“As an able-bodied person, I’m, like, hyper-able-bodied. I dance and speak all the languages. But I facilitate communication and I come from the deaf community. It’s something that’s very deep in my heart.” muses Brandon Kazen-Maddox, a multidisciplinary artist whose work is powered by ASL. Fresh from the 100th episode of Stories from the Stage, ABILITY’s George Kaplan interviewed the featured Kazen-Maddox and executive producer Patricia Alvarado Núñez to discuss the episode and their work.
George Kaplan: How did you get involved in working with Brandon?
Patricia Alvarado Núñez: Well, let me just tell you a little bit about the series before I get to how I got to Brandon. We started from the stage. The series started in 2017. It was initially an event of WGBH, now GBH, in Boston. My co-executive producer, Liz Cheng, saw the potential and the importance of bringing stories to television. We never even imagined that the series was going to be this popular. We reach people all over the country in multi-platforms. These stories really reach a lot of people, and what we believe is that there is definitely a great appetite for storytelling in our world, and if we make a space for people and their stories, we make a space for empathy, for understanding, and a place for humanity to connect. That is what moved us to continue with the series.
In 2022, we celebrated our hundredth episode. This is when we met Brandon, through Cheryl Hamilton. Cheryl has been working with us as a curator and an amazing coach. She has connections with everybody. I say that she’s the mayor of New England. We work very closely with her. She is the head of the Stellar Story Company. She has been working with the series since day one. We wanted to have a very special 100th episode, so by saying 100 episodes, I’d say 300 stories that we have featured.
We met, we got together, and it’s like, “What will make these episodes incredibly special?” and Cheryl knew Kevin, right, Brandon? You tell that little part of the story.
Brandon Kazen-Maddox: Of course, yeah! I have a partner, a life partner, partner in business. His name is Kevin Newbury. He is wonderful. And he and Cheryl have a very close relationship from childhood. Kevin and I were commissioned to do this series called SOUL (SIGNS), an ASL playlist. It’s kind of a love letter between my grandmother, whom my story is about, my white, deaf grandmother, and my black hearing Nanna from New York. My Nanna taught me about music and my grandma taught me about sign language. This series was about translating songs by black women into American sign language. That had a lot of visibility. It had a New York Times article and a lot of other wonderful things. Up Until Now Collective, that’s who made that happen with Broadstream, and then Cheryl Hamilton saw that and was really congratulatory to Kevin and me. That’s how I was brought to Stories from the Stage.
Kaplan: That’s a great connection! You’re lucky you had that partner, you have that partner.
Kazen-Maddox: I do have that partner! I am very lucky to have him! He’s a good person.
Kaplan: Give us a little bit more background about yourself.
Kazen-Maddox: My grandparents are deaf on my mom’s side of the family. I have seven deaf people in my family. They were all from a certain era. My grandma was born in 1950, her brother was born in 1946. This was a time period when there was no penicillin. My grandma was born hearing but got scarlet fever and was deaf from the age of three on. And her brother, my uncle Jim, he was deaf from a little kid, too. And my grandmother on my mom’s side was born deaf, as was her sister. There are a lot of deaf people in that era of time.
I grew up with all these folks. My mom is a CODA, a child of deaf adults. Her first language is American sign language, because of my grandparents. My mom has two sisters and a brother, so there are four of them who all grew up in the same household as my grandparents, and they were all teenagers when I was born. And then there I came, and naturally I learning sign language along with everyone else, because that’s how we were all communicating. That’s a brief back story of it.
Kaplan: You became also an acrobat? Were you a gymnast before?
Kazen-Maddox: Yeah, that’s right. I’ve always been a very visual, very kinesthetic, hands-on learner. I’ve always been a lover of aesthetic beauty when it comes to dance and ice skating and diving and gymnastics. When I was four, I started gymnastics because I wanted to be a Power Ranger.
I told my grandparents that and they put me in gymnastics. They worked at the Post Office when I was growing up, 30 years for my grandma and I think 40 years for my grandpa. Through their working at the Post Office, they helped pay for my gymnastics from the time I was four until I was ten. So, I owe the gymnastics to them, and I also owe the dancing and entertainment ideology to my Nanna from New York. She was the one who taught me all about That’s Entertainment and what Broadway is, the Apollo Theater and all that stuff. I tumbled, I’ve always tumbled, I still tumble. I went to circus school when I was 21, after I graduated from college.
Kaplan: Patricia, same question. Tell us about your background.
