Monday, January 14, 2019

How the crushed dreams of five disabled actors became the Phamaly Theatre Company

From Colorado Public Radio:

It began over pizza and beers in 1989.
Kathleen Traylor and four other classmates from Denver’s now defunct Boettcher School for students with disabilities, were reminiscing about theater in junior and senior high school.
“All of a sudden the conversation gets around to, ‘we should start our own theater group’ and I was the one who was like you’ve got to be kidding me,” Traylor said.
It seemed so pie in the sky because it was hard enough to break into the biz as actors, especially as five actors in wheelchairs, said Teri Westerman Wagner. She said you would roll in and announce your audition and they’d “look at you like a deer in headlights.”
“They literally would say, ‘I don’t know what to do with you,’” Westerman Wagner said.
For Traylor, she marveled at how theater companies could “figure out how to get full-sized elephants onto a stage, but to get a wheelchair onto a stage was baffling to them. I think it was just scarey: the liability issues, the accommodation issues.”
Phamaly co-founder Kathleen Traylor at the Newman Center for Theatre Education in downtown Denver on Dec. 13, 2018.
Stephanie Wolf/CPR News
And so, tired of being told their acting dreams were unrealistic because they had disabilities, the five — which also included Rick Britton, Kevin Ahl and Gregg Vigil — decided to take matters into their own hands. They launched Phamaly Theatre Company, and never imagined it would last long enough to celebrate 30 years.
The acronym of Phamaly came first, said Westerman Wagner. They liked the idea of a family-like theater troupe and they found the words to make it work. Initially, it stood for the Physically Handicapped Amatuer Musical Actors League — ending with a “y” for pronunciation. The name later came to represent the Physically Handicapped Actors and Musical Artists League as they were able to afford to pay performers.
They first tried their collective hands at a costume party. After that went well, they applied for a grant from the state. Traylor said it was supposed to be a practice grant.
“But low and behold we got a check for $3,300 dollars,” Traylor said. “And we were like, ‘Oh poop. We’ve gotta put on a play.’”
That first Phamaly production was “Guys and Dolls.” The four performances of the gangsters and showgirls musical were staged at their alma mater in 1990. The run went off without a hitch despite so much working against them, such as a tight budget and a cast size much smaller than the show demanded. The rehearsal space was designed pre-Americans with Disabilities Act (signed on July 1990) and, Westerman Wagner said, it was not ideal for wheelchair access.    
“We should not have succeeded,” she said. “But I think it was by sheer determination from all of us that we just weren’t gonna let it fail.”
Phamaly co-founder Teri Westerman Wagner at the Newman Center for Theatre Education in downtown Denver on Dec. 13, 2018.
Stephanie Wolf/CPR News
Popular musicals would become Phamaly’s bread and butter over the years. The company went on to perform “Oklahoma,” “The Wiz” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Trayler said they didn’t want to do shows about disabilities, at least not initially. She believed actors with disabilities that portray familiar characters could reframe the audience’s thinking about what it means to have a disability.
“We wanted to do plays about real people who just so happen to have disabilities because that’s what life is,” Traylor said.
Choreographer Debbie Stark said that happened for her. She almost quit when she first came on to choreograph Phamaly’s third fully produced show, “Anything Goes.” She doesn’t identify as having a disability, and began to question if she was right for the job.
It fell into place for Stark when she said, “‘You guys, can I get in a wheelchair?’ I don’t know how a wheelchair moves.”
Decades on, there’s now a wall at Stark’s Centennial-based dance school full of choreography awards for Phamaly shows. She’s learned there are more possibilities than limitations with these actors.
The World Health Organization estimates about 15 percent of the global populationlives with some form of disability. Teresa Eyring, executive director of the New York-based national nonprofit Theatre Communications Group, said these individuals need to see themselves onstage. TCG runs an Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity Initiative.
Debbie Stark, who has choreographed for Phamaly Theatre Company for the last 28 years, at her Centennial-based dance school on Jan. 7, 2019.
Stephanie Wolf/CPR News
“We exist as a field to lift up all people and the stories of as many people in our communities as we can and, if we are not accomplishing that, it’s a major issue,” Eyring said.
