Deaf West Interviews

It has taken me far too long to do this, but as I mentioned in my first blog post, I want to dive into the responses I got from the interviews I conducted at Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles. Before I left for the trip in November I had a basic structure of questions I knew I wanted to ask, and based on how each interview went, the questions shifted accordingly. (Also, I throw the acronym “ASL” out there a lot, and for those who don’t know, that stands for “American Sign Language.” If anyone has further questions, cultural or otherwise, please feel free to leave a comment.)

I want to start with the reason I was there; my interview with DJ Kurs, the artistic director of Deaf West Theatre. These responses are direct quotes.

Why did you think starting this theatre company was important?

  • “A man named Ed Waterstreet started the company in 1991. He came from the National Theatre of the Deaf and was surprised that there was no theater company for the Deaf when moved to Los Angeles.”

Why do you think it still is important?

  • “[Deaf West] offers sign language theater to an underserved audience. It is such a beautiful art form and it deserves to be seen everywhere. We are also bridging the hearing and deaf communities together with our productions.”

What role does the arts play in educating audiences about diversity?

  • “I think the arts are the best way to educate the world about the Deaf community. People who know nothing about Deaf culture or sign language step into our theater and two hours later, they have learned so much about us.”

What are the strategies you use to bridge the gap between Deaf and hearing communities?

  • “There is no strategy. We just present theater. Using both deaf and hearing people. They create connections in the rehearsal room, on the stage. And our audience members come together, deaf and hearing, and enjoy the same thing on so many levels. That doesn’t happen very often in the real world.”

I really loved this answer; I was expecting something much different, but what I appreciate about this is that it is so simple. “We just present theater.” Because it is true, all of these audience members from so many different backgrounds came together to watch this show, and saw and felt real connections despite the difference in communities.

What kind of Deaf issues have gotten a lot of traction the past 10-15 years that you’ve noticed?

  • “… hearing people love to focus on the advent of technology (cochlear implants, for example) that correct deafness. There are so many levels to that discussion. I won’t go into them here, but I will say that deaf culture and sign language are here to stay, at least for the next 100 years.”

Did everyone catch that? “Deaf culture and sign language are here to stay.”

What issues do you think are left to be tackled by the next generation?

  • “Job opportunities. Lack of exposure in the media.”

Enough said.

How can we make our theatre department/program [at James Madison University] more inclusive of the deaf community?

  • “Theater audience development in the Deaf community is such a huge challenge. Because it is an art form that is so traditionally inaccessible to our community. I would begin with workshops, theater work, and do it for years upon years. Then you would begin to see the dividends. Deaf West has been doing this for 20 plus years and while we have an amazing and loyal audience, we still have so much to do in terms of reaching out to our community.”

Beyond having someone who signs, what else can we do to attract a Deaf community?

  • “Learn sign language. Go out to the community and interact with them. Find ways to fit theater into their social calendar in an organic way. Find out what they like and dislike, instead of bringing in your own preconceived notions.”

After I interviewed DJ, I had the chance to get a short and sweet interview with Daniel Durant, the Deaf actor who plays Moritz in Spring Awakening. This show is currently being revived in Beverly Hills, and I encourage everyone who can to go out and see this show. (You can purchase tickets here: www.deafwest.org) This interview is fairly short since I caught him during the post-show chaos, but he was generous enough to sit down with me for a couple minutes so I could ask him a few burning questions.

First, I asked, “How has working on this production differed from others you’ve worked on?” He responded that “It’s different because of the music, I’ve never experienced music in a production before. I really had to focus on the music and timing of everything.” Next, I explained my battle to get ASL included as a foreign language at JMU, and asked for advice on how to accomplish this. I wanted to focus on him during this question, so I didn’t write as much as I could have, but the biggest thing he mentioned was “Let them know ASL is a real language,” and to make sure if ASL is included as a program on campus that “you can’t just have ASL alone, need Deaf culture too.” My final question to Daniel was, “What do you think is unique about working here?” He replied, “It is a BIG family, everyone has your back.” He mentioned that it was hard work, and that the company treated everything professionally and seriously. He said, “It’s not only Deaf West that follows this mentality, but all Deaf theaters.”

Being a fan of Daniel’s work on the ABC Family show, “Switched at Birth,” I am so fortunate to have spent a little time with him and seen his passion for what he does. He portrays a heartbreakingly poignant Moritz, and I love watching him perform. Also a huge shout-out to Bridget Mitchell, Daniel’s fiancée, for interpreting for us during the interview!

Next, I got to interview a few of the hearing cast members of Spring Awakening: Austin McKenzie (Melchior), Joey Haro (Hanschen), and Lauren Patten (Ilse).

First, I asked them how many cast members knew sign language prior to joining the show. Most of them had minor knowledge of ASL, or none at all! However, Austin had worked at a summer camp for differently abled children where there were deaf campers. He also went to Columbia College Chicago and studied in their interpreting program, which is where it all started when he took ASL as an easy foreign language credit and ended up falling in love with the language. Despite not knowing much ASL before rehearsals began, Joey mentioned that there is something “sensical about the language. It does make sense and it’s so natural.” He went on to say that sign language is “literally at our fingertips and if we can manipulate our fingertips we can communicate so much easier.”

