September 2008 - November 2008: Issue 28
A Special Issue On Deaf Performing Arts

People

Behind The Scenes: Directors, Playwrights and Set Designer

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Adrian Blue, director, actor, translator

Medium Shot of Adrian Blue.

Mr. Blue is a director, translator, storyteller, playwright and actor. He has translated more than thirty plays and novels, including children's books and several Shakespeare plays.

Tell us about your background and how you got into directing.

I found myself struggling when I read a script as an actor, because my thinking process immediately envisioned the whole: language, translation, envisioning the text, character relationships, images on stage and more. My true enjoyment comes from the journey of expressing my voice as a director.

Recently you directed "This Island Alone" at the Vineyard Playhouse on Martha's Vineyard. What is the premise of the play?

Catherine Rush and I wrote "This Island Alone." It is performed simultaneously in ASL and English. The play is about a signing community that existed on Martha's Vineyard for more than 200 years. At the turn of the 20th century almost a quarter of the population was deaf, and the entire community used sign language. National Theatre of the Deaf has approached us with the idea of producing it for their 40th anniversary. It would be their first national tour after a period of hiatus for the NTD.

What was your role in developing this work? Was it written in English and then translated into American Sign Language?

It was written simultaneously in ASL and English. English is very important to Catherine, just as ASL is for me. We both refused to sacrifice anything to the other's native language. Whenever a line was created in English or ASL, we translated it forwards and backwards in

both languages.

You are known as a master ASL translator of Shakespeare's works. What are some of the challenges involved?

Translating work from one language to another is always challenging. With Shakespeare you have to consider rhyme, rhythm, puns, poetry, historical references, double entendres—I could go on and on about the complexity of the work. But what is important is that none of this is lost. A translator's job is to serve the author's work and try to bring it to an audience in a different language.

What three words describe Adrian Blue?

I am me. (I hope the period doesn't count as the fourth word.)

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Willy Conley, playwright, actor

Close up of Willy Conley smiling.

Mr. Conley is the chair of the Theatre Arts Department at Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C. He is a former actor with the National Theatre of the Deaf and has appeared in stage, film and television productions. He is an Associate Artist with Center Stage, an Affiliate Artist with Quest, and an Associate member of The Dramatists Guild.

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and how you became interested in writing plays.

In 1987, when I toured for three years as an actor with the National Theatre of the Deaf, I became interested in the process of how we created productions from original text. I learned that most of the text that NTD produced was written by hearing playwrights for hearing actors. There was something artificial about translating spoken English text while we – as deaf characters – pretended to say the lines on stage in American Sign Language. I wondered what it would be like to create lines expressed authentically from the point-of-view of an individual who was deaf.

I became intrigued to see what it would be like to write an original play from the D/deaf perspective. Shanny Mow, one of our country's well-known Deaf playwrights, was my roommate on tour. He taught me the basics in playwriting, and I ended up writing on the tour bus and in motels, getting hooked in the creative writing process. From there I decided to get formal training by enrolling in a graduate playwriting program at Boston University.

What do you write about? What's your current project?

It is hard to pigeonhole what I write about, but it runs the gamut from fallout shelters to family dramas to farces, using the D/deaf experience as my foundation. My current project is to complete an anthology manuscript of collected plays by deaf and hard of hearing writers.

How do you get your plays produced? Published?

I have had plays published by Gallaudet University Press and The Tactile Mind Press. Both publish works by deaf writers or about deaf culture. It was simply a matter of submitting manuscripts for consideration. In spring 2009, Gallaudet University Press will be publishing a book of my original plays, "Vignettes of the Deaf Character and Other Plays."

What's your greatest challenge?