Other theater organizations that serve artists with disabilities include New York’s Theater Breaking Through Barriers, InterAct Theater in Minneapolis and the recently launched National Disability Theater. Even as more of these theaters come onto the scene, Eyring said Phamaly continues to be a leader on “modeling how to work with disabled artists with integrity and inspiring other theaters to do so.”
Phamaly also wants to be seen as a serious theater company. Traylor remembered her first bad review. It was in 1997 and she played the title character in the musical “Mame.”
“It was hard, but at the same time, I was like, wow, I’m really grateful that somebody took me seriously as an actress and gave me a review as an actress and not as a disabled person,” Traylor said.
Theater critic Lisa Kennedy wrote about Phamaly during her time with The Denver Post and describes Phamaly as “often a really solid, even better-than-solid theater company.”
She attributes the company’s longevity to a blending of artistry and mission, enriching the experience for the audience. Kennedy felt that way when she saw Phamaly’s “Fiddler on the Roof.” She found herself not as interested in the next production of “Fiddler” she saw “because, I felt like Phamaly had done a better job artistically.”
ADAPT activist Dawn Russell at Atlantis Community independent living center in Denver on Jan. 4, 2019.
Stephanie Wolf/CPR News
Kennedy added that the group’s impact can also be seen as more of its actors appear with other Colorado theater companies.
In 1978, activists in Denver, many in wheelchairs, stopped traffic to demand more accessible public transit. Soon after, grassroots advocate ADAPT formed, helping propel the national movement of disability rights. ADAPT activist Dawn Russell said she considers Phamaly performers activists as well, just a different and necessary kind.
“Phamaly’s approach is about the normalcy and we’re just like everyone else,” Russell said. “We’re saying we’re not like everyone else, we need this and if we have this, then we are closer to that equal and normalcy that Phamaly is representing.”  
In 2007, Phamaly added a second production to its season, eventually bumping the lineup to three, four or five different shows a year. The company has toured nationally — even internationally with a trip to Osaka, Japan in 2015. It’s received support from the National Endowment for the Arts and was one of more than two dozen Denver-area arts organizations selected for an Arts Innovation and Management grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies.  
The theater company also continues to expand from its musical theater core, tackling Shakespeare and more original plays.
Phamaly will kick off its 30th anniversary season with the premiere of “Morph Masters.” The play speaks to the skills you gain from a disability through the stories of important artists with disabilities such as Stevie Wonder, Beethoven and Frida Kahlo.
Phamaly artistic director Regan Linton watches a rehearsal of “Morph Masters” on Dec. 13, 2018 at the Newman Center for Theatre Education in downtown Denver.
Stephanie Wolf/CPR News
Artistic director Regan Linton said the idea came from a school performance the company did a few years ago. They asked the young audience: “What does disability mean to you?” When one student answered, “It means you can’t do things,” Linton refused to let that be “the definition of disability these kids are left with.”
“We started thinking there are all of these amazing artists that lived and worked with a disability and were creative because of what disability gave to them,” she said.
In a way, the show reflects Linton’s own experiences. A car crash in college paralyzed her from the chest down and suddenly having a disability came with so much stigma, she said. Performing with Phamaly, she saw that these actors “weren’t caught up in all the bull*** that everybody else was.”
“They were just focused on the artistry,” she said. “That for me was a personal transformation.”
As to where Phamaly will be in another 30 years, Westerman Wagner hopes there will be a Phamaly-like company in every state. Traylor fell on the other end of the spectrum. She’d like to see Phamaly go out of business because “there’d be no need for it.” For her part, Linton wants it to become an even more important institution in Denver.
“So that even when you’re casting actors with disabilities all over all other stages, there’s still something that’s unique to Phamaly’s aesthetic,” Linton said.
Phamaly Theatre Company’s “Morph Masters” runs Jan. 11 - 20, 2019 at Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Conservatory Theatre.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Collective of American artists with disabilities comes together to launch National Disability Theatre

