Sunday, October 18, 2009

Hearing Man in Deaf Role Stirs Protests in New York

Source Link - Hearing Man in Deaf Role Stirs Protests in New York

When the playwright Rebecca Gilman began adapting the Carson McCullers novel “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” for the stage several years ago, she made a bold and controversial artistic leap: opening and ending the play with speeches by a central character, John Singer, who is deaf and mute throughout the book.

Henry Stram, foreground, and Andrew Weems in the Acting Company’s production of an adaptation of the Carson McCullers novel “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” in Atlanta in 2005.

The monologues turn Singer into more than the cipher he is through large swaths of the 1940 novel. But by bestowing speech on Singer, Ms. Gilman took license with a character of symbolic importance to generations of deaf readers — a decision she justified because, McCullers wrote, Singer was once taught to speak as a boy. Inevitably, though, Ms. Gilman has made it difficult for a deaf actor to play Singer, now a speaking role.

The play had its premiere in Atlanta in 2005, directed by the Tony Award winner Doug Hughes (“Doubt”), with a hearing actor cast as Singer; it drew some strong reviews, and no objections from organizations for the deaf. But now that the play is receiving a major production at New York Theater Workshop, starting on Nov. 13, deaf actors and deaf theater groups have begun to protest the artistic and casting choices involving the Singer role.

“A hearing actor playing a deaf character is tantamount to putting a white actor in blackface,” said Linda Bove, a deaf actress and board member of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, an advocacy group for minority, disabled and deaf artists.

The alliance, with the National Association of the Deaf, the Deaf West Theater and others, has demanded that Mr. Hughes and the New York Theater Workshop cast a deaf actor as Singer in the latest production — and, in doing so, fire the actor Henry Stram, who played Singer to acclaim in Atlanta and is resuming the role in New York. Rehearsals began on Tuesday.

Several deaf actors put forth that demand recently at a private meeting, organized by New York Theater Workshop, with Mr. Hughes and others involved in the New York production. The discussion was emotional at times, participants on both sides said. Mr. Hughes, in an interview this week, said that he made clear at the meeting that he would not replace Mr. Stram, but that he was sympathetic to the deaf actors’ concerns and was eager to work with them on a future project at the workshop.

“Although I’m truly regretful that there are those in the deaf acting community who were offended by the decision I made, I cannot in good conscience fire Henry Stram in order to reduce the perceived offense,” Mr. Hughes said.

“There is no question that there are woefully few opportunities for deaf artists,” he added. “And people have every right to suggest to us that we have miscast this role. But we also have every right to respectfully disagree on that point.”

Alexandria Wailes, a prominent deaf actress who attended the meeting, said in an interview that the Singer casting decision was the latest in a string of insults by television, film and theater producers who have picked hearing actors to play deaf characters or rebuffed deaf actors who went to auditions without their own interpreters.

“We were hoping to find some happy compromise or common ground, once Doug Hughes and the New York Theater Workshop understood the depth of our concerns,” said Ms. Wailes, who spoke in American Sign Language, with an interpreter.

“New York Theater Workshop and Doug Hughes have the right and the power to make these decisions,” Ms. Wailes said. “But at the same time, I’m an artist, and this casting decision goes to the core of who I am.”

The audition process for the role of Singer in the 2005 Atlanta production included “due-diligence outreach” to the deaf population about possible actors, said Margot Harley, artistic director of the Acting Company, which commissioned Ms. Gilman’s adaptation and collaborated with Mr. Hughes, the director.

A casting agent contacted several deaf theater groups for recommendations of actors, according to Ms. Harley’s notes from the time. Eight names were provided; two actors auditioned for Mr. Hughes, but it was judged that neither could speak well enough to play the part of Singer. (Ms. Harley and Jim Nicola, artistic director of the New York Theater Workshop, said they fully supported the decision to keep Mr. Stram in the role.)

Some leading deaf actors disputed that enough research was done in advance of the 2005 production. Among others, Ed Waterstreet, artistic director of Deaf West Theater, said in an interview that the Atlanta auditions and production had “flown under the radar” of deaf theater directors and actors nationally. Ms. Harley said that Deaf West Theater was among the organizations asked for names of deaf actors.

Mr. Waterstreet said he had “no recollection of any contact,” but acknowledged he had been busy with a production of the musical “Big River” and that an aide might have been contacted.

Mr. Stram learned sign language for “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” though for much of the play he acts as a silent confidant for other characters who are aching to talk. While the deaf actors say they appreciate Mr. Stram’s effort, they object not only to what they say is his lack of authenticity but also to the decision to have Singer speak. Mr. Waterstreet of Deaf West, among others, says the play’s suggestion that speaking is the best way for a deaf character to express himself is a setback to deaf artists.

One of the deaf actors who auditioned for the role of Singer in Atlanta, Lewis Merkin, said this week that he did not recall his audition with Mr. Hughes, which was why he did not protest at the time of the Atlanta production.

“For me, the bigger picture matters as much as this one production — there aren’t enough roles for deaf actors, and there aren’t enough deaf actors being hired for deaf roles,” Mr. Merkin said. “And culturally, I do think there’s a strong argument that inhabiting the role of a deaf character is something that only a deaf actor can do with true understanding.”

Ms. Gilman, the playwright, said in an interview that she believed her choice of allowing Singer to speak was important for the character, and she noted that she drew on McCullers’s own writing for his words, including a letter in the novel that Singer wrote. In response to the protests from the deaf actors, she said she was considering “reimagining” the opening and ending of the play so that it can be adapted for future productions to cast a nonspeaking actor in the role of Singer.

Ms. Gilman has written controversial plays in her career, most notably “Spinning Into Butter,” which took on the reaction of liberal academics to racial discord on a campus. In this instance, though, she said she had not meant to provoke.

“I’ve written plays where I intended to offend people, but this is not one of those plays,” she said. “I’m certainly open in this case to rethink the beginning and ending of the play, though I don’t know quite how to do it yet. So I would need some collaborative help. But I also have to say, I don’t want my play rewritten by committee.”

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