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Signs of Understanding

'Big River' Uses Novel Technology, Staging to Link Deaf, Hearing Cultures

By Suz Redfearn
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 26, 2005; Page HE01

In the play "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" now showing at Ford's Theatre, the irascible literary hero's float down the Mississippi isn't the only adventure depicted on stage. Nor is the subject of race in the time of slavery the only barrier explored.

That's because seven of the 20 actors in this production of the 1985 musical are deaf or hard of hearing.

Christopher Corrigan as Huck and Michael McElroy as Jim in "Big River." Corrigan is deaf, McElroy is not. McElroy, who has learned enough ASL to talk with the deaf actors backstage, said he sometimes gives Corrigan silent cues, such as a nudge with his foot when it's time to stand up. (Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)

Huck -- played by deaf actor Christopher Corrigan -- signs to the audience, using American Sign Language (ASL), while nearby, hearing actor Bill O'Brien speaks and sings for Huck while playing the part of author and narrator Mark Twain. Two actors -- one hard of hearing and the other not -- take the stage together as Pap, Huck's hard-drinking dad, nearly pinned together as they lope around, swilling from a jug of whiskey while one speaks or sings and the other signs. All the while, the hearing actors speak and sign their parts in ASL that's been modified to reflect the vernacular of the South in the late 1880s.

It's all an effort to make theater accessible to deaf audiences while opening up deaf culture to the hearing. The result looks not like a production modified for those who can't hear, but rather a graceful dance that brings together two painstakingly synchronized languages, one flowing from the mouth, the other from the hands.

The unmistakable message to a viewer extends far beyond the world of the stage.

"The production serves to hold a mirror up to humanity. When you bring the deaf and the hearing together like this, the mirror gets warped, its scope gets widened," said O'Brien. " 'Big River' not only offers access to the deaf, but to the hearing, who gain access to deaf culture. And at the end of the show, you take a more integral look at what it means to be human."

Mixing Cues

What does it take to make a performance like this come together?

"It's a theatrical Rubik's cube," said director and choreographer Jeff Calhoun. "At first I wondered: How do you communicate with the dressing rooms? How do the actors get their cues if they can't listen for them? It turns out, if you're using actors at the top of their game, it's no different than choreographing a complicated dance."

In rehearsals, sign interpreters helped the actors communicate with each other and the director. Then all involved in the production agreed on myriad visual cues. In addition to the two or three backstage cue lights that let crew members know when to lift and lower sets, three more colored lights strung up backstage let deaf and hearing actors know when to go on, explained production stage manager Craig Horness, who, from his booth above the audience, uses the lights to cue actors.

Movements built into actors' stage directions also serve as prompts, said artistic director Ed Waterstreet, co-founder of the L.A.-based theater company Deaf West, which is mounting the production. Subtle mannerisms -- the lifting of an arm, the turning of a head -- let deaf and hard of hearing actors know it's time to, say, cross the stage or deliver a line. During songs, such cues are built in every eight beats.

Luckily, adds Waterstreet, who is hard of hearing, many deaf and hard of hearing actors seem to have a sixth sense for such cues -- an intense awareness of space and timing. Corrigan agrees: "I know in my heart where the other actors are," he said.

Though studies are mixed on whether deaf people have heightened visual perception, research has shown that those who use sign language from an early age are more able to detect movement in their peripheral vision, explained Carol Padden, professor of linguistics at the University of California, San Diego, and author of the new book "Inside Deaf Culture." Padden, who said she's seen "Big River" productions starring deaf actors many times, said this expanded sensitivity to what's in the visual field aids deaf actors tremendously.

Often, she said, deaf actors can also pick up musical rhythm through their feet. But the Big River production doesn't rely on that because the beat might be felt in certain parts of the stage and not others.

Sometimes the actors' cues involve a bump here or a nudge there.

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