Signing Her Way to Stardom

Posted May 10, 2018 11:41 p.m. EDT

Reviews like these are hard to come by. “Stupendously bold and expressive,” said The Wall Street Journal. “Instinctive brilliance,” said New York magazine. “Downright powerful,” said Entertainment Weekly. “Blistering” and “a knockout” said The New York Times.

But Lauren Ridloff, starring on Broadway in “Children of a Lesser God,” is so new to the theater world that she’s not sure what to make of it. On the day she was nominated for a Drama League award, she wondered, “Should I be excited?” as she searched for information about the contest. A week later, glancing at a phone at home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, she beamed as she saw that she had been nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award. And then came the Tony nomination, on a rough morning when her 6-year-old had woken her at 5 a.m., demanding a bath.

It’s been a long journey in a short time for this 40-year-old former kindergarten teacher who has been deaf since birth, has no professional stage acting experience, and who describes herself on her Google Plus bio as a “stay at home mama.” She is taking meetings with casting directors, posing for photographers, signing autographs at the stage door, saying good night to her two boys (the younger son is now 4; both are deaf) via FaceTime.

“My life has changed in every way,” she said in one of several interviews conducted with the assistance of an American Sign Language interpreter.

By now, Ridloff’s unusual path to Broadway has become a part of the revival’s lore. She had left teaching to take care of her boys when director Kenny Leon reached out, looking for a sign language tutor. They met in a coffee shop and practiced signs for foodstuffs; they went to a museum to learn colors; they walked under a bridge to study transportation. Every Tuesday for a year, she taught him about sign language, and, in the process, about deafness.

Leon, in the early stages of developing a revival of “Children of a Lesser God,” had lined up a leading man — Joshua Jackson, best known for television work including “The Affair” — but no leading lady, so he asked Ridloff to pinch-hit at an early table read. And just like that, without even auditioning, she won the role.

“If you didn’t know her résumé, you’d swear she’d been doing this her whole life,” he said. “You’re dealing with an actress that doesn’t know what she’s doing, and communicating with her in a language she doesn’t speak, and trying to connect another actor to her — but she had a presence that I thought could transfer easily to the stage, and she has instinct enough that she can’t make a false move.”

After an initial run last summer at the Berkshire Theater Group, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts (“It was like a boot camp for me,” she said), the revival opened on Broadway last month. Critics were underwhelmed by the production but mesmerized by Ridloff.

The role of Sarah Norman, a cleaning woman who falls for a teacher at a school for the deaf, is a plum one for deaf actresses. Phyllis Frelich won a Tony Award playing the part in the original Broadway production, which opened in 1980, and Marlee Matlin won an Academy Award for the 1986 film adaptation.

“The play had a huge impact on the growing awareness of the deaf community, its culture and American Sign Language,” Matlin said by email. And Ridloff, she said, “brings a fluidity and lightness to the role that I hadn’t seen before.” Some critics have objected to the sexual politics of the play — a teacher getting involved with a woman he is supposed to be educating — and its traditionalism — Sarah’s fantasies are domestic, including a microwave and a blender. “That’s where you can see, perhaps, the time period the play comes from, and if the play was rewritten now she might be excited about different things,” Ridloff acknowledged. “But, in her defense, I got really excited about having a Vitamix.”

For Ridloff, the most jarring aspect of doing the play has been that it requires her, in one brief, angry scene, to use her voice, which she had ceased doing at age 13 to prevent people from unfairly assessing her intelligence based on her vocal intelligibility. “When she gets to that part, that rawness is real,” said Julie Hochgesang, a childhood friend who teaches linguistics at Gallaudet University. “And the rest of it — the woman learning to be her own and being so freaking graceful and strong through all of it — that’s real too.”

Ridloff compares the experience of using her voice during the play to a crotch shot, saying that at first she felt exposed, and vulnerable, and ugly. “I cried thinking about it,” she said. “I lived in fear of that part.”

Now, she said, after nearly a year with the role and help from a vocal coach, “it feels empowering to me — like finally I own every part of myself.” But she said, “I don’t see myself ever using my voice on a conversational level — that’s just not who I am.”

