Studio Theatre’s ‘Tribes’ shows how speaking and signing can connect powerfully onstage

January 9
From left: Annie Funke, Michael Tolaydo, Nancy Robinette, Helen Cespedes and James Caverly rehearse “Tribes” at Studio Theatre. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
From left: Annie Funke, Michael Tolaydo, Nancy Robinette, Helen Cespedes and James Caverly rehearse “Tribes” at Studio Theatre. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Sitting in the Studio Theatre auditorium, director David Muse watches two actors rehearse a simmering argument between two young men. The scene, from the play “Tribes,” pits the character Billy against his brother, David, as he analyzes Billy’s budding romance.

David insists that he likes the new girlfriend. “No, you don’t,” Billy replies.

Interrupting the dialogue, Muse jumps onstage to address James Caverly, the actor playing Billy: “Instead of ‘No, you don’t,’ let’s try it more like, ‘No. You don’t.’ ”

But Caverly isn’t watching Muse. His eyes are on Katrina Clark, an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter who follows Muse around the stage, translating his prompts. Caverly, like Billy, is deaf.

Muse knew very little about the subject of deafness when he first read “Tribes,” but he was fascinated by English playwright Nina Raine’s depiction of a young deaf man’s struggles to communicate with his hearing family. When it came time to cast the production, which opened at the theater this week, Muse was determined to find a deaf actor to play Billy.

“A hearing actor could impersonate a deaf person,” Muse says. “But it was important to me to have that level of authenticity.”

The learning curve for working with a deaf actor for the first time, Muse says, was “unbelievably steep.” Much of the meaning in language — and in a director’s guidance — isn’t in the words themselves. So when Muse demonstrates how he wants Caverly to deliver a line, adding a slight pause or raising his pitch at the end of a word, Clark finds ways to convey those auditory cues to Caverly with her hands.

An actress herself, the hearing Clark chose theater rehearsal work as her interpreting specialty. ASL is not a direct translation of English — it’s a language unto itself, with a unique grammar and syntax — making her job a creative art.

“It takes a level of confidence to be on [Muse’s] level, to see where he’s going,” Clark says. “In a few milliseconds, I have to not only hear what’s being said, but understand what he’s saying and decode his goal.”

As Clark uses her whole upper body to express the nuances of emphasis, tone and timing, the line between interpreting and acting blurs. It’s clear that translating words is only a fraction of her job.

Actor James Caverly, left, works out a scene with director David Muse, center, through sign language interpreter Katrina Clark. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
Actor James Caverly, left, works out a scene with director David Muse, center, through sign language interpreter Katrina Clark. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Like Billy, Caverly grew up with hearing parents and two hearing siblings, but he and his deaf sister grew up both speaking and signing. (Billy’s family insists he lip-read, a skill Caverly taught himself.) His knowledge of deaf culture — and his experience playing Billy in a Boston production of “Tribes” last fall — has been a boon for the hearing members of the cast and crew.

“We had a lot of discussions about what it’s like for a deaf person to tell their family that they need to use sign, or why hearing people might see sign as a disability,” Caverly says, signing as Clark interprets aloud.

When the actors got in position to try Muse’s stage movements for the first time, Caverly immediately pointed out that, in many scenes, there would be no way for him, as Billy, to believably read the other actors’ lips. Muse changed the staging accordingly.

“You have to give yourself permission to be ignorant,” Muse says.

To fill in the knowledge gaps, Tyrone Giordano joined the “Tribes” team as director of artistic sign language (or DASL, pronounced “dazzle” in true theatrical fashion). Giordano decided what actual signs the deaf characters use in the show. He also sat in on rehearsals to help the cast create an authentic picture of deaf life, adding the social cues that crop up when two deaf people meet and explaining how communication can fail in conversations between deaf and hearing people.

The theater department at Gallaudet University — where Caverly attended college — has also advised Studio for the past several months, hosting a daylong deaf culture workshop for staff members and promoting the show to deaf locals.

For all the efforts the theater has made to do justice by the deaf community, Caverly insists that “Tribes” is about more than deafness — it’s about family, about in-groups and out-groups.

“I really enjoy the exploration of what a tribe is,” he says. “Why do you stay in a tribe? Is it love? Is it communication?”

Tribes, whether familial or cultural, speak their own languages. Meanings are easily distorted or lost in translation. But at this show, Caverly hopes, everyone — hearing, deaf or something in between — will get the message.

The Plot

In “Tribes,” now playing at Studio Theatre, a young deaf man named Billy searches for a place to belong. The members of his family, all of whom are able to hear (but don’t truly listen to one another), insist that he speak and read lips. Learning sign language would condemn Billy to an isolated minority, they say. When Billy starts dating a woman who’s just begun losing her hearing but is already deeply rooted in deaf culture, his sense of deaf identity blossoms. His siblings and parents struggle to understand his transformation — until Billy gives them an ultimatum.

Accessibility

Studio Theatre usually offers two ASL-interpreted shows per production. For “Tribes,” it’s hosting eight during the 50-show run. Deaf or hard-of-hearing patrons who prefer to read the dialogue in English can attend one of three performances with caption screens next to the stage. There’s also an audio-described option for the visually impaired, featuring a narrator who describes the onstage action through headsets. At all shows, sign language between deaf characters is translated by captions projected above the set.

Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW; through Feb. 23, $39-$75; 202-332-3300. (Dupont Circle)

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