On the stage of a spacious auditorium at the nation’s premier university for the deaf, a worker nails Styrofoam snow to the eaves of a mock-up of a 19th-century London streetscape, as actors in exaggerated masks — one playing crusty Ebeneezer Scrooge, another kindly Bob Cratchit — practice a scene in the dank offices of the Christmas holiday’s most celebrated miser.
The rehearsal at Gallaudet University could, in fact, be preparation for any old presentation of the seasonal chestnut “A Christmas Carol.” Except it’s not.
For one thing, the production is being performed in the stylized tradition of commedia dell’arte, a centuries-old form distinguished by broad physical gesture and stock comic characters in masks. For another, the adaptation of the Dickens tale is populated by both hearing and deaf actors, under the auspices of the only troupe in the country run by hearing stage professionals in residence at a college for the deaf.
The unusual arrangement, now in its second year, has yielded benefits for the actors and directors of Faction of Fools, a three-year-old company that has navigated the difficult Washington challenge of finding a workable space for its productions. And for Gallaudet students and faculty, the relationship has opened a practical entryway into the city’s theater scene, long a goal of the theater arts department’s chairman, Ethan Sinnott.
Three current Gallaudet students, and one recent graduate, share the stage with five hearing actors in Faction of Fools’ “A Commedia Christmas Carol,” which begins performances in Gallaudet’s Elstad Auditorium on Thursday and runs through Dec. 23. Among them will be senior Michael Sprouse, as a deaf Tiny Tim; one of the intriguing concepts in Factions Artistic Director Matthew R. Wilson’s production is of a Scrooge (played by Paul Reisman) whose inability to communicate with his fellow man is evoked in a resistance to Tiny Tim’s need to sign.
“Tim is very free in how he gestures, and how he communicates with people,” explains Lindsey Snyder, an American Sign Language interpreter and holder of the company’s most unusual position: director of access and inclusion. Part of her assignment was to develop a variation of signing for the Cratchits, played by both hearing and deaf actors, that would suggest to deaf audiences not only the story’s period and location — yes, British signing sometimes differs from American, just as accents do — but also a specially intimate family language.
“In that period what a family with a deaf child would do is create a kind of home signing, a system of gestures so that the family could talk to each other,” Snyder adds. “So we’ve really had to experiment with the way we integrate the deaf actors into the play.”
The enrichment infused by collaboration with a college for the deaf is particularly well suited to a company using a form so transparently physical — and one that can sometimes seem to be stuffily archaic: to some, “commedia” conjures hyperbolic clowning at Renaissance festivals. By virtue, though, of the supple modern takes on commedia by companies such as Faction of Fools, the stylized comedy is being reintroduced to American audiences as a viably novel comic alternative. See, for instance, the success of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s recent commedia staging, via Yale Repertory Theatre, of Carlo Goldoni’s 18th-century comedy “The Servant of Two Masters.”
As for commedia’s commercial potential, look no further than last season on Broadway, when “One Man, Two Guv’nors,” an adaptation of the same Goldoni play set in England in the ’60s, reigned as the year’s best comedy.
Wilson, a Tennessee native who got his undergraduate degree at Columbia, gravitated to commedia as a way to expand his skills as a comic actor. “I went to Italy to study commedia, because I wanted to play Touchstone,” he says, referring to the clown in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” The experience was so formative that he became a sometime instructor at a commedia school in Reggio Emilia, Italy, and brought his appreciation with him to the nation’s capital when he enrolled in Shakespeare Theatre’s Academy for Classical Acting at George Washington University.
The feeling that Washington was fertile territory, in terms of sophisticated theatergoers and willing actors, convinced him to plant theatrical stakes here. With few American models for commedia companies to work from, Wilson improvised. “They’ve got smart audience and actors and artists who want to commit to each other,” he says. “I just decided this is a great place to be.”
Since its first season in 2009, the company, performing at the Capital Fringe Festival and in spaces such as CulturalDC’s Flashpoint in Penn Quarter, has been alternating classic commedia pieces with adaptations of well-known Shakespeare plays: last year, its inspired commedia version of “Romeo and Juliet” proved an imaginative refreshment that has since become a touring production, to schools and other venues.
The residency at Gallaudet has not only taken off the table the perennial worry for young troupes in the city of where to do the work. It has also added a dimension to Faction’s mission. Thus far, 22 roles in five Faction of Fools productions have gone to students in Gallaudet’s theater arts program, whose three faculty members couldbe stretched only so far. “So I feel Faction kind of fills the void that three faculty members can’t,” Sinnott, who has a master’s in set design from Boston University, signs, as Snyder interprets.
Sinnott designed the set for Faction’s latest production; Gallaudet’s Web site, in fact, quotes Sinnott as saying that as a child, the first show he ever saw with signing deaf actors was “A Christmas Carol.” The impetus for bringing in a company with no history with deafness was to give students an exposure to the conditions of the theater marketplace once they leave the sheltered confines of a college for the deaf.
“What I’m trying to get them to experience is what life is like after Gallaudet,” he says, adding that while his goal is for students to feel confident and prepared, “at the same time, I want to take away the safety net.”
The learning curve curlicues for both the hearing and deaf participants. Sinnott says, for example, that he’s frustrated by the practice of turning off the lights in the theater during the technical rehearsals: he’s left out of any ensuing conversation in the dark. “Sometimes it’s easy not to remember there’s someone else in the room,” he says. Wilson, too, acknowledges that there must be rigorous attention to keeping everyone on the same level of awareness at all times.
“We work very hard to have a mentoring situation that is caring but also holds the students to a professional standard,” Wilson says.
At a recent late-morning rehearsal, Wilson works out a few bits with Reisman, whose Scrooge naturally conforms to the Pantalone character in commedia — traditionally the avaricious butt of the joke. It seems in this regard that Ebeneezer has been always waiting for his entrance in a mask.
“The part of the novel that speaks to me is the moment after Marley leaves, and Scrooge looks out of the window and the street is filled with phantoms, all these supernatural travelers he didn’t know were there,” Wilson says. “This is the story of a man whose eyes were open to his fellow travelers.” How apt for a production in which hearing and deaf actors become fellow travelers, too.
Thursday to Dec. 23 at Gallaudet University’s Elstad Auditorium, 800 Florida Ave. NE. Parking is free and performances on the evenings of Nov. 29 and Dec. 14 and the matinee on Dec. 16 are ASL-interpreted. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.factionoffools.org .