Michael Van Duzer

Michael Van Duzer

Michael is an award-winning playwright and director. For over 25 years he has reviewed opera productions around the country for a variety of print and online outlets. During the past year he has added theater to his reviewing duties.

To the Zoo and Back: ASL Meets Albee at the Wallis

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“I’ve been to the zoo.”

[dropcap]This[/dropcap] startling announcement opens Edward Albee’s seminal short drama, The Zoo Story. A menacingly loquacious Jerry hurls the words at Peter, a man he has spotted reading on a park bench. It’s a deceptively simple assertion that starts a harrowing journey for both the characters and the audience.

Albee’s play was famously spurned by New York producers and received its premiere in Germany. When an Off-Broadway production was finally mounted in 1960, the play was hailed as the breakthrough of an exciting new talent and Albee went on to even greater acclaim on Broadway.

Considered absurdist at the time, Zoo Story sported a uniquely American style that differed from the whimsy favored by Ionesco and other European exponents of absurdism. Albee’s tautly structured situation and muscularly poetic dialog were so convincing that they spawned a theatrical subset of two-character one-act plays set on park benches. Or, the occasional bus stop.

A decade ago, Deaf West Theatre brought their singular point of view to a memorable production of The Zoo Story. Under Coy Middlebrook’s direction, Troy Kotsur (Peter) and Tyrone Giordano (Jerry) squared off against each other, demonstrating that American Sign Language (ASL) brought a terrific vitality to Albee’s script.

Around the same time, Albee decided to re-visit his Zoo Story characters. He had grown dissatisfied with the fact that Jerry was a three-dimensional character, while Peter remained a cypher. Nearly a half-century after penning Zoo Story, he wrote a companion piece called Homelife. The new one-act immediately precedes Zoo Story’s action and focuses on Peter’s relationship with his wife, Ann.

Albee, who passed away last year, was pleased with the results of combining both shows under the title, At Home at the Zoo. In fact, this is currently the only way that professional companies can obtain the rights. Only schools and amateur companies can produce the original version of Zoo Story.

Some years ago, Deaf West and Albee discussed the possibility of presenting the Los Angeles premiere of At Home as the Zoo. But financial issues scuttled the project.

After the successful teaming of Deaf West and the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (The Wallis) on the LA and Broadway productions of Spring Awakening, the companies were searching for another co-production possibility. The Albee project came to mind as the perfect fit.

Deaf West’s Artistic Director, David Kurs, feels that Albee’s play resonates strongly with the deaf community. “There are several cultural signifiers that really speak to our community. For instance, I love that Jerry notices Peter muttering to himself in ASL on a park bench and approaches him… It is a specific moment that happens very often in our community: if you put two deaf people in a crowded room they will find each other.”

Middlebrook, who is now an Artistic Associate at The Wallis, was in a perfect position to revisit the work, while Kotsur and Giordano were available to reprise their roles. (Giordano only for the second half of the run.) They would round out the trio of performers with Amber Zion, in the role of Peter’s wife, Ann.
Any play being readied for production with a deaf cast must first undergo an intricate translation procedure. The process is far more complex than simply matching a sign to a word.

As Kurs explains, “ASL is not code for English. It has its own parameters and grammar. So we spend a fair time examining the script before we even begin rehearsal. Our ASL Masters work with our actors, finding the best signs for them to convey the exact intent of the author. It’s like creating a sculpture out of a block of stone, and we are always tinkering (with) the translations, up until opening night.”

Albee’s dialog is filled with subtext and nuance. Great care is taken to make sure that none of that is lost in performance. A hearing actor will use vocal inflection and rhythm to color the text and communicate the playwright’s meaning effectively. In much the same way, the deaf actor will use body language and facial expressions to accomplish the same goal.

Middlebrook is aware of the challenges he faces with both actors and audience. “When I’m working with Deaf West there is an intention to look for ways in which the material can be expressed authentically to a deaf experience, and driven by a deaf point of view. Layered onto the authenticity of the deaf perspective, are questions of how to facilitate the necessity of incorporating spoken English and voiced actors, so that the play will be accessible to both deaf and hearing audiences.”

