by Matthew Falduto
Before I get too far into this, I want to tell you my personal perspective on this issue. I have been hard of hearing since I was 6 years old. However, I have been able to assimilate into the hearing world without too much difficulty as I have one working ear. In fact, there are probably people reading this who have known me for a decade or more and have had no idea my left ear doesn’t work as intended. So while I am not a member of the Deaf community, I come to this topic with my own experiences as a hard of hearing person and the challenges I faced, particularly as a child… though those challenges have continue into adulthood. For instance, this week during tech for my show, twice staff members came to me during the rehearsal and spoke quietly into my left ear. I couldn’t hear anything either one said. The first time, I just let it go, figuring we’d figure it out later. The second time, probably in response to the fact that he startled me, I told the staff member to speak on my right side because I was deaf on the left. That reaction is actually pretty uncommon for me. Most times, I smile and nod my way through and do my best to figure out what was said. This is the sort of assimilation that the play Tribes speaks to, though my experience is like a drop of water compared to the ocean that Deaf people have to confront in a world where the overwhelming majority of people use hearing to communicate.
This controversy at Theatre Cedar Rapids has made me reflect on my situation more in recent days than I have in years. My life is affected by my hearing every day. I put myself in the best position to hear the television or when watching theatre, I watch people’s lips to help my understanding when I’m in noisy areas, and I purposely (and hopefully subtly) position myself so people are on my right side. There are things I can’t do because of my hearing. For instance, with only one working ear, I cannot tell where sound if coming from. I cannot tell you the number of times people have shouted, “Matt, over here!” and I looked the wrong way. They laugh about it never realizing my frustration. And these are the experiences of someone who has almost completely assimilated into a hearing world. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be Deaf. I have perhaps a better understanding than hearing people, but I do not pretend to fully grasp the feelings of isolation and frustration a Deaf person must feel in our hearing centered world.
The other aspect you need to understand is that the theatre community we’re talking about is my home. I started a theatre company almost 20 years ago in Iowa City, acted and directed many shows in the area with my company and others, attend as many shows as I possibly can, and I started this blog to promote and critique the theatre of our community. (I will note here that my position here is my own and it not reflective of my theatre company.) And I love TCR. I have enjoyed their shows time and time again. I have the utmost respect for the organization and great affection for many of the people who have created the shows I’ve enjoyed. I know many of them personally and can say without a doubt all of those people I know are individuals of character with open hearts and a desire to make this world we live in a better place through theatre. If I lived in Cedar Rapids instead of Coralville, I’m sure I’d be an active part of the organization. I mean, honestly, I’m a huge Leslie Charipar fan. And while I don’t know David S. Schneider, the director of the show, his posts on Facebook demonstrated an open mind and heart. It is not easy to criticize people who I believe are good people. But even good people make mistakes. I know I have. And so I wrestled with whether I should speak out on this topic. And I guess in the end I felt it was too important to stay silent.
So onto the specifics of the controversy. Theatre Cedar Rapids cast a hearing actor in the role of Billy in Tribes, a play by Nina Raine. The play is about the isolation Billy, who is Deaf, feels in the hearing world. TCR has been attacked on social media for the decision to cast a hearing actor in the role. The fact that it was an attack instead of a conversation was unfortunate. And when I was first reading the posts, I found myself agreeing with those who supported TCR. That was my knee jerk reaction – perhaps it was yours too. Don’t diss the theatre I love and the people I respect! I thought. But as the conversation went on, I looked past the attacking nature of the initial posts to the substance beneath them.
In my view, the playwright’s wishes are paramount. It is her play and she has the right to have work presented according to her stipulations. Raine made her position about casting clear in this article from American Theatre:
When Tribes premiered in London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2010, Raine knew Billy had to be cast with a Deaf actor, though some hearing performers did audition.
“It just felt like patronizing the character somehow in doing this Deaf voice that wasn’t their own and they had no knowledge of what it means to be Deaf,” Raine says. “When you start rehearsals, it’s also brilliant to have a Deaf person in the room because the play is about Deafness, so what would be the point of doing a play about Deafness and not having someone in the room who can tell you what it’s like firsthand? It would just be insane, I think.”
