming to be superior or have a perfect understanding of what it means to be Deaf. However, that is not an example of this in my case, which further complicated my decision on whether or not I should continue with my plans to direct the show.

If I had more resources, more money, and a wider pool to audition actors from, I would absolutely, no question, cast a Deaf actor in Billy’s role. I believe in equality of casting, and I think a Deaf person would accurately portray Billy in an incredibly honest way. Still, I also believe that this can be an incredibly transformative experience for a hearing actor at my school. They will get to explore a world they have never been exposed to, and get to try and step into the shoes of a Deaf person to try and understand Billy, and moreover, try to understand the Deaf community at large. That is why I decided ultimately to do this play, despite my limited resources. Not only will the actor playing Billy get to explore and educate themselves on the Deaf community, but the audience will as well. This play is an opportunity to explain and educate people who have never thought about the Deaf community before.

To elaborate, I plan on making this play all about education, especially because I will have a hearing actor playing Billy. I will be holding talkbacks to discuss casting, a symposium, I will write a director’s note and dramaturge’s note in the program, all discussing why I struggled so much about whether or not to do this play, and why I think it is an important play to do. I plan on describing all of the feedback I received from the Deaf community about why they did not want me to do this play without a Deaf actor. I will explain that if I had the chance, I would have cast a Deaf actor in the role of Billy.

This semester I have started a movement to try and get American Sign Language included as a foreign language at my university; currently it is not offered or included in the foreign language curriculum at JMU. I have spoken with one of the Vice Provosts here and she told me that it is “not a priority” at JMU and we “do not have the resources” to include it at our university. That is another reason why I want to do this play, because JMU as a whole is very unaware of Deaf culture and the beautiful language that comes with it. Tribes is an opportunity to educate my entire campus, and get that conversation started to make strides towards changing the way my university views the Deaf community.

I have been offered the opportunity to work with a wonderfully talented Deaf theatre artist that I met at Deaf West in LA a couple weeks ago. He came to me expressing his desire to be the ASL master on this production; basically he is interested in teaching the ASL to the two cast members who use the language in the show, and also to make sure that it is accurately, honestly and artistically depicted on stage. This is an incredible advantage, especially since I do not have access to any Deaf actors. His work on the show will help me depict the Deaf world as truthfully and genuinely as I can, given my resources. However, he and I have gotten negative feedback regarding his decision to work on a show with a hearing cast member, and it pains me that I might lose an incredible asset who would help me create an authentic world simply because my actor is not deaf. Again, I understand where the Deaf community is coming from, but I want to emphasize my lack of resources and still my strong desire to educate my campus.

So, as I conclude, I hope you will consider where I am coming from. I am accepting all opinions, I know I will continue to receive negative feedback regarding my decision to proceed with the production, but I hope that will also come with understanding of where I am coming from. This is something I still struggle with, but I also am so passionate about this project, and I hope you can see that through this post. I encourage you to reach out to me with any questions you may have, just as I am willing to hear your story. Please know that my intentions are good, and I wish I had more resources to do this play the way it should be done. Thank you so much for considering what I have to say.

Also, if you are a member of the Deaf community and want to help me change this policy at my school, feel free to contact me! Or if you are interested in playing the role of Billy, contact me. Let’s try and change my department’s mind!

#DeafAwakening

cropped-deaf-west.jpgIt was so difficult to start writing this post because I have so much to say, and I didn’t know where to start. Last weekend I had the honor of traveling to Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles to see their production of Spring Awakening, interview the cast and creative team, and find ways to bring back this idea of inclusive theatre to the JMU community. So, let’s start at the beginning.

As a disclaimer, my intention is not to speak for either the Deaf or hearing communities. I am just writing about what I observed on my trip, so please let me know if it comes across any other way.

