Deaf West Theatre – Production Of Big River

Circa 2004

It’s easy to be captivated by the soulful words of Huck in the musical, Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But the reason these days might be different from what you’d think.

The Big River of recent Broadway success is an adaptation of the 1985 Broadway musical hit that won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. In this revival, the hook pulling us in is that America’s most famous boy hero spins his tale in American Sign Language (ASL). The biggest hook, however, is that everyone else in the show is doing it too. The story of the adventures of a boy and a runaway slave has an added layer of deafness on top of the issue of racism. The result is the perfect story about acceptance of the humanity in all of us despite our differences, or what we’re told about those differences.

Theater has been used for both education and entertainment and has often been celebrated as a superior vehicle by which to transmit culture. Deaf West Theatre has been doing a lot of that transmitting in recent years, winning more than eighty awards for portraying deaf culture onstage.

Founder Ed Waterstreet, who is deaf himself, calls Deaf West Theatre “the realization of a dream.” Since childhood, when he would go to shows with his hearing family, he had dreamed of a theater that would be fully accessible to him and other individuals who are deaf. As the current artistic director of Deaf West Theatre, the only theater company in the U.S. led by a deaf individual, Waterstreet has made it into the premier theater culture with a company of, by and for the deaf.

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Deaf West’s mission is total access to theater—bringing classic and contemporary theater works to deaf audiences by incorporating ASL, and heightening or enhancing the theatrical experience for hearing audiences through this same device. For the auditory pleasure of hearing audience members, voice and music are also there in a synthesis of sign and sound. The benefit for deaf audiences is that they can enjoy plays with sign incorporated into the production by signing actors, as opposed to splitting focus between the central action onstage and an interpreter off to the side.

This synthesis of sign and sound was not always the way Deaf West did theater. It used to be much quieter onstage…for the ears.

About 20 years ago, Ed Waterstreet arrived in Los Angeles with his wife, Linda Bove, of Sesame Street fame, who has played “Linda the Librarian” since 1971. Fresh after filming the Hallmark television movie Love is Never Silent, in which he starred with Tony Awardwinning Phyllis Frelich, he and Bove were surprised to find such a big need for cultural accessibility for the thousands of individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing residing in the area. Professional artistic opportunities were few, and arts accessibility for the deaf was not a priority.

Tyrone Giordano in Big River
Tyrone Giordano in Big River

Prior to arriving in Los Angeles, Waterstreet had been touring with the National Theatre for the Deaf (NTD) for 15 years, and while he was thankful for the employment as an actor, he found the whole experience somehow lacking. NTD’s approach to deaf theater at that time was more concerned with the idea that English was to be the dominant language and enhanced through “beautiful signing,” a philosophy with which Waterstreet heartily disagreed. He wanted something more raw, more true to ASL and deafness, where ASL could have as much range between sheer ugliness and poetic beauty as the spoken word had onstage. He wanted true artistic expression of sign unrestrained by the dictates of the spoken word, and for the benefit of deaf, not hearing audiences.

In 1991, he set out to realize his vision and create a work where ASL would be the only spoken medium, “starting with only one desk, one chair, one typewriter in a shared office space [at the Fountain Theater],” as the Deaf West website states. Waterstreet began filling the cultural void of Los Angeles by staging what he calls “true deaf theater” with the play The Gin Game, and Deaf West Theatre was born. Waterstreet’s brand of theater shifted focus away from any issues surrounding deafness, unlike Children of a Lesser God, where the two leads struggle with the conflicts of their respective cultures. Waterstreet believed that The Gin Game was the perfect story that could be pulled off without an auditory element and using only deaf actors, a story where the deafness of the characters was purely incidental. “I do not want to create theater that is about deaf issues, but rather that exposes conflicts between the deaf and hearing worlds,” Waterstreet said of his criteria in selecting material. While the production of The Gin Game was successful, Waterstreet noticed the overwhelming majority of the theatergoers were hearing.

Eventually, Deaf West was able to obtain a sub-99-seat theater in North Hollywood, California, and with the help of a $12,000 donation by GTE, Waterstreet was able to implement an infrared sound system. This allowed hearing patrons to listen in on the action through their headsets, with the sign-to-voice interpreters planted in the sound booth speaking into a microphone. He tried this approach with the play Shirley Valentine with considerable success, and the box office numbers flourished. Waterstreet’s dream was compromised a little when his ‘silents’ became ‘talkies,’ so he made up for that concession by making the voice completely subordinate to the rhythm of ASL, and without question, the ASL translation was as rich as possible. Hearing patrons would sometimes have to endure rapid-fire or meandering speech as it modified itself to fit the rhythm of the ASL onstage.