Jackson, who learned sign language for the play, said Ridloff demonstrated an unusual fierceness.

“The bravery to unleash that voice, in a room full of strangers, after 20-plus years of not using it, spoke to me about the caliber of that person who was willing to dive into that dark and scary place,” he said. “She’s brilliant, and it would be truly stupid of our business not to make a space for a talent like that.” Ridloff was born into a hearing family and grew up in Chicago. Her father is Mexican-American, and her mother is African-American. She parries a question about her identity, saying, “What’s the point?”

“For me, culturally, I’m deaf,” she said. “I’m a deaf woman, and my life choices are made because of my experience of growing up as a deaf person.”

When she was a baby, her parents thought she might have a developmental delay, but by the time she was 2, after moments like the day at the beach when she was the only toddler who didn’t turn to look at a passing fire engine, they knew she was deaf.

A doctor suggested that the deafness would limit her educational and professional achievement, but her parents refused to accept that — they set about learning sign language, sent her to Catholic school with hearing children. She did well, and then, when she was 13, she was sent to Washington to attend the Model Secondary School for the Deaf.

“That was an awesome, amazing experience,” Ridloff said. “I was just like everybody else.”

She started to pursue the arts, but tentatively. “I was so scared to be around other people, I selected the least popular activity, and that was ceramics,” she said. She went on to explore drama — she was Dorothy in a production of “The Wiz” — and to embrace cheerleading, becoming one of the first deaf cheerleaders to represent the United States in an international competition.

She studied creative writing at California State University, Northridge, a school that has become a magnet for deaf students. She was crowned Miss Deaf America in 2000 (“There was no swimsuit competition — it was about ambassadorship, not beauty, and I did a performance of ‘The Giving Tree,’ because I love Shel Silverstein.”) She also joined Deafywood, a comedy troupe, developing her dance skills.

Hoping to become a children’s author (still an aspiration), she moved to New York to study education at Hunter College, and took a job teaching kindergarten and first grade at Public School 347, a Manhattan school for children who are deaf, hard of hearing, or born to deaf parents.

“Other teachers would come down, just to see her sign a book, because of the beauty of how she would read,” said Gary Wellbrock, her co-teacher. “What she did in the classroom is very much what she is doing onstage — even if you don’t know sign language, she is setting something up that is drawing people in to her, and you want to watch.”

She did a little deaf community theater, some film work for friends, and had a small part in “Wonderstruck” (as Pearl, the maid).

The role of Sarah has proved to be unexpectedly exhausting. Just as singers tax their vocal cords doing eight shows a week, Ridloff is experiencing strain on her arms and shoulders as she works to make sure her signing is visible toward the back of the theater. And then there is the furious argument her character has with an apprentice teacher over whether to challenge the school’s hiring practices — a stunning scene in which the characters’ signing, which is not translated for the audience, becomes both faster and bigger. “I’m getting a total workout,” Ridloff said. She and her husband, Douglas Ridloff, a deaf artist and performer who oversees a monthly, multicity American Sign Language poetry slam, live in a tight-knit section of Williamsburg. (One next-door neighbor learned sign language so he could communicate with them.)

They don’t see a lot of theater, because it’s so rarely interpreted for the deaf, and, Douglas Ridloff said, “I’m not crazy about Broadway shows in general. I’m more of a movie guy.”

To maintain her strength, and calm, Ridloff runs daily, between 3 and 5 miles, generally over the Williamsburg Bridge or into Greenpoint, reviewing lines in her head, or trying to meditate. On two-show days, she runs in Central Park between performances.

“Sometimes I’m inside this black box all day, and I forget what people are like,” she said, noting that, unlike hearing performers, she can’t tell when the audience is laughing or crying, restless or rapt, except by watching Jackson’s pacing for cues. “It’s nice to go out and look at people, to think about their movements and interactions, and I can bring all that with me.”

She’s not sure what’s next — it’s not clear how long “Children” will run, and after it wraps up her first priority is taking a vacation. But, ultimately, she said, “I feel like acting is a study of humanity, and I am loving that.”

“I don’t know if casting directors are ready to look at me and think that this woman could be someone that’s more than just deaf,” she said. “I would like to be a superhero.”