7 Roles. 14 Actors. 2 Languages. 1 Stage.
Posted September 11, 2018 6:19 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — The actor Russell Harvard sat in an armchair, draped in a blue robe and looking surly. It was late August in a rehearsal room at Playwrights Horizons on 42nd Street, and he was in the middle of an emotionally charged hospital scene.
In Craig Lucas’ “I Was Most Alive With You,” Harvard (“Tribes,” “Fargo”) plays a gay, deaf recovering alcoholic named Knox — and so does actor Harold Foxx, who stood on a raised platform behind him. As Harvard delivered Knox’s lines in English downstage, Foxx performed them in American Sign Language upstage.
They are just two of the 14 actors in the enormously complex off-Broadway premiere of this ambitious bilingual play, a multigenerational drama that aims to be equally accessible to deaf and hearing audience members at every moment of every performance. There is one featured cast member and one shadow cast member for each of the seven characters. The shadow cast performs entirely in ASL; the featured cast, in a mix of English and sign.
And the artists themselves? The director, Tyne Rafaeli, said the ratio is about 50-50, deaf and hearing — and that’s how the rehearsal felt, with its layers of conversations occurring in English and ASL.
When Rafaeli had something to say to the group, she hopped up on a chair so that everyone — including three ASL interpreters deployed through the room — would have a clear view as she spoke, mainly in English. When Lisa Emery, who plays Knox’s mother, grew frustrated about her ASL ability, the director of artistic sign language, Sabrina Dennison, offered encouragement through an interpreter, Candace Broecker Penn.
And when Lucas used a colorful English vulgarity to describe a chaotic moment in the play, Penn rendered it instantly, vividly.
A few days after that rehearsal, Rafaeli, Lucas and Emery spoke separately by phone about the production, now in previews for a Sept. 24 opening. Dennison, who recently joined the shadow cast, Foxx and Harvard, who has some hearing but whose first language is ASL, spoke by email. These are edited excepts.
— Rules of engagement
TYNE RAFAELI: We had to set some ground rules very quickly, because obviously any rehearsal room dealing with bilingual communication is going to be complicated, but when one of those languages is a visual language and not a sonic language, it becomes even more imperative. A very fundamental rule, which seems crazily simplistic but has proved to be enormously helpful, is that there aren’t any phones allowed in the room. Because we have already two worlds. We can’t have a third one.
RUSSELL HARVARD: I come from a deaf family, and so when bits of information are being exchanged within the family, I get it immediately. I’ve become so accustomed to that, it becomes harder for me to adapt when side conversations are spoken or exchanged among other actors who don’t sign. But patience is a virtue, so I try to put my frustration aside, because I love my job. I have worked with an all-deaf cast and crew previously for a film and that was a golden token.
LISA EMERY: When you’re rehearsing and you get an idea and you start talking about it, you realize half the people in the room are completely shut out of what you’re saying. So now we have to raise our hands, deaf and hearing, and be recognized, and then there’s a big flurry of hands so that everybody knows that one person is talking. It’s horrible if somebody’s signing and trying to express themselves and then I start talking. Just sort of rude and oblivious.
— Pleasure. And frustration.
CRAIG LUCAS: We did several workshops of the play at Playwrights so that the actors could start learning their American Sign Language. It’s labor-intensive.
RAFAELI: It was very new to me. Just the fact that it’s a gestural, embodied language that takes connection between hands and facial gestures, it is inherently theatrical and inherently poetic.
HAROLD FOXX: When there are two languages in a play, and it’s the first time for some actors, the work in the rehearsal room can be complex. For us deaf actors, some of us have worked together before, so we know what it takes to come together with hearing actors and make it work. We don’t expect hearing actors to be fluent in ASL.
LUCAS: This is not a representation of the English language. This is another language with different diction and different sentence structures and syntax. It’s a very complex language actually, and very hard to learn. I’m the slowest learner in the room when it comes to ASL.
EMERY: There are certain things that just elude me completely. The sign for Knox, my son’s name, is a K and an X, and I have to practice it every day, like on the bus. I have to just keep doing it, because I stumble on it. I only have really the one speech, but it’s taken me weeks and weeks to get it down. It’s really fun to talk with your hands. And as frustrating as the day is long — the two things, mixed.
HARVARD: It’s always a pleasure to see actors learning ASL for the role. It’s harder when actors have to simultaneously speak and sign the lines. I applaud them because it’s a talent. In real life, you don’t speak Spanish and English at the same time.
— Working on two levels
SABRINA DENNISON: The shadow actors will all be signing fully in American Sign Language, while the characters in the play will sign as their characters would (some fluently, some haltingly, some signing and speaking). The set will be bi-level so that both are happening simultaneously.
EMERY: To be an actor and know that there is somebody who is signing behind you who is playing the same character as you — there has to be an awareness of “can she see me so that she can sign what I’m saying?”
HARVARD: They’re above us on the upper stage, which makes it quite challenging because some shadow actors who are completely deaf have to stay in sync with the actors on the lower level.
FOXX: My job is to shadow Knox. Since Russell Harvard is already fluent in ASL, I don’t need to sign at all until he speaks in English. That’s when I start signing for the character. We have to rely on body language, timing or lip-read. It takes a lot of practice.
RAFAELI: For a hearing audience, the distraction can be more of a danger because we’re not exposed to ASL, whereas ASL speakers and the deaf community, their muscle is more trained to absorb those two realities because they’ve had to fit into a hearing culture.
DENNISON: Our challenge is to blend them seamlessly so that both deaf and hearing audiences will be able to follow the action, taking advantage of the access being provided without being overwhelmed by it all.
RAFAELI: It’s an extraordinary thing to witness the deaf artists in communication with the hearing artists, making decisions together, finding rhythm together.