From Playbill:

Several months in the making, a collective of artists with disabilities has come together to launch National Disability Theatre, a company committed to exclusively hiring people who have disabilities and creating fully-accessible, world-class theatrical productions. 
This accessibility will be built directly into the fabric of each show's artistic designs. NDT's co-executive directors are Talleri A. McRae, who has cerebral palsy, and Curious Incident star Mickey Rowe, who is on the autism spectrum. 
The company's Advisory Company Members are Zach Anner, a writer and actor on Speechless; Micah Fowler (Speechless); Jamie Brewer (Amy and the Orphans and American Horror Story); Lawrence Carter-Long, who has generated media coverage for disability issues in such outlets as Associated Press, The New York Times, The Daily Show, and the BBC; Josh Castille (Spring Awakening); Kelsey Fowler (Grey Gardens, Sunday in the Park with George); Haben Girma, who is the first Deafblind Harvard Law graduate; Ryan J. Haddad (Hi, Are You Single?); Nicole Kelly, an amputee and Miss Iowa; John McGinty (Children of a Lesser God); Gregg Mozgala (Teenage Dick and The Cost of Living); Ali Stroker (Glee and Spring Awakening); Nic Novicki (Boardwalk Empire); Katy Sullivan, a paralympian and seen Off-Broadway in The Cost of Living; TED speaker Maysoon Zayid; and Danny Woodburn (Seinfeld).
NDT's first production will be A Midsummer Night's Dream in fall 2019 at a theatre to be announced. 
NDT is currently seeking partnerships with existing regional theatres and performing arts institutions that will most likely involve NDT being a resident company for the duration of a production. Each performance will include open captioning, active listening systems, interpreters, audio description, and more. 
The company also plans to use a co-production and co-commission model to commission playwrights with disabilities. 
"A company producing large-scale professional work run entirely by people with disabilities will show the world that our differences really are our strengths,” says Rowe. “We will impact industries beyond our own, demonstrating that people with disabilities can efficiently and productively undertake professional work at the highest level and that accessibility is not only right—but also profitable. We want to flip the script and eliminate the single story of people with disabilities, showing that we are neither inspirational nor charity cases, just powerful and ferocious professionals.” 
"Access and innovation go hand in hand," adds McRae. "Including people of all abilities is a wildly creative act." 
For more information visit

Thursday, November 29, 2018

MTV to Chronicle Disability Activist's Quest to Travel Into Space

from the Hollywood Reporter:

MTV will follow a South African activist on his quest to become the first physically disabled person to travel to space. 
Eddie Ndopu, 27, was born with spinal muscular atrophy and given a life span of five years. He has obviously exceeded that, going on to earn a master's degree in public policy from Oxford and has spent more than a decade advocating for the rights of disabled young people. 
Now Ndopu is hoping to travel to space and deliver a message from above Earth to the U.N. General Assembly, sending "a powerful message on behalf of young people everywhere who have ever felt excluded by society." MTV cameras will follow him as he enlists an aerospace company to facilitate the mission and chronicle his thoughts and emotions as the launch approaches. The cabler will also document his voyage and message to the United Nations. 
The project was announced ahead of the International Day of Persons With Disabilities on Dec. 3.  
Production on the untitled MTV series is set to begin in 2019.

Monday, November 5, 2018

City University of New York (CUNY) launches Journal of Teaching Disability Studies

CUNY launches new Journal of Teaching Disability Studies  

With the proliferation of disability studies courses, majors, minors and new degree programs, many questions about teaching disability studies have emerged nationally. To help develop the disability studies field, CUNY announces a new journal, the Journal of Teaching Disability Studies, and its first Call for Submissions. Here is a link to the new journal:

The new online, open-source journal will feature peer-reviewed articles and research about disability studies pedagogy. In addition, there is a separate, less formal section for resources and ideas where syllabi, assignments, or questions can be submitted, and a section for students to submit work. JTDS hopes to promote and enhance disability studies pedagogy in a wide variety of educational settings, inviting discussion of disability studies in a broad range of educational settings. 

The Call for Submissions can be found here:

Submissions will be due January 15, 2018 and if all goes well, CUNY hopes to publish the first issue in mid-May.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Maysoon Zayid to write, star in autobiographical comedy series in development at ABC

From Variety:

Comedian Maysoon Zayid is developing a comedy series inspired by her own life at ABC called “Can-Can,” Variety has learned. 
The single-camera project follows the life of a Muslim woman who has Cerebral Palsy (Zayid), as she struggles to find love, the right career, and discover who she is separate of her opinionated Muslim parents. ABC has given the project a script commitment with a penalty attached. 
Zayid will write and executive produce in addition to starring. Joanna Quraishi will also write and executive produce. “Will & Grace” star Sean Hayes will executive produce along with Todd Milliner via their Hazy Mills production banner. Universal Television, where Hazy Mills is under an overall deal, will produce. 
Zayid is an actress, comedian, and disability activist. She was born in New Jersey and is of Palestenian descent. In addition to her stand up, she had a role in the Adam Sandler film “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” as well as “Stand Up: Muslim-American Comics Come of Age.” She is repped by WME. 
This also marks the latest project Hazy Mills has set up at a broadcast network. Last season, the company set up multiple projects at NBC, including the comedies “Like Family” and “So Close.” Hayes also executive produces NBC’s “Hollywood Game Night” and previously executive produced the NBC drama “Grimm.” 
He is repped by WME and Principato-Young Entertainment.

Friday, August 31, 2018

New A&E documentary gives viewers look into lives of Deaf people

From Parade:

Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who lost most of her hearing as a toddler, is an executive producer of the A&E documentary Deaf Out Loud (September 12), which follows three predominantly deaf families as they raise their children in a hearing world. 
“People use different terms to refer to us—hearing impaired, hard of hearing, hearing loss,” says Matlin, 53. “The misconception lies in the fact that deaf people all think alike, talk alike and live alike, and that’s not true.” 
 In a 2017 interview, Parade asked Matlin if she thinks there have been inroads into acting roles for the deaf community. Here’s what she had to say:
“Yes, but not enough. Though deaf and hard of hearing people as well as people with a disability make up 20 percent of our population, only 2 percent of roles in film and TV feature actors with a disability and of that 2 percent, 5 percent are played by actors who actually HAVE a disability. It’s 30 years since I won the Academy Award as the first deaf person to receive this honor and we still have to talk about the lack of inclusion? It’s a sorry situation.”
A&E says the documentary special follows the lives of three predominantly deaf families who utilise different communication modalities in everyday life. 
The show delves into the various ways deaf culture is expressed and embraced in the United States. Misconceptions exist about deaf individuals – from schooling to employment and raising a family. The documentary aims to change these misperceptions and bring awareness and better understanding to the public at large. The three families will show viewers the diversity of deaf culture today, and how it differs from hearing cultures.

“People with disabilities need to see positive representations of themselves, both as people with satisfying personal lives and as people who can perform successfully in the workplace,” said executive producer Jonathan Murray. “Those positive images will change for the better the way the greater society sees people with disabilities, opening up more opportunities for them.”

Get a sneak peek of the A&E documentary Deaf Out Loud here: The documentary premieres on A&E September 12.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Ali Stroker on "Oklahoma!" and Bringing Disability Representation to Another Iconic Musical

From Teen Vogue:

Ali Stroker is working to make the Broadway world more inclusive — one iconic musical at a time. 

The actor, who made history in 2015 as the first performer in a wheelchair to be cast in a Broadway show, will be appearing in the upcoming Off-Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!directed by Daniel Fish, coinciding with the classic musical’s 75th anniversary. Ali first gained notoriety after appearing on The Glee Project 2 back in 2012 and eventually appearing on Glee as a guest star. Now she'll be starring in Oklahoma! as Ado Annie, the headstrong and hilarious friend of Laurey, the show’s protagonist (who will be portrayed by Rebecca Naomi Jones). 

Ali, who has used a wheelchair since she was two years old when a car accident left her paralyzed from the chest down, tells Teen Vogue that providing visibility for the disabled community in such a mainstream musical as Oklahoma! is especially meaningful. “I remember in college, always considering Oklahoma! and Rodgers and Hammerstein being like classical musical theater, if there is such a thing,” the actor says. “To have people that are diverse playing those roles, I think just adds something really exciting to the production and the story.” 

Of course, if Daniel Fish’s previous iterations of Oklahoma! at Bard College in 2015 and 2007 are any indication, this might not be your typical production of the timeless musical. Both previous productions had been set in the round, an immersive theater method in which the audience surrounds the stage. That means audience members became part of the rural town community, eating chili and drinking lemonade served by the actors themselves. Ali tells Teen Vogue that, while she doesn’t know a lot about Fish’s upcoming remount yet, it will likely “be different” than what one might expect. 