Deaf West has experimented with several performance styles. The big musical productions like Big River and Spring Awakening typically cast deaf and hearing actors to play the same role, which they perform simultaneously. Many of the straight plays have used the device of deaf actors performing the roles onstage while the voice actors speak the text either off to the side of the playing area, or as disembodied voices on the sound system.

The hearing actors are onstage for both acts of At Home at the Zoo. Middlebrook’s visual concept contains elements of a diorama and the zoo. The voice actors are at the far side of the stage in the first act — protected by bars from the “animals” on display in Peter’s living room. By the second act, the voice actors have joined the Jerry and Peter in their cage.

Tech rehearsals for any show are always controlled chaos, and a visit to a Homelife tech proves to be no exception. Work tables are set up for the various departments: Director, Stage Management, Lighting, Sound etc. What is different is the addition of an extra layer of responsibility. Interpreters are an essential tool for efficient communication in a company with deaf and hearing members.

Middlebrook signs as he gives notes. He looks impressively fluent to my untutored eyes and, no doubt, the cast appreciates his effort. But they are also quick to smile and remind him of his earlier gaffe, when he advised against “taking any potato nickels.” That is why the interpreter remains at his shoulder.

“I’ve observed that when there is more than one language involved in building work, it really brings out the best in the room,” Middlebrook explains. “It asks all of us to take a beat, a breath, and be mindful of making sure we are all in the same moment. It sharpens the focus.”

Production Stage Manager (PSM), Jennifer Brienen has worked on two previous productions with deaf cast members and came into the pre-production meetings with a list of accommodations to make the rehearsals and production run smoothly.

These suggestions included hanging a dedicated light during tech to illuminate the interpreter, and informing the cast that the house lights would blink if the PSM had to halt the show for any reason. Backstage, the typical audio monitor used in dressing rooms was changed to a video monitor. A white board placed outside the dressing rooms visually updates the actors of the usual calls of “half hour” and “places.” Cue lights are used in the wings to give the cast “stand by” and “go” directives, and the running crew is provided with white boards to foster effective communication.

“The challenge is that I am not fluent in the language that my actors speak,” says Brienen. “As a stage manager, my job is to be there for my actors… the cast is so patient with my desire to communicate with them. I have celebrated my small victories, such as giving an acting note, understanding a parking issue, and, eventually, having an entire conversation with my cast.”

With these technical issues solved, the cast, both the deaf and hearing members, are free to face their individual acting challenges. Kostur finds that the new first act greatly helps him develop an inner life for the character. But the true test for any Peter is in how he handles listening and reacting to Jerry’s five-page speech. A difficult task for any actor, but one that is, perhaps, more exacting for a deaf performer.

“I’m trying to hide that Peter is grief-stricken,” says Kotsur. “I don’t want to show him (Jerry), but he sees. It’s very, very challenging to sit and listen to that monologue. I have to make sure that I’m completely reactive to every word he says. I have to be an active listener. If I were a hearing person, I could possibly look away. But, being deaf, I have to keep my eyes on him all the time. If I let my gaze travel, I would miss what he is saying, because I hear through my eyes.”

Kotsur jokes that Peter meets the perfect therapist in Jerry. But he understands the deeper truth behind the quip, and it’s an idea that resonates more powerfully with the introduction of Ann.

Jake Eberle, who voices the role of Peter, is new to Deaf West productions. But he discovered a surprising familiarity in performing his job. “I’ve worked on many foreign films, dubbing actors into English… In that medium, your job is to match the intentions and emotional state of the actor. You aren’t making choices as an actor, but matching the other actor’s choices. In the theater, the actor’s emotional arc changes slightly for every performance. I have to give over to the actor that I’m voicing, and mirror them throughout their experience on stage…  So, this process becomes inherently technical in its approach.”

While Eberle may approach this job technically, he can’t help but admire Albee’s insistence on honestly exploring the painful words usually left unsaid in relationships. Both Eberle and Middlebrook point to a melancholy passage in the text as particularly rich in emotional truth. “I have learned that neither kindness nor cruelty by themselves, independent of each other, creates any affect beyond themselves; and I have learned that the two combined, together, at the same time, are the teaching emotion.”

Moments like that convince Kurs that Albee’s plays are prime candidates for the Deaf West treatment. “It is my secret hope that I will get to see a production of Virginia Woolf in ASL in my lifetime,” Kurs declares.

It’s not a secret anymore.