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‘Walking Dead’ star Angel Theory on navigating acting while hard of hearing

And why on-screen representation is crucial

"Walking Dead" actress Angel Theory talks about navigating acting while being hearing impared. (Video: Rachel Hatzipanagos/The Washington Post)
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When most people hear the term “code-switching,” they think of what happens when a person of color changes their speech patterns or word choice depending on the audience. For choreographer, dancer and actress Angel Theory, who has starred in AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and now Facebook Watch’s “Kinderfänger,” code-switching extends to straddling the worlds of the hearing and the hard of hearing. Theory began losing her hearing around the age of 14, after a car crash. Now 20, she mastered navigating multiple worlds at once.

Theory sat down with About US via Zoom to discuss her career. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

About US: I understand that you started experiencing hearing loss later in life. What happened and were you worried initially that you weren’t going to be able to continue acting?

Angel Theory: Yes, I had a car accident, two car accidents, that eventually got my hearing loss to decrease progressively. It started in one ear and then later on in the other ear. … However, I wasn’t really focused on it affecting me in my acting career because I wasn’t really acting at that time. I was more focused on it affecting me as a dancer and as a choreographer. But then eventually I had to make an adjustment.

About US: Do you feel like you’re still able to enjoy it?

Angel Theory: I still enjoy it. I think that the first year and second year, it was very hard for me because I was focused on trying to understand the music that I would listen to, and I’m one of those people who doesn’t want to miss a beat at all. However, I do have music experience and know how to sight read. So I feel the music first while listening with my hearing aids, and then, just to be sure that I’m getting every note possible, I try to print it out and read the music as well. That way, no matter what, I’m always on beat. I feel like, if anything, it’s made me pay way more attention to the music and get into it and feel it more. So yeah, it’s been a learning experience, but in the best way.

About US: Do the vibrations help you a lot in terms of feeling the beat?

Angel Theory: Oh yeah, definitely. Especially on a stage or on certain floors where I can’t feel it, there are different technologies that you can use. I have sneakers that allow you to feel the vibrations. You connect it with your music, and you can feel everything through your feet. And there’s a vest that you can wear. However, sometimes I don’t want to have to be dependent on those accessories for dance. It’s mainly me just trying to focus on getting to understand the music, just like how I know my ABCs. So that’s the basics of how I’m able become the music instead of trying to dance with it.

About US: What are some of the challenges that you’ve had to deal with being hard of hearing and acting?

Angel Theory: In my first year acting, I was still trying to navigate through my everyday life and the challenges that come with that. So having to figure it out on set was a bit different for me. I was alone, away from my family, working in a different area and with a whole bunch of amazing other actors and actresses. However, I have another co-star who plays my sister on the show [“The Walking Dead”] who is deaf. So she was very, very helpful in my transition from being hearing to hard of hearing. It’s been a really, like, slow progression. But now there aren’t that many challenges, really. Everybody’s really open to understanding what my needs are and making things accessible for me in a way where I can still be comfortable and do my job to the best of my ability.

About US: You mentioned your choreography earlier. How have you incorporated your choreography experience into your acting?

Angel Theory: I feel like, being a dancer, it allows me to stay very agile and very active, and it keeps me in shape. So when we … do stunt work, and running scenes and kill scenes, I’m always pumped and ready for it. I’m never tired. I want to keep going and do more. Also, dancing is an expression of body language, and even if we all don’t speak the same language, dance is the one language that we all understand. So I allow that to be incorporated within my body movement. Even if it’s as simple as a shrug, there are different ways to show your emotions.

About US: Between “The Walking Dead” and your new show, “Kinderfänger,” you’ve done two horror series now. Is that a genre that really appeals to you?

Angel Theory: Yeah, I love horror. I like making people feel something while they’re watching. Watching horror movies, you can feel sad, you can feel scared — all the emotions are usually found in horror. And it’s fast-paced in a really fun way. I think a lot of the hearing community feels that it’s scarier when someone that is hard of hearing or deaf is put into those scary situations.

About US: I noticed that on your new show, you use your voice with certain characters and you sign with others. What went into that acting choice?

Angel Theory: So that was actually my decision, because that’s what I do [in real life] as well. I sometimes decide I don’t want to talk, or if I’m in a position where I don’t feel like I’m able to hear myself, I just … choose not to talk and sometimes just sign. I grew up hearing, so that’s what I’m comfortable with at times. But I like to switch it up depending on just the day, how I feel or what’s more convenient for me or who I’m around. And I feel like Olivia [her character on “Kinderfänger”] knows it’s sometimes just pointless to sign to her mom. Her mom doesn’t even like her signing or doesn’t want her to sign. But her best friend, Tracy, even though she’s hearing, she picked up on some sign language with Olivia. They’ll have moments where Olivia just doesn’t want to talk or it’s a situation where she doesn’t want someone to hear what they’re talking about in the background and they’ll sign. So I decided, since that’s a decision that I make in my everyday life, I thought it would do justice for Olivia’s character to be able to show the different connections you have with different people and how she communicates.

About US: What do you think seeing someone like yourself on screen means in terms of representation?

Angel Theory: I think it’s a beautiful thing to embrace for myself as well, because I had to go through my hearing loss journey thinking that what I do with my talent is now impossible. And if I had someone that I could see on screen that looked like me and I could relate to, it would have helped me open up so much more and feel comfortable. Like, “I can do anything she can do.” So that’s the real beautiful thing for me is that I’m able to do that for others as well.

About US: Have you gotten feedback from people in terms of what having you on screen means to them?

Angel Theory: All the time and it’s really beautiful. Parents will reach out, and they will tell me, “My kid watches you and she’s deaf and, you know, she loves you” or “Thank you for being able to show what it’s like to be a woman of color that’s hard of hearing and being able to still be successful and following what you love to do.” Sometimes you don’t realize that it’s just so much bigger than yourself. You don’t realize something as little as five seconds or five minutes on screen can mean so much to someone else and all around the world. And when they bring it to your attention, it humbles me. It just makes me feel like this is my purpose and everything that I do has meaning.

“Kinderfänger” airs Friday at 6 p.m. on Crypt TV’s Facebook Watch page.

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