(Friends reference, anyone?)
It has been a long time since I have posted something on this blog. Honestly, I’ve tried to write about a dozen posts and gave up…sometimes before even typing anything at all. But I’m finally feeling brave enough to encounter myself and all I have learned during this semester…it’s been a hell of a ride.
As many of you know, my production of Tribes was cancelled. I couldn’t even bring myself to post here when it happened, despite my constant updates on how the process was going. Honestly, it would have been an emotional mess of a post. I would have spewed my hurt and sadness and anger all over the page and it wouldn’t have done anyone any good, including me. That doesn’t mean I don’t still feel those things, because I do. They come in waves; sometimes the really small ones that tickle your ankles that you can step out of easily and other times the monumental ones that topple you over and pull you down into the water so you can’t breathe. The latter have gotten much fewer and far between, fortunately. The hope is starting to shine through the disappointment.
So, I should get into what happened. People still ask me about it, and I’m sure everyone is still curious as to why I pulled Tribes from JMU’s studio theatre season. The last thing I posted here was that I was moving forward with the production; I had written an addendum to allow the casting of a Deaf actor in my show. Well, not terribly long after I had sent out a nationwide casting call, I received an email from a young man who was eager to play the role of Billy in the show. He was very talented, and his audition reflected it. It didn’t take me long to officially cast him. He is fully Deaf, so I made the choice to shadow cast Billy’s character; the Deaf actor would be the primary actor, but a hearing actor would shadow him and speak his lines that would be signed. Both actors would be in each scene together (barring some stylistic choices in specific scenes) and would not interfere with the integrity of the production. I wanted to model these choices after what I had seen in November at Deaf West, with two actors, Deaf and hearing, portraying the same role as one.
Once he was cast we had everything squared away (dates of arrival, lodging, transportation, etc.) minus one small detail. Interpreters. I was told that I needed to find funding myself for interpreters for my rehearsals so I went scrambling to find what I could. I spoke with Office of Disability Services, however, because my actor was not a JMU student, they could not help me. I tried pro-bono interpreting services, but because rehearsals were so often and so long, they couldn’t help. Interpreters can cost anywhere from $42-50 an hour, respectively, and I would have needed them 5-6 days a week for roughly 4-6 hours per day. There was no way I could raise that kind of money in a matter of days. Auditions were about a week away at that point, and I don’t blame my actor for pulling out of the show. It isn’t fair to ask a Deaf person to try communicate without an interpreter in a room full of hearing people night after night. So at that point I was left without an actor for the lead role and no way to teach my cast the ASL used in the production.
Which brings me to another part of the Tribes saga. The person I had found to act as our ASL Master for the production sent me a long letter of resignation in the final days of the production process. This letter was a lot of the reason why I was so emotional in the conclusion of the production, but it also ended up teaching me a lot. The letter came out of nowhere and pointed a lot of fingers at me for not doing the play justice, and accused me of directing the play as a means of personal gain.
The letter hurt me more than words could say. Honestly, it still does. I was told I was not a true member of the Deaf community and shouldn’t be using Tribes as a way to open my university’s eyes to Deaf culture when I’m not a member of the community myself. However, that is one of the harsh realities I learned during this process. No, I am not a member of the Deaf community. I consider myself an ally, but sometimes even that is a fine line. I have learned not to assume the responsibility of “being the change” to a community I am not a part of. All I can do is be a vessel if needed, then step out of the way.
After my actor and my ASL master quit, I had a choice to make. I could do the show anyways, with a hearing actor in the Deaf role. Or, I could pull the show all together. Obviously I chose the latter. In full disclosure, I still wonder whether that was the right decision. I’ve had plenty of people tell me I should have done it anyways, and I’ve heard plenty of arguments from both sides on whether or not it is right to produce a show without casting a Deaf actor in a role that was written for him. I stuck to my guns and pulled the show because I wanted to do justice to the play and I wasn’t going to be able to do that with a hearing actor. Even so, pulling the show was probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my college career.
I honestly appreciate all of the criticism I received while working on this play. As a young, growing theatre artist, criticism fueled my excitement to learn and constantly revealed how much I love this play. Despite the heartbreak I faced, I still love Tribes and hope that someday I will get the chance to work on the show in whatever capacity. The wise and talented Jacqueline Lawton advised me to use this post as my “love letter to this play.” After everything that I went through it was hard for me to even pick up the script again. But looking back, I know fought as hard as I could have and exhausted myself emotionally during the process because I am in love with this beautiful piece of theatre that Nina Raine has put together. I want to challenge every theatre in the country to produce this play. The story deserves to be told, and I know that every single production team that produces this work will learn so much that they didn’t know before…I certainly did.
I truly believe that JMU tried to be inclusive in regards to Tribes. But the first thing I learned when the show failed was that being inclusive is hard, no matter how good the intentions.
Around the same time Tribes was cancelled, I found out that the online ASL class I was enrolled in was also cancelled. I now had no means of studying Deaf culture/ASL for the semester; I reached the highest level of ASL classes available to me at Blue Ridge Community College. A lot of the time I imagine the eye rolls of my peers here at JMU whenever I include something Deaf/ASL-related into my curriculum. For example, I did my production response assignment to Bent in sign language. I used Children of a Lesser God as my example of great acting in my acting class. The first thing I thought when my theatre history professor said “you can pick whatever topic you want to do your Living Histories Project on” my first thought was “Deaf theatre.” I yearn for that education in what I am so passionate about. Which is why I came very close to transferring out of JMU next semester. I was accepted to Columbia College Chicago’s ASL/Interpreting program and was in the process of applying to Gallaudet University’s interpreting program. If both schools were not so expensive, I probably would still be debating whether or not to transfer. This semester took a heavy toll on me and made me question what I’m doing and what I want to get out of my education. After a lot of thinking, researching, arguing, crying, and deliberating I have decided to finish my senior year at JMU. Despite the difficulty it took me to make that decision, I am happy with my choice and I will be proud to graduate as a JMU Duke. I still have a lot to learn here and look forward to the adventures that await me in my final year as an undergraduate.
I want to thank everyone who gave me the courage to keep moving forward. And a huge shoutout to those who helped me through the Tribes process (before, during, and after). Your support and love means more than I can express…thank you for having my back. I also want to give a shoutout to the entire Bent production team; I was very wary of watching the show that replaced Tribes in the studio season, but I felt immense pride during the curtain call because there couldn’t have been a better show to fill that slot. The final shoutout goes to everyone who taught me something during Tribes. Deaf and hearing alike, I learned so much from all of your unique perspectives and opinions. I appreciate your dedication to your sense of self, your identities, your beliefs, your creative suggestions, and your points of entry into this production. Everyone who offered me advice about this production taught me something new and different and exciting. I am so glad that I can say I walked away from this experience with a new perspective and knowledge I didn’t have before I started.
Til next time,