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Tuesday, October 02, 2012 - Three Perspectives on Police Deaf Near Far

by Gillian Ellis

“Amazing.” “ Awesome.” These are the words that are constantly repeated in conversations about the upcoming theatre production of Police Deaf Near Far, which opens on Thursday, October 4. Professor Karen Sheridan, who is directing the show says, “The whole cast and crew have fully embraced the opportunity. I am so proud of the students.” The production is complex and since the theme of the play is communication, it is vital that the complexity is accurately addressed and the show is seamlessly presented. The play captures the emotion and drama surrounding an event arising from a miscommunication between a Deaf activist torn between his love for his hearing girlfriend and being true to his community, and a police officer in the midst of a tumultuous divorce. Every performance will be fully accessible to both hearing and Deaf patrons. We spoke to three women about their perspective on the production.

Anna Wyatt is one of two actors playing Roberta, the Deaf activist’s girlfriend. Roberta is an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter and throughout much of the play, she signs and does not speak. Anna is a senior Acting major working on a B.F.A. As preparation for her audition last April, Anna was given a video of Shelly Tocco from TerpTheatre signing a monologue, instead of a script. Anna reports that she spent at least ten hours just learning the hand and finger movement of the signs, without a deep understanding of their meaning. It was difficult, but she thinks she was helped by her background in dance, which has given her a feeling for expressing meaning through movement. At the audition she was partnered by Dan McDougall, also of TerpTheatre, OU’s partner in the production. Then, as all actors do after an audition, she waited.

Karen Sheridan called her about two weeks later, just a few days before OU’s class “Intro to American Sign Language” was about to start, to offer her the part and to ask her if she could fit the class into her schedule. She could and she signed up for the class, which was taught by adjunct professor Tim Johnston, who is Deaf. Anna says it is a “great class, taught by a great teacher.” During the first lesson there were interpreters at the front of the class to speak, but every subsequent class was conducted in silence, using ASL. Anna says that Tim told his students not to be scared, that he had taught the class many times. “Somehow,” she says, “your brain is able to communicate with visuals.” Before the class was over she and the other students were able to understand and tell stories that were five or six minutes long using ASL only.

Anna says she loves ASL because it is so expressive. Each sign movement has eight or more actual meanings, which have to be understood from context. And much of that understanding comes not just from the hands, but from the body and most especially from the eyes and facial expression. Anna says she was taught to maintain eye contact, especially important since it must substitute for the inflection that a hearing person would pick up from a speaker’s voice.

During the summer, Anna and other student actors spent many hours working on learning the ASL script, in preparation for working with the two professional Deaf actors whose arrival in September rounded out the cast. Working with Daniel Durant, who lives and works in Los Angeles, and Garrett Zuercher, who is a New York-based actor, has been an amazing experience for Anna and all the student actors. It has also reinforced for her all she learned during her preparation. Both the professional actors use their whole bodies to speak ASL. “It’s a fluid language,” says Anna. This has been such an important lesson. She feels “in her body” now when she signs, and says that sometimes Karen Sheridan has to remind the student actors to be equally in their bodies when they resume speaking.

Anna says, “The professional actors are wonderful.” She has many scenes with Daniel who plays Stinger, the activist, and she says he is very poetic in the way he expresses himself. Garrett, she reports, is always making jokes. Both are comfortable to be around and fun to work with. “There have been no communication problems. Everyone in the cast can at least finger spell and the cast and professional actors have gone bowling together and had parties.”

Anna could speak her lines as she is signing but, because of differences in syntax and grammar, to do so would not give an accurate translation of the ASL script. Instead, a “Roberta voice” will speak the English language script. One of the actors playing the part of Roberta’s voice is Luciana Piazza, who also has two other roles in the production. Luciana is new this year to the Theatre program but is planning to pursue a B.F.A. in Acting. She is thrilled to find herself in the midst of such an exciting project with such an important message. “It’s so much bigger than just a production,” she says.

She understands that to have such an opportunity so early in her career is “priceless” and she is working hard to learn as much as she can from working with Equity actors; for example, watching how they prepare. But she says, the student cast was very professional from the beginning of the process and is fully committed to the project.

Luciana’s role does not require her to learn ASL, but she says she is picking it up from being backstage with Daniel and Garrett, as well as the interpreters from TerpTheatre, some of whom are there to appear on stage, shadow-sign the hearing actors, and others to facilitate the rehearsal process for the Deaf actors. Among the latter group is Courtney Butcher.

Courtney’s perspective is a little different from our two OU students. Working as a theatre liaison for TerpTheatre, Courtney will not appear on stage, but she has made many appearances in the Studio Theatre in the past. She graduated from our Theatre program in 2003 with a B.A.P.A. in Theatre when she was Courtney Presley. In this production, her job is to facilitate anything needed by the Deaf actors and is often on book for them. This gives her every opportunity to watch the creative process unfold.

And this is what she has to say. “When I was here as a student, I didn’t appreciate how amazing the professors were. I was so absorbed in myself and could see only my part of the process. I had no idea how much work the professors were doing to make things happen. Now I watch and I see just how creative and inspirational Karen [Sheridan] really is. And I see how much Kerro [Knox] has to get done and can’t do until we’re ready. I told him the other night, ‘You’re brilliant.’”

Asked if she thought the students actors in this production were as unaware as she now thought she had been, she was quick to reply that they were not. “These students have put their heart and soul into this production. The audition process was extremely selective and these actors are here because they want to be involved in this project. They are working with a condensed time frame and this is like a real world experience for them.”

No matter what perspective you view Police Deaf Near Far from, it promises to be one of the highlights of this season and will probably be talked about for many seasons to come. To make sure you are part of the conversation, whether you are using English or American Sign Language, purchase your tickets soon.

For more information or to view our season brochure, visit our home page: oakland.edu/mtd

Performance information available here. Ticket information available here.

Photo: Daniel Durant as Stinger and Anna Wyatt as Roberta. Photo by Danny McDougall.

Photo: Luciana Piazza

Photo: Courtney Butcher. Photo by Gillian Ellis
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