Integrating Deaf Performers into Live Musical Theatre
“Innovative” and “Explorative” are two of the most appropriate words that come to mind when thinking of Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma’s recent production of Fun Home. This seems fitting, as Lyric received the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s Innovation and Exploration Grant to help mount this production. In the Oklahoma professional premiere of a musical that already broke boundaries and shook up the musical theatre world, it would seem that merely including this title in Lyric’s mainstage season would be daring enough. And yet, Producing Artistic Director Michael Baron wanted to do even more.
With this production of Fun Home, Baron wanted to continue his work integrating deaf performers into live musical theatre productions. Rather than mounting a production in collaboration with a deaf theatre company, Baron wished to incorporate one or more deaf actors into a show with a mostly-hearing cast. This type of integrated performance provides a different option for theaters who cannot hire an all-deaf cast. Through this type of theatre, Baron hopes to expand the casual theatergoer’s exposure to and understanding of the deaf community, as well as to increase opportunities for deaf performers across the country.
In Summer 2016, Lyric Theatre produced Fiddler on the Roof starring two deaf actors in leading roles. Sandra Mae Frank (Hodel) and Christopher Tester (Perchik) spent two and a half weeks in Oklahoma City rehearsing and preparing for the one-week run of the show. For this production, Baron made every performance American Sign Language accessible, with two costumed interpreters integrated into the acting ensemble. In addition, Baron cast “shadows” to voice and sing the lines for the deaf actors. These shadows worked onstage with Frank and Tester, voicing the lines as the actors signed them.
This was Lyric’s first endeavor in the world of integrating deaf performers in live musical theatre. The results were largely successful. Frank and Tester agreed that Baron’s and Lyric’s willingness to tackle this problem and engage with them in problem-solving greatly encouraged the deaf community’s support and involvement in the theater.
“It was amazing working with Lyric for the first time,” Frank said about the experience. “They were very open-minded and very inclusive, and it was something new — they weren’t scared to work with a deaf actress.”
Lyric’s production of Fiddler on the Roof received an enthusiastic response from both season subscribers and newcomers to the theater. Lyric had more deaf patrons attend this production than any previous show. The cast, crew, and audience members all agreed that Fiddler was an exciting and important event for the community. Lyric even received The Mayor’s Committee on Disability Concerns Award for this production from then-Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett.
At the end of the run of Fiddler, Frank and Baron immediately began discussing what project they could work on together next. Baron quickly offered up Fun Home, which he was planning to direct in two years at Lyric’s Plaza Theatre Stage.
Baron wanted to try something different with this production. In previous productions of this musical, only one image from the graphic novel appeared as a part of the scenic design. The furniture and costumes were also fairly realistic and simple. For Lyric’s production, Baron wanted to ground the entire world within the pages of the graphic novel. Baron gained permission from Alison Bechdel herself to integrate panels from her novel into the scenic design of this production. With the inclusion of both painted panels and projected ones, Dawn Drake Toney’s scenic design brought Bechdel’s pages to life. The costumes and props — completely white, blue, and black, except for Alison’s — also maintained the color palette from the graphic novel.
With the world created, Baron set out to populate it with characters that could keep the story fresh and exciting. Baron brought Frank back to Oklahoma City to play Joan, Medium Alison’s college girlfriend.
“Even if Sandra wasn’t deaf, I probably would cast her as the very confident Joan,” Baron said. “She just is that. She has her own leather jacket that she comes with, and she’s just an exciting political person. Even though the show deals a lot with LGBT issues, for her ASL is an issue that’s just as powerful and strong. So, the idea of her being an activist made perfect sense.”
Joan does not have any solo songs in the show, and only appears in one group number (“Raincoat of Love”). With this being the case, Baron was able to use supertitles for all of Joan’s lines, projected on a blank panel in the center of the back wall. This way, Frank’s performance stood alone, without the need for a shadow or a “voice.” Baron justified this decision story-wise by having Medium Alison (played by Taylor Yancey) sign along with her dialogue for her scenes with Joan, the thought being that, after meeting Joan, Medium Alison took the initiative to learn ASL to communicate with her new friend.
“We did have a moment where we were like, ‘Well, how does Middle Alison know sign language?’” Baron said. “And we said, ‘You know what, Alison has gone to college, she’s met someone she likes, and she wants to do whatever she can to communicate with her.’ And that has worked perfectly, so that in every scene you see Sandra and Taylor together, Taylor’s ASL gets better and better and better.”
Frank also danced in “Raincoat of Love” with the rest of the cast, feeling the beat of the music rather than hearing it, and oftentimes keeping time better than most of the hearing cast. The choreographer, Matthew Sipress, worked with Frank to create a number that integrated ASL in all of the movements. The goal was to convey the story of the song effectively without the need for an interpreter. Sipress fused ASL and choreography to create both a dance number and a narrative.
Lyric Theatre’s run of Fun Home was a massive success. As the professional Oklahoma premiere of the Tony Award-winning musical, this show garnered remarkable ticket sales and an overwhelmingly positive response. The intimate Plaza Theatre (at just 279 seats) perfectly lent itself to this type of integrated performance. Placing this production in the style of the graphic novel created a natural way to supertitle Joan’s lines without being disruptive or confusing. And ultimately, Frank’s performance almost required no supertitles whatsoever. Before the technical crew implemented the projections, cast and staff members found they could follow the plot of the scenes with Medium Alison and Joan without them.
“In [Joan’s] first big scene with Middle Alison, I don’t know all those words, but I know exactly what’s happening in that scene,” said Sipress, while watching a rehearsal. “So, you, as a hearing audience member, may not even really need to glance up at that screen so often because Sandra’s such a good actress. And she’s choosing the signs that are most theatrical but are still correct for our deaf audiences.
“It just adds a different layer to the show. There’s no reason why this character can’t be a deaf character…It doesn’t hinder the plot in any way; it only enhances it.”
In the future, Baron hopes to continue his work integrating deaf performers in his regular seasons at Lyric. “Lyric’s mission, of course, is that we are here for all Oklahomans, and that includes our deaf community as well,” he said. “Aside from inclusion of the deaf community here, I think particularly with musical theatre, it just adds another beautiful physical element, a way of telling a story that’s new and fresh.”
Frank also hopes to partner with Lyric again, and promises that she will continue advocating for deaf actors in live musical theatre.
“I want to encourage other people, other deaf individuals, to join in theatre,” she said. “I want them to see that they can and not think that they can’t. If you want to be an actor, go for it! You can write and you can use sign language; there are many ways to communicate, whatever. There’s a lot of opportunities. Yeah, there’s no limits.”