#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!

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