On the first days of rehearsal, when everyone tends to be a little formal, anyway, Michael Tolaydo was conscious of dealing even more gingerly with a castmate, Joey Caverly, because he is deaf.
“I think it’s part of my nature, but at the very beginning I felt that I needed to treat or talk or ask questions a bit too carefully,” the longtime Washington actor said of the settling-in period for “Tribes,” Nina Raine’s comedy-drama of iconoclastic parents and drifting offspring, at Studio Theatre. And why mightn’t he? Working with a deaf actor was, despite his many years of service on the stage, new to Tolaydo, and it took a small amount of contact to understand that interpersonally speaking, he didn’t have to adjust much at all.
“What’s also been interesting is that I don’t in any way see Joey as someone who’s ‘special,’ ” Tolaydo said, a few weeks into the rehearsal period. “I see him as special as an actor. I don’t see him as special because he doesn’t hear.”
It is noteworthy that in an art form so receptive to experiments with language — and in a city housing the nation’s flagship college for deaf students, Gallaudet University — the opportunities for hearing and non-hearing actors to coexist onstage remain incredibly rare. Some troupes with a heavy emphasis on the physical have made inroads in and around the city: Faction of Fools, a commedia dell’arte company, is now based at Gallaudet and offers some roles to deaf students, and the movement-based Synetic Theater in Crystal City has cast actors who are deaf, principally in its wordless reinterpretations of classics.
Limiting employment possibilities further is the reality that few deaf characters find their way into mainstream plays, “Children of a Lesser God” and “The Miracle Worker” notwithstanding. And even when they do — as in the case of the recent Pulitzer Prize-winning “Clybourne Park” — the role of a deaf person often goes to a hearing actor.
That is one reason that “Tribes,” a play that explores family miscommunication in many forms — including in the way it treats a deaf son — can be such an extraordinary crossover vehicle. The pivotal role of Billy, the deaf young Englishman in love with a woman who is the child of deaf parents and gradually losing her own hearing, has been going to deaf actors since its world premiere at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2010; a subsequent, highly regarded off-Broadway production, which ran for nearly a year, featured Gallaudet alumnus Russell Harvard as Billy.
In the Studio production that begins performances Wednesday, director David Muse has followed that practice, casting Caverly, a 2011 Gallaudet graduate who played Billy last year in a production in Boston. And in so doing, Muse not only is, like Tolaydo, collaborating with a deaf actor for the first time, he’s also taking a crash course in how to make deaf artists and audiences full partners in a theatrical venture.
For the 24-year-old Caverly, a native of Royal Oak, Mich., “Tribes” is that actor’s dream role, a meaty dramatic part in a rip-roaring play for an influential company. To boot, the family dynamic Raine conjures struck very close to home. He, too, is the son of hearing parents. “As a deaf person, reading that play, it reminded me of my own growing up,” Caverly said, sitting in a Studio lobby with an American Sign Language interpreter and some other members of the production. “I mean, it gave me chills.”
Muse said he never seriously considered casting anyone but a deaf actor as Billy. But fully integrating the performance of an actor whose presence calls for additional pairs of ears and eyes in the rehearsal room requires some stretching by a theater company. “It was a lot of work, even more than I anticipated,” Muse said. “Much of it I’ve figured out as we’ve stumbled forward.”
“Tribes” takes place in the London household of Tolaydo’s Christopher and his wife, Beth (Nancy Robinette). He’s an academic, she’s a writer, and both have raised their three children in a home of free-thinking, progressive ideals. They’re such laissez-faire guides that they’ve never bothered to learn — or to teach their deaf son — to sign, and in their determination to treat Billy exactly as they do their hearing children (played by Richard Gallagher and Annie Funke), we get a sense of the shortcomings of their choices. It’s far from the only issue in the play, but in its examination of the relationship between Billy and girlfriend Sylvia (Helen Cespedes), and theirs to the rest of his family, Raine explores the emotional fault lines in what Ben Brantley in the New York Times called a play “that asks us to hear how we hear, in silence as well as speech.”
To help him with the play’s treatment of deafness, Muse turned to Ethan Sinnott, chairman of the theater department at Gallaudet, who in bringing Faction of Fools to the university campus was acting on his ambition of finding more post-academic possibility for his students. Muse said he’d learned that for rehearsals alone, he needed the services of not one but two sign-language interpreters, so that they could spell each other and the deaf participants in the show would not be left out of conversation at, say, rehearsal breaks.