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Waterstreet sought out material that allowed for both a subtle and direct layer of deaf/hearing conflict. Along came One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with a deaf Murphy and cohorts. A hearing Nurse Ratched and fellow professionals spoke and signed onstage, and this technique got such an enthusiastic response that Waterstreet could not ignore it. Waterstreet began making a policy of implementing speech alongside sign onstage, and “they came in droves,” he recalls with pleasant surprise. From this point forward, variations of this technique of intermingling deaf and hearing characters, sign and the spoken word onstage, creating a third language, have been employed by Deaf West in all its productions.

Waterstreet’s original vision met with business sense and adapted to suit the needs of an increasingly diverse audience. For all the praise that this method garners, many have accused him of compromising deaf cultural values in trying to keep audience numbers up. He recognizes this as only partly true in that the ASL element must now work to find middle ground with a spoken element. Keeping the greater good in mind, he reaches many more audience members this way, impacting many more lives than he could through his original methods. “They want a deaf club atmosphere, and I can’t go back to that. I must move forward,” says Waterstreet. Not to say that his vision is lacking, nor that he didn’t try to fulfill it. “It hurts me to have to do things this way; I treasure the deaf community, but I must move on with my work,” he acknowledges.

Christina Ellison Dunams and Gwen Stewart in Big River
Christina Ellison Dunams and Gwen Stewart in Big River

Waterstreet met with several people to try an entirely new form of theater, but found that most of the initial people he was hoping to collaborate with wanted to do something akin to NTD’s style—“beautiful signing.” Waterstreet’s producing director Bill O’Brien understood what he was trying to get at. Waterstreet’s ambition would take Deaf West one step further: he wanted to do a musical.

A musical…with deaf actors?

O’Brein contacted Jeff Calhoun, a Broadway director he had worked with before, to enlist his help in setting up a deaf musical. “It sound[ed] like a punch line to a bad joke,” said Calhoun. Nevertheless, he was intrigued, and rose to the challenge.

Calhoun staged the success of Oliver!, which garnered several Theatre LA Ovation nominations and won the Best Musical category. Calhoun’s enthusiasm for a new show brought him back to Deaf West, determined to use his groundbreaking experience with Oliver! to greatly enhance the story of Big River. That production earned thirteen Ovation Nominations and won in six categories including Best Director and Best Musical.

Up to this point, Waterstreet had been trying unsuccessfully for years to convince Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles, to stage a sign language adaptation. Davidson knew that Waterstreet had the right idea, but was looking for the right show. After seeing Big River, Davidson decided that he wanted to bring it to the 750-seat Taper, the first time in the Taper’s 36-year history that it brought in a show from a local sub-99-seat theater. An enthusiastic response followed, and audiences drank up the experience as if they were starved for a new artistic expression. A few New York producers, including Rocco Landesman, who had staged the original Big River on Broadway in 1985, were intrigued by this show and hoped to bring it to Broadway.

It had been 23 years since a play involving deafness had graced a Broadway marquee with Children of a Lesser God. In the summer of 2003 the Roundabout Theatre Company gladly took Big River onboard for a limited engagement at the 750-seat American Airlines Theatre. Phyllis Frelich, who had won the Tony for Children, returned to Broadway as part of the show. The critic and audience response was phenomenal, and the show received international press coverage. History was made as the first deaf musical ever produced on this scale reached Broadway. At its North Hollywood complex, Deaf West shows draw more than five thousand viewers a season, but with the recent stagings at the Mark Taper Forum and American Airlines Theatre, Big River has reached over 100,000 viewers.

Deaf West now has hopes of a Tony as the awards ceremony approaches in June. A nomination for Big River would mark the third Tony nomination of a Broadway show involving deaf characters, the second being Runaways with Bruce Hlibok in 1978. If Big River wins in any categories, Deaf West will become the first deafhelmed theater organization ever to win the Tony Award.

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Big River has gone on to Broadway and preparations are underway to kick off an international tour including points in the U.S. and Tokyo, Japan. You’d think that Waterstreet would be resting on his laurels.

Think again.

Waterstreet is always thinking about the future and the future of deaf actors and deaf theater. In 2000, Deaf West Theatre won a substantial grant from the U.S. Department of Education that allowed for the establishment of a professional summer training program for deaf and hard of hearing artists. This conservatory prepares artists for the marketplace and gives them tools for developing their craft. Many former students of this program have had considerable success, including five who were a part of the Broadway revival of Big River. Waterstreet has many long-term plans for Deaf West’s future. He has hopes of incorporating a children’s theater into Deaf West’s yearly programming, in addition to three mainstage productions each season.

Waterstreet also acknowledges the need for a more radical aspect to deaf theater. “There needs to be a radical deaf theater company out there that is pushing the boundaries, testing new works by deaf writers, actors and directors, and developing them for the big stage,” he emphatically points out. “For now, we have only the hope that someday, as audiences become used to seeing sign onstage, Deaf West will meet its original vision where truly deaf theater exists and is accepted in the mainstream.”

And thinking even bigger, Waterstreet’s got his mind set on creating a new show in the future and bringing the Deaf West name back Broadway. Perhaps permanently? Waterstreet winks, “We’ll see…”

by Tyrone Giordano

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