Getting a play of mine produced in a major, regional theatre. It is very competitive. I write primarily for the eye; most commercial theatres are geared for the ear. I am not sure if regional theatres in America are ready to invest in bringing a Deaf-written play to fruition. Or, maybe we Deaf playwrights are just not up to par with the hearing playwrights. But I find this unfortunate fact interesting: The Gallaudet Encyclopedia of Deaf People and Deafness stated that "...no play with a deaf theme written by a deaf playwright has been produced by commercial theatre." This statement was published in 1987, and it is still true today. There have been a quite a few hearing playwrights and directors who have earned a ton of money off of deaf-related themes.

What three words describe Willy Conley?

Unpretentious—creative--irreverent

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Glenn Devlin, scriptwriter

Close up of Glenn Devlin

Mr. Devlin is a graduate of Gallaudet University with degrees in English and Computer Information Systems. TRICOR Entertainment recently optioned his script, "The Alien Diaries."

How did you learn your craft?

I used Jeffrey Boam's script, "The Lost Boys" as a template then graduated to other reading materials, such as Syd Field and Linda Seeger. Later I joined an online site called Zoetrope and TriggereStreet. Feedback from my peers on those two sites were critical to fine tuning my skills as a writer in terms of plot, pacing and character development.

What do you write about? What's your current project?

Mostly I write science fiction, horror and drama. I've done one comedy, and it's the hardest genre to write for. I am working with a deaf producer and another playwright on an untitled road trip comedy.

How do you get your scripts read? Who reads them?

I've stopped blind querying producers and agents. The notion of going out there and throwing it where it will hopefully stick is a waste of time and money. I first gather feedback from my online peers and close friends before submitting it to producers who put out calls for something specific.

What's your greatest challenge as a scriptwriter?

Getting past the first blank page.

As a scriptwriter, do you focus on deaf issues and deaf people?

I try to focus on everyday situations that don't involve deaf culture. For example, I'm tired of reading scripts where the hearing girl falls in love with the deaf guy and learns sign language in the process, and they overcome hearing/deaf obstacles and fall in love. It's a cliché. I prefer to place deaf folks in everyday situations that have nothing to do with deaf culture. If the character is deaf and needs an interpreter, etc., that's fine. But I don't want to develop stories where the culture of being deaf pushes the plot. Marlee Matlin said it best years ago in an interview with Arsenio Hall: you can tweak any script and just have the character deaf. That stuck with me for a long time.

What three words describe you as a scriptwriter?

Good—creative--hard-working

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Shanny Mow, playwright, actor, director

Shanny Mow's head shot

Mr. Mow was teaching deaf children in Honolulu when he wrote his first play for the Deaf Playwright Conference competition at Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, CT. He was invited to attend and subsequently became part of the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD) acting company and administration.

In addition to teaching, acting and directing, you also became a playwright. Was this a conscious effort on your part?

I consider myself foremost a playwright. After two years of acting, I wrote "The Iliad, Play by Play," and it was directed by Ed Waterstreet, making us NTD's first deaf director/deaf writer team. I went into directing out of boredom, working in the office. Being one or the other, I have become better in all three.

How did you learn your craft?

On the job training. Books and books. Observation. Analysis. Mistakes.

What do you write about?

I did adaptations of classics and children's stories. I lean to comedies, particularly black comedy. Being deaf, I cannot not write about the Deaf experience.

What are some of your current projects?

I always have some writing project on the Mac. At the moment, I have half a dozen. I can't stop reworking my old works.

How do you get your plays produced and published?

Most of my plays were written on commission or as an inherent part of being Artistic Director of Cleveland Signstage Theatre.

What is your greatest challenge?

Despite more than 50 productions over 30 years, I am still learning about theatre. The more you learn, the less you know.

What are your thoughts on having hearing actors portray deaf characters?

While mindful of the scarcity of roles for deaf artists, I'd rather see a good hearing actor play a deaf character than a bad deaf actor doing it.

Do you see growth in accessibility to theatre for Deaf people?

Increased accessibility will happen only with increased appreciation of theatre among deaf people, which means increased relevance of theatre to their lives.

As a playwright do you focus on deaf issues and deaf people?