Later in the article:
Raine decided that when the play is reprinted, she will include a note strongly encouraging theatres to cast a Deaf actor. She also talked to her agent about making the same stipulation when theatre companies get the rights to Tribes. She is hesitant to say that if you can’t find a Deaf actor, you can’t do the play, because as a director, she knows that sometimes things happen, like an actor becoming unavailable at the last minute. Still, she feels, a hearing actor should be a last resort. (Harvard’s understudy Off Broadway was a hearing actor because he also understudied the hearing role of the brother Daniel; that’s the way it’s usually done.)
“What I wouldn’t want is for people to cast some totally ordinary actor and say, ‘Just act Deaf—it can’t be that hard.’ The thing is, if you can’t get a part as a Deaf actor when there’s a Deaf part, when are you going to get cast?”
So what constitutes last resort? TCR has made it clear no deaf actors attended the auditions. Does that mean TCR is in a last resort situation?
I have some experience with this. As someone who has helped produce many community theatre plays over the years, I have often been part of the outreach needed to be sure we had actors who could play the characters in a particular show. One cannot just assume they’re going to show up. You have to go out in the community and put forth the effort needed to get them to auditions. There have been plays we’ve passed on because we didn’t believe we could find an actor to play a specific part.
On the subject of outreach, Director David S. Schneider wrote in a Facebook post that he sent an email to the Iowa Association for the Deaf one week before auditions. There are a couple of issues with this. One, a week before auditions is not much time to get the word out and have actors prepare for an audition. Two, why not contact local Cedar Rapids’ organizations? On the Iowa Association for the Deaf website, there is a page listing local affiliates, including one for Cedar Rapids. Also a quick Google search leads one to Hands Up Communications and Community Hands, two local organizations who could have been helpful. Finally, I have to wonder why it is the director’s responsibility to reach out about auditions. Why didn’t the TCR management team have a plan in place to reach out to the Deaf community?
Based on this, I do not believe TCR is following the playwright’s wishes, as it’s not a last resort situation when you put forth so little effort. (As a side note: another Google search shows that the casting of Billy with a hearing person has created controversy before. Did no one at TCR anticipate this?)
In her statement on the controversy, TCR Artistic Director Leslie Charipar, asks the question:
My question to you is: with no deaf actor in the role of Billy, should we just not do the play, thereby ending any conversation that this play or the controversy of our casting might bring? Or is it more valuable to do the play with the actors available so that we can talk about the issues confronting the deaf community?
Ms. Charipar believes the answer to the latter question is Yes. This controversy sparked a great Facebook post from deaf Chicago actor, Richard Costes, which you should read in full. In it, Mr. Costes responds to Leslie’s argument this way:
This argument is a privileged argument. We wouldn’t try to have a debate on feminism or racial inequality without a woman or a person of color in the room, so why would we attempt to discuss these issues without a Deaf person inhabiting the role of Billy? How can you have a talkback about these issues at a post-show discussion without anyone in the cast having experienced them?
As someone who has only experienced a small fraction of the isolation Deaf people experience every day in the world at large, I have to say I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Costes. I don’t fully understand the Deaf perspective. And hearing people will never really get it though we need plays like Tribes to give them a window in that world. So don’t attempt to tell their story without them being part of the process. It’s arrogant, culturally insensitive and the performance will be flawed since in this specific case, it undermines the very message of the play itself.
So what happens now? TCR plans to continue with the show as cast. I would recommend postponing it and doing this the right way. Reach out to the deaf community before auditions and before getting too far into pre-production. Find a deaf actor to portray Billy. I know this is not a popular opinion. I know it probably means putting off the show for a year. I know tickets have been sold. But it’s important to do this right.
Short of that, I hope TCR at least reaches out to the Deaf community at this late date and entreats them to be part of the process of creating this show if they’re willing. If they’re not willing, and I wouldn’t blame them for choosing that option, then the show must be postponed. If they are willing to be an active part of this production, and I don’t mean just inviting someone from the community to one rehearsal, then perhaps the show should move forward.
I will be watching to see what happens next. I hope TCR communicates to our theatre community what their plans are and lets us in on the process moving forward. I have to say I have faith that Leslie will do the right thing. But no matter which way her heart leads her, I remain a fan.
Edited to add: Someone suggested to me that perhaps the best thing to do would be to postpone the show until next season and do it as a mainstage production (it’s currently scheduled to run in the Grandon, a smaller stage located downstairs.) I strongly support this idea. That will show that TCR gets it and wants to make it right.