Notes spurred by finding the piece of paper with Erin’s IPA transcription of lines read in a deaf accent. Putting this in text before I forget.
One of the most interesting experiences I’ve had with spoken language was in Fall semester 2017, when I was part of Babson College’s production of Clybourne Park as Betsy/Lindsay. As far as we can tell, I was the first non-hearing actor to play the part. This is significant, because the first act character of Betsy is deaf (I’ll just use “deaf” instead of “d/Deaf” for Betsy, since she lived before that distinction existed, and both signs and speaks - or tries to). However, one of the key bits of Clybourne is that every actor plays one character in the first act and a different character in the second, so you can’t just use two different actors for the part. The associated second act character of Lindsay is hearing, and has a substantial portion of the spoken lines in act two, so the role has just always been played by a hearing person who then acts deaf in order to play Betsy.
I wasn’t planning to audition. I don’t have any acting background or training. I’d been working at Olin College, a sister school of Babson. I’d initially been asked (by a mutual friend/colleague of myself and the director) if I had any thoughts on how a hearing actor might convincingly play a deaf character. Of course, I pointed to the dialogue on #DeafTalent and suggested she cast a Deaf actor for, y’know, a deaf part. I’d been thinking “find a local professional,” since there are a bunch of excellent Deaf theatre folks in Boston.
To my surprise, the director responded by asking me to read for the part - she wanted roles played by college community members. I told her I’d never be able to pull off acting or sounding like a hearing person for the Lindsay role. “Let’s have Lindsay be deaf, then,” the director responded. Lindsay could be oral and an cochlear implant (CI) user like myself - the second act is set in the modern day, where that technology would have been around long enough for the character to grow up with it. I read both parts and apparently didn’t do a terrible job, because I was cast.
In rehearsal, it quickly became evident that the Betsy role had been written for a hearing actor. Many of my lines had to drop into the middle of a conversation happening on a different part of the stage – the other actors would be having the main conversation downstage, I would be scribbling back and forth with a different character in the back, and then loudly say something at the precise time it would provide comic relief.
Problem: spoken language cues were… not going to work for me, especially with my CI off (they hadn’t been invented at the time the first act was set). We ended up creating visual cues for every single one of my first act lines - another character would make a certain gesture while speaking, or write an exclamation point in the notebook, or move a prop, or something.
Next problem: Betsy is supposed to have a thick deaf accent when she speaks. I… did not know how to do that. All my many years of speech therapy were all designed to make me sound less like a deaf person. I can’t even hear a lot of deaf accents (my own included). I had no idea how to make myself sound more deaf.
Fortunately, my friend Erin (who is a speech therapist and has worked with deaf and hard-of-hearing patients) visited Boston during the rehearsal period. I told her my predicament, and she sat down and wrote out all my lines in IPA the way they might be pronounced by someone with a thick deaf accent.
- eo bɛ. (“Hello, Bev.”)
- dɪ, ‘mʌbi u ni dŏ! (“Tim, maybe you need soap!”)
- a la ‘udəʔɪk! (“I like lutefisk!”)
- ka, wa ‘apə? (“Karl, what happened?”)
Then we ran and re-ran and re-ran them while I had the distinctly odd experience of making my voice do things I’d been trained - long and hard - to avoid. It felt… profoundly wrong - and that was fascinating to me. I hadn’t realized how deeply ingrained my conditioning of “you must speak clearly, speaking is good!” had been - how much I’d been taught to be ashamed of sounding… deaf. It really got me thinking.
The second act character of Lindsay was super fun to play - I got to be a bitchy pregnant lady, basically. (The “pregnant” part was… not comfortable.) Lindsay also required modifications to blocking/cues (“But why would you face the audience if you’re talking to another person?” I asked. “You can’t see them that way!”) I did have my CI on here and could tell when someone was speaking, so I basically memorized the entire script so I could follow along by counting syllables/lines.
The main challenge with playing Lindsay was volume; the director decided none of us would be mic’d, so I had to learn what it felt like to speak loudly enough to be heard from the audience, and to keep my voice at that level. This involved many hours both in and out of rehearsal with me standing at a distance and saying my lines while a hearing person pointed towards the ceiling if I wasn’t being loud enough. (Speech! It’s fascinating! It’s also really hard sometimes!)
In contrast, the few brief signed portions of both roles were easier. Betsy’s signed lines are also really simple, so that wasn’t a problem. Lindsay’s signing was all added for this production (because Lindsay, as played by me, was deaf). She and her husband Steve have a visibly tense relationship in the script - so my Lindsay became irate when she missed something and Steve didn’t interpret for her, chewed out Steve in ASL while other characters were talking, and even got to mock his ski skills in both languages (steer classifiers into trees!)
I say “easier” - but not easy. At that point, I had almost never signed in front of hearing non-signers before. ASL was something I used when hanging out with Deaf friends - but among hearing folks, I always used my voice (even if interpreting was present). Why wouldn’t I? I “spoke well.” And the prospect of “looking Deaf” in front of an audience was… frankly, daunting. Again, this helped me realize how deeply ingrained my conditioning of “act like a hearing person!” was - why was this so hard? Why should I be ashamed to use one of my languages in public - why should I try to always look like something that I’m not? Again, it really made me think… and honestly, I was trying to use it as a forcing function to finally get myself to sign in public. (Which I did.)
Anyway. Good memories! Huge learning experience. I’m grateful for the cast and crew and director and interpreters and friends who made it possible for me to have it. This is rougher writing than I’d like it to be, but - getting memories out there, I reckon. Writing for my future self, as always.