Núñez: I am originally from Panama. I came to the U.S. over 25 years ago. I worked in public media in Panama, and I came here to grad school, and after grad school I started working at GBH in Boston. I have the gift of being able to produce very, very different series. I had Neighborhood Kitchens, that was about food and chefs and communities. I had all kinds of series. This is my latest production. What we have tried to create with this show is a very inclusive stage. We had, for example, of all these 300 storytellers, refugees, immigrants. I am an immigrant, so the voices of immigrants are very important to me. We had a lot of LGBT different stories. In other episodes we had, for example, someone who talked about the experience of visiting museums in Europe versus visiting museums in the U.S. as a blind person.
We had a deaf and blind storyteller who talked about something that was incredible, that was moving through the city on a very, very late night coming from school, her difficulty accessing the library, an incredible perspective. We had an Olympian speed jumper who suffered an accident and his life completely changed. We had an Afghanistan woman who had polio as a child and had to deal with all this in her journey to school and to the U.S. We also have presented learning disabilities.
For us, for me, I have a love for this series, because sometimes we have a lot of people who send their story submissions to us, and Cheryl will help us find people like Brandon. I have always been in production. It has been my personal goal to always create series that are inclusive and that show different perspectives and open a window to our audience. Every time they watch one of these series, they connect and they learn. That’s what I have been doing for all these years. They have been an incredible journey, a personal journey for me.
Kaplan: You both have great backstories. The videos that you’re doing, Brandon, with the sign language, can you talk about that?
Kazen-Maddox: Yeah, of course. It’s our SOUL (SIGNS) series. It started out with the “SOUL (SIGNS)” in the ASL playlist to honor black singers whose music some of us know, but many people don’t. And they’ve been around for so long. For example, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Nina Simone, Tina Turner, Janet Jackson herself. And then our last one, the last iconic black female we worked with is a woman named Lachi, a newer artist. She’s blind and she’s a songwriter and a singer and she plays piano. We thought, why not also include and incorporate an iconic person who is burgeoning? So, what we did for that ASL music video, the song is called Bad Choices. We’re editing it right now. It’s very exciting. Lachi has her fingers in so many pots. She works with the Grammys, she has an organization called RAMPD. I think she would be a perfect Stories from the Stage participant as well. We work together to uplift and to spotlight all of these folks. And we uplift each other.
What we did which was so special is, we were talking about these bad choices. It’s kind of subjective. If you’re drinking or you’re taking medication or drugs, does that make you a bad person? Not exactly, I mean, no, but how you ingest and how you temper and how you put those things into your body and how you make those decisions sometimes might be good and sometimes might be bad. But it doesn’t make us bad people. And it also goes to show that everyone, able-bodied, disability community members, everybody needs something for their lives to destress, to take anxiety away, or have fun, whatever.
What we did which was so special is, we got six deaf women together with three blind folks, and Lachi herself is blind, and then a deaf-blind man, and I curated all the deaf part of it all, and then I worked with the director of artistic sign language to translate the songs that were Lachi’s words. And then I worked with a deaf person to in real time translate Lachi’s music into—like, I did the sign language and then the deaf person watched me do it and they did it into the hand of the person who’s deaf-blind. We got all that on film. It’s this artistic beautiful thing.
The other aspect of SOUL (SIGNS) is SOUL (SIGNS) Opera. We just finished three opera ASL music videos, a commission by a few opera companies. They feature deaf artists and hearing artists and a collective awesomeness.
Kaplan: And how do people find that?
Kazen-Maddox: All this is produced and created by Up Until Now Collective, which you can find on our website, UpUntilNowCollective.com. the SOUL (SIGNS) and ASL playlist lives on Broadstream, which is at Broad.Stream, and then the ASL opera music videos live on Operabox.tv. Those are the two places where you can find the SOUL (SIGNS) series.
Up Until Now Collective, which is our nonprofit that Kevin and I and two of our co-founders founded in 2020, we focus on creating—making work that is joyful, necessary, and inclusive, but it’s not only for one community. We create for everybody. We tell stories that need to be told and bring people together who wouldn’t normally be brought together. The work we’re doing with Up Until Now Collective is so poignant and special. It’s just at the beginning, and we’ve already done so much.
Kaplan: We know Lachi well. She’s been in the magazine a couple of times.
Kazen-Maddox: Oh, yes.
Kaplan: It’s great that you’re working with her.
Kazen-Maddox: She’s a spitfire. She’s awesome.
Kaplan: She’s very motivated, and like you said, she has her hands in a lot of things. George, I kind of took over, sorry.
George Kaplan: No worries! Also, I wanted to congratulate you on the New England Foundation for the Arts grant. Can you tell us more about your intentions for your ASL WILD PARTY project?