Incidentally, Ali landed the role of Ado Annie in an unconventional way as well, with a story that proves she was destined for the part. She tells Teen Vogue that after auditioning in person, she was scheduled to appear in New York City for a callback. “I was in Cleveland [at the time], doing Spelling Bee at the Cleveland Playhouse,” Ali says, adding that she attempted to fly back to New York for the callback, only to have her flight canceled at the last minute. Thinking quickly, she enlisted the help of her boyfriend, and together they made a tape to send in for her callback. 

“You make so many of those tapes as an actor these days, because so many things are on tape,” Ali says with a laugh. “You always think: ‘No way I'm going to get the part.’” But this time, she landed the part, proving that sometimes taking risks can pay off. 

For Ali, that kind of thinking isn’t new. She tells Teen Vogue that having a disability has felt like the perfect training for being in the theater industry, noting that she’s had to “be creative, think outside of the box, and solve problems my entire life — not just my career.” She first caught the acting bug at age seven, when she played the title role in Annie in her hometown of the Jersey Shore. 

“Theater, for me, was more than a hobby,” Ali explains. “It was a place I could go where I felt like myself, and I felt limitless ... Theater is what saved me. It's what gave me purpose and courage and confidence to keep moving forward. It also has given me a real sense of success, which I think is something that I have a very particular experience with, because of being in a chair.” 

And there’s no doubt that Ali’s involvement in theater has now given others purpose and courage as well. When Ali was cast in the 2015 revival of Spring Awakening, it was the first time that a performer in a wheelchair ever appeared on a Broadway stage. “It was a huge wake-up call to me that there's so much work that still needs to be done for my community,” she tells Teen Vogue, adding that the production, which also included deaf actors, completely changed her life. “I remember young kids with disabilities coming to see the show and being like, ‘I didn't know this was possible, and now I've seen it done, and I know it is.’” 

Being able to provide that representation was huge for Ali, simply because it was personal. “I remember being younger and just looking everywhere for someone who looked like me, and it didn't exist,” the actor says. “When you see somebody else who looks like you, who is in your similar position, you somehow are given confidence that you're going to make it. That's why representation is so important. The stories that we see portrayed, they’re from our own.” 

But Ali knows that the Broadway community — and pop culture in general — still has a long way to go. “I would like to see disabled actors cast in all different kinds of roles, not just a part for somebody who's disabled,” she explains, noting that she’s trying to prove this exact point with her career. “Just because I'm in a chair, doesn't mean I only go in for roles for women in wheelchairs.” 

Given Ali’s trajectory in the theater industry so far, it’s clear that she’s paving the way for others to follow suit — and that she's not stopping. “I hope that people with disabilities and their stories are being portrayed on stage,” she says of Broadway’s future. “It's a moment to see someone's story represented. And it’s such an opportunity, as artists, to share.”

Monday, July 30, 2018

Comedian Hannah Gadsby says her autism diagnosis transformed her

From Stylist in the UK:

You’d be hard pressed to read a bad review of Netflix’s Nanette, and even more so to find someone who has yet to watch it. 
The stand-up special has been talked about on every social media platform and at bus stops across the country since it aired on the streaming service last month. Not only is it fascinating to watch, but it sees the Australian stand-up comedian Hannah Gadsby deliver something rare in today’s world: honesty. 
Now, the comedian has revealed that her best work came after she was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder three years ago. 
“It’s clarified why the comedy lifestyle is so difficult for me,” Gadsby told The Guardian. “It’s a lot of noise and moving around.”  
According to Gadsby, people with autism have an increased sensitivity to traumatisation because they find it difficult to communicate and regulate their emotions. They are also more likely to be victimised. A recent studyrevealed that women who are diagnosed with autism are three times more likely to have experienced sexual abuse. 
Currently, around 700,000 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum. Together with their families, autism is part of daily life for around 2.8 million people. However, it’a more common for men and boys to be diagnosed with autism, but some experts believe this is due to women and girls being adept at masking their difficulties.  
Gadsby says that while her autism made life as a comedian difficult in some ways, it has also been helpful in others. Studies have shown that brain regions associated with recognising patterns tend to light up more in people with autism than the average person – and she says that the success of Nanette is partly due to this ability to see patterns. 
“Having the framework of autism boils down to not looking out to the world to see how I should exist, but knowing I don’t actually have to be social, knowing that it exhausts me and that I will get confused and look like an idiot,” Gadsby said. 
She continued: “Because I also know that I understand things a lot deeper than a lot of people.”

