Deaf, hearing actors bring classic story to life

Thursday, March 23, 2006

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Rosina Switras and Andrew Galuskin are the stars of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ scheduled to play Tuesday at the Publick Playhouse.

Local audiences will be able to experience the story of ‘‘Beauty and the Beast” performed as they may not have ever seen or heard it before: using American Sign Language (ASL) in addition to speaking the parts.

Signstage On Tour, the traveling company of the Cleveland Signstage Theatre, is scheduled to stop at the Publick Playhouse as part of a 24-city tour to present the classic tale where things are not as they seem. As in most versions of the story, Beauty finds a kind heart beneath the Beast’s unappealing exterior. The production itself is ‘‘not what you think at first,” said Kat McIntosh, one of the performers. Although she describes the costumes as ‘‘old-fashioned”, the play is not set in any particular time period and as it progresses, audiences will see ‘‘very modern props” being used.

This is not the first production in the area to mix deaf and hearing actors, providing a unique experience for those who can hear and those who cannot. Last year, ‘‘Big River” — a retelling of Mark Twain’s novel ‘‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” — played at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. A production of ‘‘Hip Hop Anansi,” a reimagining of the Anansi tales from West Africa, is currently running at Imagination Stage in Bethesda.

Signstage, originally founded as the Fairmount Theatre of the Deaf by one hearing and one deaf actor in 1975, is an award-winning theater company that provides educational outreach in addition to its theatrical productions. Signstage conducts residencies in schools for the deaf all over the U.S.

The group often performs pieces that use deaf characters or incorporate deaf issues.

Beauty and the Beast is a little different from Signstage’s other plays, in that respect. The plot does not explicitly incorporate deaf issues. Attendees will, however, be exposed to the blending of spoken and signed language and this is something new for many people who come to see Signstage perform.

Beauty and the Beast
10:15 a.m. and noon, Tuesday, March 28 Publick Playhouse
5445 Landover Road, Cheverly
Tickets: $6⁄$5 for groups of 10 or more 301-277-1710
TTY 301-277-0312
‘‘Maybe [before seeing Signstage perform] they don’t understand the beauty involved. All actors use their whole bodies, but ASL takes it to a new level,” said William Morgan, artistic director for Signstage.

‘‘Deaf issues will come up, whether we bring them up or not,” McIntosh said. Besides the very obvious fact that the entire play is being signed, technical aspects of the play alert audiences to some of the issues deaf performers face. Deaf actors need visual cues, as opposed to the audio cues hearing actors need to tell them when to come onto the stage.

The group uses flashing lights to communicate with actors who cannot hear.

A lot of work goes into preparing a story to be performed by deaf and hearing actors since the entire play is both signed and spoken.

‘‘You have to interpret the idea of each line,” Morgan said. He gave the example of the sentence, ‘‘My heart is broken.” If someone signs those words literally, the idea they convey is that a person’s physical heart is broken, the way someone could break a chair. Saying that you suffer from a broken heart means that person is dealing with a heartache of the emotional variety, and Morgan said, ‘‘you need a different sign, something conceptual.”

When asked why the Publick Playhouse chose to include ‘‘Beauty and the Beast” in this season’s lineup, Managing Director Curlen Lee said that the quality of the company’s work is ‘‘extraordinary.”

She felt that it was a great selection because ‘‘kids are accustomed to the story” but ‘‘it is one thing to see it on film, and another to see it live.”

Like the Disney film that is so well known to youngsters and adults alike, the play includes the role of the Enchantress, who sentences the prince to live as a beast. The role of the Enchantress is one of a few taken on by Kat McIntosh, who also works part-time as Signstage On Tour’s tour manager. McIntosh plays Beauty’s sister and provides the voice for Beauty, since a deaf performer plays that character. At times she speaks for Beauty onstage, using a distinct voice for that character, but for much of the play, she is offstage, so only her voice is heard. She admits that this performance style takes some adjustment, but ‘‘after you get into it, you forget, and it is no longer odd.”

McIntosh says that this year’s traveling production has more music and humor than those of years past.

‘‘We are trying to move toward family theater, so teachers and parents can also be entertained.”

Morgan said that he has been asked about how the group’s performances affect young audiences and he says that children are ‘‘mesmerized, even if they don’t understand it.

‘‘I was surprised myself; I thought [this type of theater] wouldn’t hold their attention, but I actually holds their attention more [than traditional theater].”