Kazen-Maddox: Yes, for the New England Foundation for the Arts grant. Thank you for that congratulations. Recently, in the cycle of 2022, I was awarded the Creative Capital Award, which is so special and so prestigious. People apply for that award for seven years in a row and don’t get it, and I got it on my first try. Which is very special, and it also goes to show you how special this particular project is. The ASL WILD PARTY is basically a reimagining of Andrew Lippa’s WILD PARTY. I got to sign that in 2015, back when I lived in San Francisco when I was a circus acrobat. When I signed that musical, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, deaf people need to own this. They need to own this show.” Not just have one deaf person who’s, like, being drunk, but rather like, what does a deaf party look like? Because I know deaf people and they can party, for sure!
A big motivation for the ASL WILD PARTY is education around what it is to let loose and go wild and also how to do that responsibly. Also, to shine a light on what it looks like when deaf people are in a place where they’re very comfortable to do all of those things.
Right now, we’re in our second workshop. It’ll have a work-in-progress showcase at Little Island, New York City, on August 21st, which is very exciting. Hopefully, our third workshop will be at Lincoln Center, which is in the spring of 2023. The really special part about this particular reimagining is the fact that we’re incorporating haptics technologies, wearable technology that will vibrate in different places. It’s with the Music Not Impossible organization, they have all these vests and they work with the deaf community. They’re very special. My goal is not to replicate the music and make people feel the music, it’s rather to use these vests as cueing devices, so that deaf people can be onstage and we can have five different places where the vest vibrates, and if you are Queenie, one of the characters, and you vibrate here, then if you’re not vibrating there, that means you’re not onstage or you’re not delivering your line. It’s a cueing device.
Though it is a musical, I have decided to take the voice away because I know that when deaf people are onstage with hearing people who are singing, the deaf person always has to rely on the hearing person. They don’t get to experience the music for themselves. How to make that happen is, take the hearing person away, let the deaf person just be onstage, give them the tools that they need, whether it’s captions that they can read on the monitor or specific cues from the other people who are onstage or someone who’s in the audience feeding them and they have the choice to look at them or do their own thing. We have taken, like I said, the voice away and we’re replacing the vocal lines with live instrumental music. The live musicians, instrumentalists, will live onstage alongside the deaf actors, and it’ll be a wild, wild party.
Right now, we have Kurt Crowley, who was the music director for Hamilton. He will be our music director. He’s rearranging all the music with his own beautiful thing. One of my big goals is to take the WILD PARTY and not just tour it around the U.S., but take it to Japan and Korea and all these places where there are deaf people. It’s so wonderful that we can use ASL as the platform of things, and we can also adapt and take on Japanese sign language to show them respect. And also we have the idea of subtitles, titles, where we switch to Japanese, and there you are.
Kaplan: You were also cast on The Good Fight. Is there anything that you can tease us about your upcoming role or at least tell us about your time on set?
Kazen-Maddox: Let’s see. Hahaha! Well, how can I—I’ll put all of this in the best way that I can. I was on The Good Fight. I think there were three days of filming. The first day, I’m such a staunch advocate for directors of artistic sign language, period. The disability community has the idea, the motto of “Nothing about us without us.” So, if a television show wants to have sign language, they need to bring someone who is a director of American sign language or a director of artistic sign language as the consultant and as the person who has their deaf eyes and hands on the work. The first day I was there, they didn’t have that director of artistic sign language. They had a deaf actor and they had me, and they did have an interpreter, which is great. But the interpreter is not the director of artistic sign language, and the actor is not that person, either. The actor isn’t supposed to be like, “Well, I guess I would say this,” and the interpreter isn’t supposed to do that either. You have to have someone in that role.
The deaf actor had been there for two days prior, and on their first day they had an interpreter, but they didn’t have a DASL, and then the second day was when I came, and I was like, “Where’s the DASL?” and they were like, “We don’t have one.” So, the third day that I was there, they brought a director of artistic sign language, which was great, and it was much easier, because the day I was there, there were moments of the directors asking me and asking the interpreter and asking the deaf person for advice on what deaf people would do, when that’s not our job. That was really interesting.
But in juxtaposition to the fact that when we did have a DASL, everything was beautiful, really nice, very comfortable. The stress and the pressure of getting it right or whatever wasn’t on us. And that’s the point of a DASL. That’s the cultural and linguistic sensitivity, the bridge, between the deaf community and the entertainment world. I felt good advocating for that. And it goes to show you how much fighting we have to do when those really important steps are not in place. We don’t want to have to fight like that.
Kaplan: Where do you get that fight in you and that drive for equality and for equity in these spaces?
