As a deaf actor, I’m always getting the same questions: What it is like to be a deaf actor? Isn’t it hard? How do you do roles if they are not for the deaf?
The success of Deaf West’s production of “Spring Awakening” on Broadway is proof that actors of diverse abilities can still create a beautiful show. The cast is a mix of hearing and deaf actors, all of whom use American Sign Language for the entire performance. (The deaf actors are accompanied by the voice actors.) The deaf community has responded strongly to our show, but hearing audiences have been also been touched by the art of our language. Communication barriers are a theme of “Spring Awakening” — the mother of my character, Wendla, withholds information from her; the intellect and knowledge of Melchior is suppressed in the classroom; victims of abuse are trapped into silence about their experience — which lends itself to a deaf interpretation.
The deaf community seems to be having a cultural moment. Last week, the jaw-dropping handsome deaf model Nyle DiMarco won the latest cycle of “America’s Next Top Model,” and talented deaf actors currently appear on ABC Family’s “Switched at Birth.” But in general, deaf culture is sparsely celebrated in the arts.
#DeafTalent, the official hashtag to promote deaf artists and spread awareness about oppression in the theater, has had a big impact on the deaf community, but the story of its creation is an ugly one. The community has stood by and watched in frustration for years as roles for deaf characters have been filled by hearing actors: “Medeas,” “Listen to Your Heart,” “After the Silence” and “The Secret Life of Words,” to name a few. The one film that seemed to truly cause the deaf community to fight back was “Avenged,” a supernatural action film that came out in 2013. The story centers on a deaf girl who returns from the dead with an Apache warrior’s spirit to retaliate against her murderers. The film ignited an explosion on Twitter for carelessly handing the role to a hearing actor, especially when so many deaf performers had never even heard about the audition.
The “Avenged” director, Michael Ojeda, said it “really wouldn’t have been logical” to cast a deaf actress as the lead, citing fight scenes in which the actor would need to duck or move to avoid being hit by objects. Right: It’s called “making a movie.” Deaf actors can be cued to duck, or do anything, really, in a performance, like any actor. I personally know a number of deaf actors who are trained for scenes involving combat, sports and dance. In our production of “Spring Awakening,” for example, one of the musical numbers requires the boys to move furniture, jump on tables and land on the floor without missing a cue, all while signing. It works, because we work as a team.
Seeing hearing people in deaf roles frustrates me to no end. We can see through the falsehood the second they start signing — hearing actors tend to lack the facial expressions that play such a huge role in ASL grammar. (Ojeda said in an interview that his leading lady “nailed” the role. The deaf community tended to disagree.) In the “The Tribes,” an award-winning play about a deaf man named Billy courting a woman who is slowly going deaf herself, Billy is traditionally played by a deaf or hard of hearing actor. But hearing actors have filled the role in several productions. The same thing has happened with the deaf character in Rebecca Gilman’s adaptation of Carson McCullers’ “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” drawing protests outside one such production in New York in 2009. Someone writes a role for a deaf person and it’s handed to a hearing actor? Deaf actors are right here, ready to pour our hearts out into a role. (Ojeda later acknowledged in a Twitter exchange with critics that many deaf actors did not know about the film and that “the casting process could have been better.”)
In my career, I have started attending auditions for characters who are not written to be deaf. Does it change the story to cast a deaf person in a hearing role? Not necessarily. Look at the many updates to the plays of Shakespeare, which are constantly being staged in different eras with different gender actors and different settings. Which of his plays would work as a deaf production? Any of them. It’s about the director’s vision. That’s the beauty of interpretation.
It’s always nerve-wracking but thrilling to walk into the audition room when no deaf roles have been advertised. But I’ve achieved at least one role this way. Before heading to New York for Broadway, I tried out for the role of a crying girl in an independent film. I remember walking into that office and doing my thing. The casting director got very excited. Plenty of casting directors don’t have open minds or the imagination to make it work, but that’s where it becomes my job, as a deaf actor, to educate them. The hearing community can do its part too. One of the hearing cast members in “Spring Awakening” was offered an audition for a hard of hearing role recently. He politely turned it down, and explained that he works with amazing deaf actors who should be considered. That took tons of willpower. But we need more.
There are many deaf actors just like me, working hard to be seen. It fills my heart to see how we are finally being recognized. We are here to stay, and people should get ready to see us at auditions everywhere. We will show how we can bring the beauty of deaf culture to a character, but more importantly, how we can bring our abilities as actors. We are actors; we just happen to be deaf.