Katrina Clark, a hearing Washington actress fluent in ASL, was hired as lead interpreter, with the responsibility of coordinating the other interpreters; half a dozen would be required, both for the rehearsal period and for deaf or hard-of-hearing audiences. During the run, 11 performances will be signed or captioned, and one will be described via audio.
And interpreters weren’t the end. “Ethan said right away, ‘Well, you need to have another member on the production, and you may not even know it,’ ” Muse explained, recalling how Sinnott introduced the idea of recruiting a director of artistic sign language, “as a bridge between communities — a dramaturge of signing.”
The consulting position went to Tyrone Giordano, an actor and yet another Gallaudet graduate who’s performed with companies such as Los Angeles-based Deaf West Theatre, which among other achievements staged a highly successful version of the musical “Big River,” with both hearing and deaf actors. It falls to Giordano not only to make sure that the signing is accurate and fluidly handled, but also to ensure that the experience of deafness is accurately portrayed.
He’s a sort of ambassador of deafness. “Basically, I have to make everything look authentic,” he said, through one of the interpreters. “It’s the whole embodiment of living in the deaf world.”
His job was especially relevant for Cespedes, a hearing actress who had never signed before being cast as Sylvia. “Tribes” presents peculiar challenges to hearing and deaf actors alike. While Caverly has to create the illusion that Billy knows only rudimentary sign language, Cespedes has the opposite task: playing the daughter of deaf people, she must look as if she has been signing all her life.
Studio enrolled the actress in a month of ASL classes in her home city of New York and had her work with a private tutor, and then brought her to Washington to spend a week at Gallaudet. A lover of languages, Cespedes embraced the immersion, and her interactions with students helped her develop a grasp of some of the nuances of a system of communication wholly foreign to her.
“I would say that really, as a novice, what I’ve learned is how it’s really in the face,” she said, of the act of seeming fluent. “How the signer uses their face and doesn’t use their face is an instant giveaway.” (Members of the production cited the debacle at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, and the immobile face of the impostor at President Obama’s side, as an example of exactly how not to look as if you know how to sign.) Giordano has been Cespedes’s guide, using a video camera and other tools to help her refine her technique.
“He’s been an incredible resource and teacher and helper for me, and he’s made a lot of those choices about how we’re going to express something,” she said.
Of her assignment in her scenes with Caverly, and being the one who is supposed to be the authority on ASL, Cespedes laughed as she recalled something the actor confided to her: “It’s my job to be bad,” he said, “to make you look good.”
At a recent afternoon rehearsal onstage in Studio’s Mead Theatre, the cross-talk had an extra dimension. Muse sat in the front row, presiding over a stop-and-go run of the opening scene, as Clark signed for Caverly, seated at a long kitchen table with the rest of his dramatic family. Giordano sat a few rows back, occasionally signing with someone on the other side of the room.
“It’s ultimately about figuring out what the family’s like and what Billy’s role is in it,” Muse said to the actors, before suggesting that Caverly rise from the table, to separate himself and begin to give an audience some sense of his isolation. “Feel free to take a little bit of focus, if you know what I mean,” Muse said, as Caverly gazed at both him and Clark. “Take a minute to establish yourself.”
Caverly, who explained in a subsequent e-mail that “due to the emotional turmoil that the play has, it can be taxing on me,” was not feeling this particular suggestion from his director.
“I don’t think I get up,” he said, through Clark. “I think I settle down here.”
Muse dropped the idea and moved on. Reflecting on the exchange afterwards, the director said Caverly “remains one of the most open actors to attacking scenes in different ways,” but in this case seemed to think the notion was stage-y. In the give-and-take, it was another learning moment for Muse.
“I’ve found that in terms of adjustments I’ve had to make, it really doesn’t have to do with the communication piece,” he said. “It has to do with my paying attention to things I never had to before. For instance: Is the shirt a signer is wearing patterned or solid? If you have too much pattern, it can distract a deaf audience member. Or if there’s a big sequence of signing, am I staging it in a way that it’s open to everyone in the audience?”
The practical concerns even apply to the seating at the kitchen table. “Joey or Ty would say, ‘That’s not where he would sit.’ It all has to do with the reality of a deaf character in that place,” Muse said. “And when they say it, I think, ‘Of course!’ ”
by Nina Raine. Directed by David Muse. Wednesday-Feb.23 at Studio Theatre, 150114th St. NW. Tickets $39-$65. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.