Kazen-Maddox: The fire comes from my family and my friends and the advocacy that my mom has had to put forward as a CODA for her parents and how much I’ve had to work for my grandparents on making sure I understand stuff. And also, my friends who are deaf. I’m like, “You’re amazing.” My deaf friends do amazing stuff that even I wouldn’t do the same way because I’m not a deaf person. It’s so amazing what I’ve been able to learn from deaf people regarding music and theater and dance and film just because of their perspective.
Núñez: Brandon, I will be eternally thankful because you were open to work with us on your story, on the beginning, the end. You had to tell the story in seven minutes. So, it took a little process to put it together, and the fact that you also guided us in the process. Because when you and I had that first conversation, you were like, “Patricia, these microphones won’t work here, they have to be here.” All those things, like, even the lighting has to be a little different, everything has to be a little different to what we usually do for the show. And I was very excited, and the entire team, to have you. I hope that other storytellers feel like this is their stage, too, and that they submit their stories and they come to our stage. I am very excited that so many people are paying attention to your story in Stories on the Stage. So, thank you.
Kazen-Maddox: I’m excited, too, and just to follow up on what you’re saying, Patricia, is that what I’m so grateful for for this particular platform was the ability to communicate in the way that I communicate, which is legitimately with my voice and with my hands. I often say it, as I said in my Stories from the Stage, I think with my hands. I think in sign language, and typically my words are just kind of along for the ride. They’re interpreting what my hands are thinking first. This platform gave me the permission to do that, because also as an as interpreter, a certified, registered, nationally certified ASL interpreter, I don’t get to talk like this. I have to turn my voice off and sign for deaf people, or voice for them and take my personality away and give my voice to deaf people in order for them to have a voice, a voice that other hearing people can hear. They always have a voice, but does everyone understand their voice? That’s kind of the thing.
I was able, because of the content of the story, because it’s about my grandma and our relationship, because it was about me getting pulled over and having to sim-com, simultaneously communicate, with the officer and my grandma, that gave me the permission to express myself in the way that I naturally do. You would be so amazed at how often I have to explain myself and defend myself and justify myself for being who I am. It’s really, really something. You gave me the opportunity to show the world who I am. This is reason behind who I am, but I don’t need to apologize for it. You don’t apologize for how you grew up. I’m so grateful for it.
Kaplan: I’m sure your family must be proud of you and how represent them.
Kazen-Maddox: They are, they are very proud. I live in this world that they don’t really live in. My mom’s an accountant, and no one in my family is in show business. I’m the one who left home for college and never came back and the one who feels comfortable onstage. You asked about the passion, the fire. It comes from people having tried to tell me what I can and can’t do. If you knew my mother, you would understand that nobody tells me what I can and can’t do. And that story comes from my grandma and my mom and our family, but it’s the worst to know that you have these gifts, sign language is a gift, and I can use it how I want to use it, because I have the privilege and the right to do so. When there are people who see me who are threatened by—I don’t know, maybe the color of my skin or my preferences in sexuality or my intelligence, a lot of the things that make up who I am. When there’s a threat or a fear for the reduction of their power or their influence, and they try to make me not who I am, that’s why I’ve worked so hard with so much fire and passion. It’s frustrating to be told that you can’t be who you are.
Kaplan: Are you familiar with Omnium Circus?
Kazen-Maddox: I am familiar. A little bit about Omnium Circus. I was one of the people who helped create it.
Kaplan: I thought I’d seen your face before. We did an article a couple years ago.
Kazen-Maddox: Yeah, that’s right. In 2019 is when I met Lisa Louis, who is the founder. She and I sat down and were talking about—because I interpreted for Big Apple Circus. I said, “I’m also an acrobat, a tumbler, I was in the circus, I really want to make something that is a container that I can live in.” Because I don’t, I still don’t. That’s why I’m making the WILD PARTY, so that I can fit somewhere in this world that I straddle, but I can’t actually set onto anything. But Omnium, I was going to dive deeper into that. I created a character called “The Poet”. I created that character because I know that I could do it. It would be a person who’s a storyteller, who tumbles, who dances, and whose voice is represented by a musical instrument. And that came initially from the WILD PARTY.
But then I became very busy and couldn’t be a part of Omnium, so I gave that role to my friend who is deaf. Her name is Anna Gichan, and she’s awesome. I just watched her at Queens Theater this weekend, where I was also interpreting, and she killed it.
Kaplan: That’s great. Any more you’d like to say?
Kazen-Maddox: Again, I am so grateful to Stories from the Stage and Patricia and Cheryl to be able to have had this platform to express myself in the way that I do completely, which is with my voice and with my hands. Thanks for giving me the permission.