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Using deaf actors, Victory Hall Opera continues to push boundaries

Miriam Gordon-Stewart of Victory Hall Opera in Charlottesville performs in “Lohengrin.” (Victory Hall Opera)

Alek Lev understands that he’s not exactly a member of the deaf family, but he feels comfortable enough calling himself an “in-law.” As a student at Wesleyan University, he took a sign-language class on a whim and subsequently dated a deaf person. Over the past two decades, the writer, director, actor and American Sign Language interpreter has largely worked in the deaf community on films and stage productions.

“As someone who is fluent in sign language and has done this for such a long time, just seeing people sign onstage isn’t particularly thrilling now,” Lev says. “It needs to be thrilling for some other reason.”

One such reason arose in 2018, when Miriam Gordon-Stewart and Brenda Patterson of the boundary-pushing Victory Hall Opera in Charlottesville pitched Lev on a production of Francis Poulenc’s 1957 opera “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” but with deaf performers.

The concept came about after Gordon-Stewart, Victory Hall’s artistic director, and Patterson, the music director, read Andrew Solomon’s 2012 nonfiction book “Far From the Tree,” about how families accommodate children with disabilities. The book mentioned ASL’s roots in French Sign Language, dating to the deaf community of 18th-century Paris. They then drew parallels to “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” which follows a convent of Carmelite nuns pressured to renounce their vocation during the French Revolution.

“Within the deaf community, there are a lot of similar issues that come up,” Gordon-Stewart says. “There’s a pressure to assimilate with hearing culture, for example, which is intensely political. These things worked together for us into the idea of a production of ‘Dialogues of the Carmelites’ that would be set in a deaf convent.”

Victory Hall Opera will take a step toward making the production a reality with a workshop Feb. 27 at Old Cabell Hall, as the opening event of the University of Virginia’s Disability Studies Symposium. Lev will direct the workshop, titled “Breaking the Sound Barrier,” which will feature three sopranos singing alongside three deaf actors.

Lev won’t pin down a vision until the cast and crew get in the rehearsal room and notes that the workshop could feature multiple takes on the same scenes. After performing about an hour of excerpts from “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” Lev and the cast will participate in an audience Q&A.

“There’s something about the challenge of figuring out how to do this and why to do this each time that is just more exciting to me than putting on yet another version of a play that’s been put on several times,” says Lev, who will guide the performers through three days of rehearsal before the workshop. “I like that we have a whole new problem now. We have sign language. We have deaf actors. We have hearing actors who don’t know sign language. I love the puzzle.”

Gordon-Stewart is one of the singers, along with Victory Hall troupe member Rachelle Durkin and guest Jennifer Zetlan. The deaf performers are Jackie Roth, Amber Zion and Sandra Mae Frank, who in 2015 played the lead role of Wendla in Deaf West Theatre’s Tony-nominated revival of “Spring Awakening” on Broadway.

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“I’ve done a lot of workshops and productions that include hearing and Deaf actors, but the fascinating thing about those experiences is that it’s never the same,” Frank writes in an email. “I am excited to see how it’ll come together. I always support the idea of bringing both worlds together, as long as it is authentic and makes sense with the story.”

Most of the roles in that “Spring Awakening” production were doubled by a deaf actor, who used sign language, and a hearing actor, who simultaneously performed the vocals. Although that has become a common template for deaf theater, the “Breaking the Sound Barrier” team wants its performers to complement one another in an artistically innovative way. To accomplish that, Lev is considering a version in which the deaf actors act out the plot while the singers serve as spiritual guides, representing women who have endured similar oppression.

“If we’re going to create an art form out of this, then we need to push the concept one step further than it’s been pushed before,” Gordon-Stewart says. “There’s a potential for the result being a marriage between two art forms, rather than just the two art forms being simultaneously performed. You bring a potentially heightened physicality to both ends of that equation, making it a more visually compelling art form for the deaf performance, and making it a more heightened experience for the hearing audience.”

Marrying sign language and opera doesn’t come without its practical challenges. How the deaf actors will channel the exaggerated physical gestures of opera is one quandary. Lev also notes that, because of operatic singing’s elongated nature, the vocals won’t directly align with the sign language.

“It takes a long time to sing a line of opera; you’ve got six words in English, and it takes you 30 seconds to get through it,” he says. “We’re not just going to fill it in with lots more signs to take up the space. We need to have an equivalent of all of that intense emotion and passion and physicality that goes into the aerobic exercise of producing opera in your mouth and say, ‘Okay, take all of that intensity and put it on your hands.’ ”

Gordon-Stewart says she would like to stage a full deaf production of “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” but that possibility hinges on how the workshop goes. Victory Hall Opera also plans to produce a video documenting the workshop and rehearsal process in hopes of sharing it with other companies across the country interested in taking what she calls “the next step” for deaf theater.

“The arts should already be 100 percent accessible to all, but unfortunately, they’re not,” Frank says.

“Also, it’s not only about making the arts more accessible but making the arts ‘normalized’ by including Deaf and hard of hearing actors. That’s why I love theater. It’s all about breaking barriers and working with people to prove that anything is possible.”

Breaking the Sound Barrier: Deaf Opera Workshop Feb. 27 at 7 p.m. at Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. 434-227-9978.