I would separate deaf people from deaf issues. Have them deal with universal values instead of the cruelty of the hearing world, a theme now passé. For this reason, I enjoy the Swiss film "Stille Liebe" ("Secret Love").

What three words describe Shanny Mow?

I am a Chinaman in the bullshop.

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Ethan Sinnott, set designer

Ethan Sinnott's smiling with vally in background

Ethan Sinnott is the first and only Deaf set designer working professionally, He has a MFA in Theatre Scene Design from Boston University and is a member of the Gallaudet University theatre faculty.

What drew you to set design? How did you hone your craft?

As far back as I can remember I've always had this intense attraction to visual storytelling going beyond the two-dimensional. Writing wasn't enough. Drawing wasn't enough. Painting wasn't enough.

I don't view set design as a craft: it always felt more like an artistic medium, which seems tailor-made to the totality of my attraction to visual storytelling. I didn't set out to be a set designer--but to be a director -- and set design was/is a means to that end.

What set designs have you done?

I'm currently working on my 5th set design at Imagination Stage in Bethesda—"Zomo The Rabbit," a hip-hop retelling of the African trickster folktale, opening January 2009. I've done over 35 set designs in the last 6 years, college and regional, (and I don't even have an assistant yet). My favorites probably have to be NTID's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and Catholic University's "Twelfth Night." I was the set designer for Mösdeux Films' recent comedy, "The Deaf Family," shot in Austin. My work is not exclusive to theatre. I'd commit to a film, if it looks like a good situation and well planned out.

What are your views on unions? Do you think a deaf set designer can join the set design union?

That would be United Scenic Artists 129. Ironically, I'm not a member, at least not yet. That has a lot to do with my being Deaf--not that I'm discriminated against, but that I'm cut out of the main communicative flow. The freelance theatre business is dominated by hearing people and their cell phones, primarily predicated on being connected -- who you know, how quickly verbal commitments can be made, and if those who know you're Deaf--as the result of a successful collaboration--have the power to score you a couple gigs at Theatre "X," which would much improve my odds of USA 129 membership (part of that process involves points earned per gig, and accumulated over time). It's a steep climb as the design field's already competitive to begin with, and judgment of talent is obviously arbitrary. Yet at the same time, I have to be pragmatic about staying current in this field--the best advocate for myself at this point in time is myself. More often than not that usually translates into generating my own opportunities for exposure.

What projects are you currently involved with?

I'm directing and designing August Wilson's "Fences" at Gallaudet this November (which will be the first Deaf take of any Wilson play), designing "Zomo The Rabbit" for Imagination Stage next January, and I'm giving a workshop about Shakespearean translation processes for ASL interpreters at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton this December. I'm also collaborating with Casey Kaleba, a DC-area fight choreographer, toward the implementation of a stage combat training and certification program at Gallaudet's theatre department.

What are your greatest challenges?

My biggest one as a Deaf set designer is staying connected in the non-profit theatre sphere. Most of the time my gigs are one-and-done. I suspect this has to do with the perceived convenience of dominant communication. Design is a collaborative process--it's not the same as actors taking direction. A lot of people in the theatre biz--which is transitory in itself--have never met a Deaf person before, much less having collaborated with one either. Most of the time it slows them down, and they can't--or won't--adjust to that. It takes time, effort, and patience to communicate production-related thoughts, desires, expectations in an email or emails plural, or in AIM. Hearing-Deaf cross-cultural communication takes time, effort, and patience. I'm not anyone you can speed-dial on your cell phone.

Another is mental and eye fatigue. Switching professional gears back and forth between Deaf university and hearing theatre spheres does take its toll. My eyes aren't just my eyes; they double as my ears too--double their use equally in both spheres. Even though I love the work I do, I'm almost constantly in focused hyper drive -- too much of that and not enough time to occasionally "unplug" myself.

What three words describe Ethan Sinnott?

Earthy—tenacious—maverick

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