I’ve known about Deaf West for years, ever since I decided I wanted to pursue both American Sign Language and theatre (though, at the time I was pursuing them separately). I knew that they did theatre with Deaf actors for Deaf and hearing audiences, and I knew that I wanted to work there someday. So, when I learned that Michael Arden was directing Spring Awakening at Deaf West, I had to go. However, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to pay for it myself. That’s when my brilliant faculty member, Ben Lambert, mentioned that he thought I could get it funded and make it a trip about bringing the experience of Deaf West back to JMU. I began looking all over campus for ways to get the trip paid for, and had no luck. I emailed DJ Kurs, the Deaf West artistic director, and fortunately he was more than willing to meet me for an interview if I could make it in for the show. Never will I be more grateful for the opportunity DJ gave me by allowing me to come interview him and the cast. From there I approached George Sparks, the Dean of the School of Theatre and Dance at JMU, and asked him if it would be possible to receive any sort of funding for this trip. In his email back to me he said it would be very unlikely, but invited me to have a meeting with him anyways to discuss the possibility. I was incredibly lucky to walk into that meeting with low expectations and walk out of it with the money I needed to cover the trip. I was going to LA.

At that point it really hadn’t hit me yet. I knew that I was going to the theatre I’ve dreamed of going to for years, to see a show that I love, and to interview with the artistic director and cast, but I wasn’t super butterflies-in-your-stomach excited yet. Even on the plane there, or on the drive to the show, it hadn’t hit me. I was crazy excited, but I wasn’t quite to that maximum point of overpoweringly excited and overwhelmed that I was there yet. That moment came much later; I’ll describe it later on in this post.

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When I left for LA I had a pretty loose schedule; I was actually a little worried that I wouldn’t have enough to do. The plan was to fly in Friday morning, see the show and interview people Friday night, and interview a member of the Cornerstone Theatre Company on Saturday morning. My flight home was Monday morning, so I had most of Saturday and Sunday completely free. I am so thankful that I ended up not having much down time at all.

When I got to the theatre I was amazed at how welcoming the entire cast and crew was. I got to watch the Deaf and hearing cast interact with one another; I later found out that most of the hearing actors had started learned ASL in July when rehearsals started. I thought it was beautiful that these two communities who, if they weren’t a part of this show, would have never had the opportunity to communicate with one another. DJ, the artistic director, met me before the show and I was able to give him a long list of questions that he answered during the show. I asked to type back and forth with him because I am not fluent in ASL and didn’t want to waste any precious time because I was signing too slow or I didn’t understand his answers fully. (I am going to make a separate blog post detailing the answers to my interview questions.)

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When I sat down in the audience, I started journaling about what was happening on stage. For preshow of Spring Awakening the cast started out in street clothes and were chatting, singing and goofing off. Again, I noted at the dynamics of the varying conversations among the Deaf and hearing actors. Slowly the atmosphere began to shift; cast members started removing their clothes and began to step (literally) into their characters. They slowly pulled on costume pieces and I could see the clear shift from themselves into their characters. Then, the show began.

I have never experienced theatre quite like that before. As soon as I stepped into that space I knew something was going to happen; that I would take a journey that I wished I could take again and again. I was right. This show was so emotional for me, watching my two favorite things in the world combine into something that I knew was touching every single person around me, including the actors on stage. To those that are not familiar with the show, the song “Bitch of Living” is one of the first few songs sung; an up-tempo rock song that demonstrates the angst and frustration of the characters. It was during this song that I began crying…this song does not lend itself to tears normally, but because of the nature of the production, I was a mess. I just remember thinking “This is happening. These Deaf actors are in a musical and it looks amazing.” I found out later that “Bitch” is Joey Haro’s favorite moment in the show for of that very reason. Joey played Hanschen in the show, and I had the pleasure of interviewing him, among others, about the production. (Once again, the responses to these interviews will follow in a subsequent post.) This song is so high tempo, but all of the signs and choreography was totally in synch; that was the moment that I knew I was going to learn so much in the next hour and a half.

I could write a whole other blog post about the show itself, so I won’t go into detail about the production. However, I will say that this show is the most moving piece of theatre that I have ever seen. Michael Arden (the director) is a genius and what he did with this show is absolutely incredible. Every single member of the cast did a remarkable job; I wanted to give a few rave reviews to specific people until I realized I would be mentioning every cast member, so I will just leave it general. Truly, everyone did incredible work on this show. (And mad props to Jessie, the stage manager, who called some immaculate cues.)

