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!