Next, I asked “Did you feel that the ASL helped you as an actor? Why or why not?” Joey and Austin agreed that actors are always looking for something to hold onto (text, physicality), and this is just another tool to use. When discussing this, Joey mentioned, “It’s a shortcut to your center.” I want to throw in that when he said “center” he signed “soul.” Austin discussed that it no longer limits you as an actor; it’s just “another method of something to express with.” Lauren stated, “A lot of my choices were based on ASL translations and what they meant and how they felt in my body. It was a challenge as well; to make sure that doesn’t get in the way of the clarity of the signs.”

I asked, “From a hearing perspective, why do you think this show (and this company) is important? Austin kicked off responding to this question: “This show shows that there is a culture to this community, it’s not just a language; you can see this culture through the language. What makes a culture a culture is if they have a change in language. As hearing people there is so little exposure to the Deaf community, so [this show is] a way to enter this community in an inclusionary way. There’s beauty that comes from bringing these two cultures together in such a seamless way. So much of theatre is about our humanity and our own humanity. It’s extremely moving.” Joey stated it very eloquently; “The magic of Deaf theatre is that it’s art at its peak.”

I followed up by asking, “What have you taken away from this experience more than anything else?” I admit that I got caught up in everyone’s responses to this question, so I captured short quotes from the conversation. Apologies for the lack of seamlessness, but I have attached the responses as I wrote them.

Joey:

“It’s why I do art, why I’ve wanted to do this since I was a kid. It’s to push yourself to challenge yourself in order to connect more to other people.” “To share something meaningful and that it’s something to believe in.” “Connect to people and share it. And I’m reinvigorated to conquering fear.” “I was just met with endless love.” “There was no room for ego.”

Austin:

“This is the best cast in the whole world; we’re a family. Everyone who came into rehearsal the first time was scared of something.” “We were all connected through fear.”

Lauren:

“I have friends I never would have had, a language I never would have had. It really reminds me of why I do this. We can have two hours where we bring so many people together. The outside world doesn’t allow people to come together. That’s why people come to the theatre instead of watching movies because you go through this with real, breathing people.” “There is something inherent in the language that is so honest. With this language you just say what you feel without any “fluff”… it’s straight up honesty.”

I then asked what their favorite part of the show was. Austin said, “The beginning and the end. The beginning because the audience doesn’t know what’s going on. So slowly and subtly it starts. You can feel the audience shift into knowing that something is about to be real. And then the end where the audience is changed.” Joey smiled and said, “I love ‘Bitch [of Living]’. It’s the first moment of choreography where everyone is in synch, Deaf and hearing, and I always think, Wow, we just did that.” I followed up by asking what their favorite part of the process was. Joey jumped right in and said, “The fact that this was a true process. We were just allowed to explore and bring our ideas to the table, fail, fall, try, be uncomfortable. It was just thinking this is what it’s about.

Next I asked one of the questions I had been dying to know, being a potential director: “How was working with Michael Arden? What unique perspectives did he bring to the process? Did he help you see the show in a way that was unexpected or that you hadn’t thought of before?” To those who didn’t see the show, it was beautifully directed. My dream interview is to sit down and pick Michael’s brain about this production. Talk about a clear concept. But my interview with the cast was excellent in this regard. They all mentioned the freedom he allowed, and how he has “an actor’s perspective, with an artist’s eye.” He was “always discovering, always posing questions, and how to get you to be the deepest you you can be.” I appreciated when Austin said, “He knows what it’s like to be terrified and build on that.” “Everything was personalized, even the translations; nothing was set in stone. It needed to be right for the actor; they changed the signs if it didn’t feel right.” Based on what I heard, Michael Arden was incredible to work with, and his artistic choices were raw, clear, and very powerful. I sincerely applaud his work.

My final question was a little closer to home: “Do you have any advice on how to promote inclusive theatre like this and expand the dialogue of diversity and inclusion? Particularly in predominantly hearing communities.” I’ll wrap this up with Joey’s response: “You do it. You do it wherever you can. If you have the passion, if you have the vision, you do it. It finds itself. Start small. Keep doing it. It builds and builds and builds. To people who don’t believe in this you just say, ‘Well then I’ll invite you and I’ll do it and you’ll see it.’ Expose people to it; that’s how you inform them. It’ll work; whatever you do it’ll work. Everyone who has seen this show gets it. It’ll work.”

I was so fortunate to have spoken to such amazing people and seen such extraordinary work created on stage. This kind of stuff is my point of entry into the world and into different cultures and communities. I believe that theatre like this can change the world and bridge these gaps and barriers we have between communities. I want to thank the entire cast and crew of Spring Awakening for being brave and so vulnerable on stage. Everything you do affects the audience in one way or another, and based on the responses to these interviews, I know you are making a difference.

I want to thank DJ Kurs, Daniel Durant, Austin McKenzie, Joey Haro, and Lauren Patten for being kind enough to share their time and thoughts with me. It was an honor to peek into your world for a little while, and I hope everyone who reads this will feel the same way.

Once again, for those who are interested (I hope all of you are), Deaf West’s Spring Awakening runs May 21-June 7, 2015 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, California. Once again, the link to purchase tickets is deafwest.org.

Thanks for reading!

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