In our day, when we go to the theater we say “I’m going to see a play.” But in Shakespeare’s day, theatergoers said “I’m going to hear a play.” It makes sense. Today’s theatrical emphasis is on the visual (staging, costumes, lighting) whereas in the late 16th century, ears were tuned to hear iambic pentameter, rhyming couplets, and all sorts of poetic devices — not to mention Elizabethan prose!
Given this modern visual emphasis, it was interesting to discover that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival made some casting choices this year that explore the “language” of the stage in exciting ways. Two of the 2013 plays feature a deaf actor: Howie Seago. Mr. Seago has been part of the OSF Acting Company for four years. To date, he has played relatively minor roles, all of which were adapted for a deaf actor. In these performances, he played “speaking/hearing characters” and communicated his lines in American Sign Language (ASL) while those he engaged with both spoke and signed back. By this interpretive dance, Mr. Seago’s character could be understood and the story’s plot could move forward.
This year, in more prominent roles as King Cymbeline in Cymbeline and Little John in The Heart of Robin Hood, the OSF artistic directors have made a subtle shift. The parts that Mr. Seago plays are presented as deaf characters. In other words, Mr. Seago isn’t a deaf actor playing hearing character but a deaf actor playing a deaf character. Mr. Seago, who is able to inform the depths of these parts out of his own experience, infuses these characters with a unique vitality. By playing a deaf character as only he can do, the play takes on deeper meaning.
Clearly, to carry this off requires more work on everyone’s part. Most certainly, audience members have watch and listen more closely. Mr. Seago must bring all of himself to the performance in a setting where speech and language dominate the telling of a story. The other actors must communicate differently than if all characters could hear.
In the Heart of Robin Hood, the Merry Men make up their own awkward, clunky ‘sign’ language in order to communicate with Little John when they first encounter him (given that American Sign Language wasn’t yet developed in Elizabethan times J). It’s heartwarming to watch, like a game of charades. The most hilarious scenes, though, come in Cymbeline, when the evil Queen’s dolt of a son, Cloten, speaks loudly and uses exaggerated gestures, just like people do today when they think it will help a deaf person to hear. Cloten’s inability to relate to King Cymbeline reinforces what Shakespeare intended for the audience to think of the Queen and her son: “That such a crafty devil as his mother should yield the world this ass! A woman that bears all down with her brain, and this her son cannot take two from twenty, for his heart, and leave eighteen.” (Cymbeline II.1.54)
As most things lead me to make connections with the Church and Holy Cross, there is food for thought in this experience. Perhaps one reason so many today do not seek out the Church is that they cannot be themselves. In an outward way, this may have to do with what one wears, what one looks like, or how one compares with others in all kinds of ways. On a deeper level, it has to do with our human limitations, and the worry that our vulnerabilities will be misunderstood, be of no use in community, and ultimately, lead to more pain. Yet in a life of faith, transformation takes place when one learns to be honest before God, and with others.
It’s a special community that can treat all persons with respect, and welcome each person so as to honor both their gifts and limitations. It’s an even rarer community that can help one to see himself or herself anew, so that what was once perceived as a liability, can actually become an asset.
To be this kind of community requires more work on everyone’s part. Every member must observe and listen. All must be reminded that communication is more than using words. Those who lead must ensure that the community is safe, and must be willing to imagine that the community might change for the better with each new person who walks through the door. At least a few must risk being truly themselves.
Our moniker “Open Minds, Open Arms” has a nice sound to it…but I’d like to have Mr. Seago show us what it looks like in his language. My guess is that he would give our tag line new depth. May it continue to serve as an invitation to be the community that God has called us to be, one that sees possibility in what the world perceives as failure.
Theseus I will hear that play.
For never anything can be amiss
When simpleness and duty tender it. (A Midsummer Night’s Dream V.1.82)
This year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs from late February through October, and features eleven works (www.osfashland.org). In addition to four Shakespeare plays: Midsummer Night’s Dream, Taming of the Shrew, King Lear and Cymbeline, two musicals are being performed (My Fair Lady and The Unfortunates) along with five other plays (Streetcar Named Desire, Two Trains Running, The Liquid Plain, The Tenth Muse and The Heart of Robin Hood).