After the show I didn’t have time to interview everyone that I wanted to, so I was invited to come back Saturday night to finish them up. I decided to be forward and asked the stage manager if I could shadow her during Saturday’s run and, fortunately for me, she said yes! Saturday I got to interview Shishir Kurup from Cornerstone Theatre Company who gave me amazing advice on how to use theatre to bring awareness of the Deaf community to JMU. Cornerstone creates theatre all over LA and nationwide to bridge gaps between and within diverse communities. Their basic structure is something I hope to adapt at JMU; I want to use stories from the Deaf community in and around Harrisonburg to create productions that are honest and representative of the community. One of Shishir’s quotes was, “You don’t fear the people whose stories you know.” That is where I want to go with this movement at JMU; eradicate the fear and unfamiliarity of the Deaf community using theatre to tell their stories. Because, as Shishir put it, only they are the experts on their lives, so why not get them to help tell their story in a creative, theatrical way.

After my interview with Shishir I got to explore Hollywood Boulevard for a bit before heading back to the theatre for round two. (Basically what I took away from that is that Hollywood Blvd. is basically LA’s Times Square.) When I got to the theatre I got to interview Austin McKenzie who played Melchior, and Joey. I also got to meet a bunch of other cast members before I went up to the stage management booth to shadow Jessie. That night was also incredible just chatting with the cast, and getting to learn about calling cues for a Deaf production. There was so much intricacy involved in the design elements that was fascinating to learn about.

After Saturday’s show a couple cast members invited me to Sunday’s show and the reception afterwards. I was hesitant because Sunday was their closing night, and I didn’t want to impose on what I knew would be an emotional evening. They were persistent and I agreed, so I showed up again Sunday night. I was going to see the show for a third time but didn’t realize Sunday’s show was a matinee, so I showed up just in time for the reception to start. I was bummed, but honestly I was just glad I could spend some more time getting to know everyone. After the reception I was invited to go bowling with the cast and then to a bar on Hollywood Boulevard. I had so much fun hanging out; I felt so welcome, and I am so thankful for everyone who was willing to invite the girl they just met to their closing night celebrations. That entire night I spent in pure joy and contentment, just getting to speak the language I love with new friends was so amazing. There was a real sense of community that just filled the room; I didn’t want the night to end.

The following morning, I packed everything up and had to face saying goodbye to the place I had come to love in three short days. As the plane began taxiing down the runway my heart got heavy, and the moment the wheels left the ground I started crying, watching the city grow smaller as we flew up into the clouds. There it was: it hit me. I was overwhelmed with the memories I had just made, and the idea that I got funded to be out there and experience so much was so overpowering. I was crying for joy, but I also was crying in sadness. I spent the weekend with people who understand what I am most passionate about in this world. I was constantly surrounded by people who love the same things I love, and who believe in the power of Deaf theatre. I was sad because I was on my way back to a place where nobody understands that passion. JMU doesn’t have an ASL program; it’s hard to find people who know the language even a little bit. So as much as I tell people about it, you can’t truly understand until you witness it; until that community surrounds you, and you experience the inspiration of Deaf West. So as we flew over the Rocky Mountains I thought about how hard it will be to go back to school, but what an incredible challenge that I will have to find ways in which to enlighten my campus about what I experienced during my time there.

When I think about this show, this company and this trip, I get that overwhelming feeling all over again. This show was such a transformative experience for me, as I’m sure it was for many others. Not only was the show beautifully executed, but the community changed my life and made me sure that this is what I want to do with the rest of my life. My heart smiles when I think about all of the memories I have; I journal constantly to keep them fresh in my mind. Every word and every sign has left its imprint on my heart. I cannot wait to continue moving forward and seeing how my life unfolds in this direction.

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I want to thank everyone I met in LA for their generosity to let me be a part of their world for the weekend. I am so blessed with all of these new friendships, and so incredibly grateful for the opportunity to get to know everyone, even over just a few days.

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Thank you to everyone who had the patience to read all of this. I hope you can get a glimpse of my passion through this post, and I encourage anyone who is interested in spreading awareness of the Deaf community at JMU to reach out to me. I cannot wait to make some waves on campus in my time left here. I’m sure I will be blogging more about my attempts to bring ASL/Deaf culture to JMU, so stay tuned!