Thursday, October 29, 2009

Advocacy Group Opposes ‘Miracle Worker’ Casting Choice

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Two weeks after a group of deaf actors protested the choice of a hearing actor for a deaf role in an upcoming Off Broadway production, the issue has surfaced again: Should producers have chosen a deaf or blind child actress to play Helen Keller in this winter’s Broadway revival of “The Miracle Worker”?

The producers announced on Wednesday that Abigail Breslin, a 13-year-old newcomer to Broadway who was nominated for an Academy Award for her role as the beauty pageant contestant Olive in “Little Miss Sunshine,” would play Helen in the production, which is set to open this winter. Ms. Breslin can see and hear.

Sharon Jensen, executive director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, an advocacy group for blind and deaf actors, among others, said in an interview late Wednesday that her organization strongly opposed a decision by the producers to not audition actresses for the part who shared Helen’s disabilities.

“We do not think it’s O.K. for reputable producers to cast this lead role without seriously considering an actress from our community,” Ms. Jensen said. “I understand how difficult it is to capitalize a new production on Broadway, but that to me is not the issue. There are other, larger human and artistic issues at stake here.”

The lead producer of the revival, David Richenthal, said in an interview that he had already made up his mind about his casting criteria for Helen when he chose to revive the William Gibson play -– he wanted a star. The only way to make money for his investors in a commercial Broadway revival of a play these days, Mr. Richenthal believes, is to cast stars, and his research did not turn up any young well known actresses who were deaf or blind.

“It’s simply naïve to think that in this day and age, you’ll be able to sell tickets to a play revival solely on the potential of the production to be a great show or on the potential for an unknown actress to give a breakthrough performance,” Mr. Richenthal said. “I would consider it financially irresponsible to approach a major revival without making a serious effort to get a star.”

Mr. Richenthal said that he and the production’s director, Kate Whoriskey, as well as their casting director, planned to audition deaf or blind actresses to be Ms. Breslin’s understudy, and would hire sign language interpreters for the auditions of the young deaf women.

The distinction between the lead role and the understudy is that the show can sell tickets with its lead actress, Mr. Richenthal said. He emphasized that if he could not find a “qualified” deaf or blind actress who was right for the part, he would cast a hearing and seeing actress in the role.

Ms. Jensen’s organization was among those that complained vehemently early this month that New York Theater Workshop and the director Doug Hughes had retained a hearing actor to play the deaf character Singer in the workshop’s upcoming production of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” an adaptation of the Carson McCullers novel.

Deaf actors, as well as the alliance and advocacy groups for deaf artists, demanded that the actor Henry Stram be replaced as Singer by a deaf actor. Mr. Hughes and the workshop met with several deaf actors and searched for some common ground, but could not agree on the central issue; Mr. Hughes said he would not fire Mr. Stram, who had played Singer in an earlier production of the play that Mr. Hughes directed in Atlanta. Mr. Hughes had auditioned deaf actors for the role in Atlanta.

So, first Singer and now Helen Keller: Should producers and directors audition and hire whoever they see fit for these seminal roles? Or, as Ms. Jensen asserts, if deaf or blind child actors do not start getting work that will turn them into stars, how will there ever be any for producers like Mr. Richenthal to audition?