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Aerie's latest lingerie campaign features models with disabilities, chronic illnesses

From Teen Vogue:

Lingerie brand Aerie quietly released a new images on its website this week that feature women with a range disabilities and medical conditions modeling various styles. The images captured women with arm crutches, type 1 diabetes, vitiligo, and more, wearing everything from the brand's signature bralettes to matching workout apparel. 
Aerie, owned by American Eagle, has gradually revealed images from the campaign, displaying on the site's product pages. They are also being shared widely on social media by fans and the models themselves. One of the campaign's models, Abby Sams, shared her excitement about being included, tweeting, "Aerie just sneakily released some of my photos! Look at this disability representation people!!! Also look at me because I cant believe it's actually me so yeah." Abby also tweeted images of three other models and included the caption, "A cancer survivor, down syndrome paralympian, me, and fibromyalgia (+ body hair). Their work in chronic illness and disability representation this campaign was REAL and AMAZING." 
Other social media users also chimed in with their excitement over Aerie's campaign. One Twitter user tweeted, "OH MY GOD!!! THIS IS THE FIRST TIME I’VE EVER SEEN MYSELF REPRESENTED IN A MODEL!!!!" Another tweeted, "Absolutely amazing! The confidence of these ladies leaks out of the screen! Fantastic photos, beautifully taken showing ladies being their true selves 💗" 
This is not the first time Aerie has received praise for its efforts to diversify and represent women of all different backgrounds. The brand's website features models of various different body types and racial backgrounds, and with the help of their social media hashtag, #AerieREAL, their social media accounts also reflect this inclusivity. As recently as last year, the brand teamed up with All Woman Project for a diverse campaign that released un-retouched images of their models to celebrate natural beauty and promote women's empowerment.

Los Angeles world premiere love story ‘Arrival & Departure’ features Deaf and hearing actors

From People's World:

LOS ANGELES—Many film enthusiasts recall the 1945 classic Brief Encounter, directed by David Lean with a screenplay by Noël Coward, starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. It was named “the most romantic film ever made” according to experts polled by Time Out London. The Film Society of Lincoln Center named it “one of the most achingly romantic films ever made.”
Its two lead characters cross paths at a British rail station and improbably connect as soul mates—except they already had other commitments. Eventually they bid one another farewell, but the memory of that unconsummated affair would clearly always stay with them as a reminder forever of what might have been.
Brief Encounter was one of the first signs of rebirth in the film industry in Britain, which had just heroically pulled through World War II. With all the people coming and going during wartime, including soldiers from the various Allied nations, and not forgetting the frequent blackouts and evacuations into London’s deep tunnels for its Tube network, one can only imagine how many hundreds of thousands of casual meetings took place at a time when there was just here and now and tomorrow might never be.
That shared experience, true for homosexuals as well as heterosexuals, was the muse that inspired Coward, who was not publicly queer but was not secretive about it either. A few of those encounters led to lasting romantic relationships, and most were probably soon forgotten, while others lingered in the mind as fated casualties of moment and circumstance.
Brief Encounter had an impressive theatrical run at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts here in Beverly Hills back in 2014 in a marvel of invention by the British Kneehigh Theatre Company.
Now this memorable love story hits the stage again, in Arrival & Departure, written and directed by Stephen Sachs, a founder of the almost three-decade-old Fountain Theatre. But Sachs has taken the story to new, revelatory levels. In his reinterpretation, Sam, a Deaf man (Troy Kotsur), and Emily, a hard-of-hearing woman (Deanne Bray), two married strangers, meet by chance in a New York City subway station. Their casual friendship evolves over the course of several “same time next week” meetings at a table in front of the donut shop at the 59th St. station. As they realize that the fates truly destined them for each other, they also have to face the changes in their lives that would ensue if they pursued this any further, not to mention the impact on their families.
In addition, Sachs folds in a couple of parallel love stories: One between Russell, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) cop (Shon Fuller) and the part-Filipina donut shop counter lady Mya (Jessica Jade Andres). We see nothing of Sam’s private life, but we do see a great deal of Emily’s, and we meet her husband of 13 years, Doug (Brian Robert Burns). A real estate agent, Doug is not so scintillating a person, but is trying earnestly as a sincere practicing Christian to do the right thing by Emily and their lacking-in-confidence 13-year-old daughter Jule (yes, the parents married because Emily was pregnant), played by Aurelia Myers. So there’s that love story, too, now rather frayed around the edges and vulnerable to unfavorable comparison with the charming, quirky Sam.
Finally, there’s Jule and her explorations on teen meetup sites, where she has fallen hard for someone by the name Sweetboy16. Sachs sets up parallel tracks between mother Emily’s and daughter Jule’s forbidden romantic infatuations.
In yet another level of complication, Sachs wrote this play specifically to feature two actors in the lead roles, Kotsur and Bray, who are themselves married to one another! And as an alternate for the daughter Jule, the couple’s own daughter Kyra Kotsur will play in some performances; she is scheduled for Sept. 7-10.
“A train station is a place of transition, a place people go when they’re on their way to someplace else,” notes Sachs. “Arrival & Departure is not only a travel term. It expresses the journey of change that the people in this play are experiencing. What happens when you find your soul mate, but the circumstances of life get in the way?”
Tension is heightened by Emily’s forthcoming baptism, which will theologically start her off on a new course in life, one devoted to following the teachings of Christ, all the while she is compromising her marital promise to Doug by testing how far she will go with Sam. In one stand-out scene, Emily and Sam take a hot summer’s day walk in Central Park, effectively rendered by lovely video projections, where at Sam’s urging they remove their shoes and wade in the lake—No Swimming, the sign says, but it doesn’t say anything about wading, he says. The scene reveals how ordered and confined Emily’s life has been, and how liberating Sam could be for her—a different kind of “baptism,” if you will, a “wade in the water” leading to a different kind of freedom.
The entire production is accessible to both deaf and hearing audiences. The romantic couple’s exchanges in American Sign Language (ASL) are voiced by two actors (Adam Burch and Stasha Surdyke) more or less embedded in the urban crowd, and other spoken passages are displayed on open captioning screens. The ingenious stage set (Matthew G. Hill) and video design (Nicholas E. Santiago) make it a breeze to follow the dialogue in a supplementary modality. Members of the audience who could be seen signing with one another seemed to have no difficulty following the action.
The emergence of theatre by and for the Deaf community can be traced to the National Theatre of the Deaf, with which Kotsur has been associated for half his life. In 1994, he moved to Los Angeles and joined the company of Deaf West Theatre, where he has appeared in countless productions. We saw him in 2017 in Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo. Deanne Bray was born deaf and has been bilingual in ASL and English since the age of two. She kicked off her acting career in 1991 at the Fountain Theatre, where Stephen Sachs directed her in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The pioneering work of Marlee Beth Matlin must also be recognized—winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress for Children of a Lesser God and to date the only Deaf performer to have won this award.
The writer/director and the actors, who also have extensive credits in TV and film, go back a long time together. Kotsur directed the award-winning independent film No Ordinary Hero: The Superdeafy Movie, the first film in the history of Screen Actors Guild commercial feature films to be directed by a Deaf director and to be executive-produced exclusively by Deaf executive producers.
Readers might be confused if they notice the usage here of both “deaf” and Deaf.” The lower-case term simply refers to the medical condition of hearing loss, whereas the upper-case word refers to a person’s cultural and community identity. Most Deaf people communicate with sign language, which of course is as unintelligible to the non-signer as any foreign language is if you don’t know it.
The character Bray plays falls somewhere between lower- and upper-case, in that she is “hard of hearing” and uses hearing aids, and thus is able to communicate with her family members and others in quite articulate English. But she also knows ASL and feels a unique affinity with other users of it, who may have no hearing at all, resenting to a degree her husband’s so-far unfulfilled promise to learn ASL. At certain points she removes her hearing aids in an act both of protest against those who refuse to accommodate to her and as an act of solidarity with those who rely exclusively on ASL. Sam, who is 100 percent Deaf and teaches filmmaking at a school for the Deaf, is definitely on the Deaf identity track. That is yet another facet of the “arrival and departure” theme of the play.
So many kind of dualities are explored here. Perhaps the biggest challenge is to balance the responsibility of duty against the impulsive risks of passion. Which course is the right one to follow? With many of its scenes set in a subway station, there are implicit allusions to the doomed Anna Karenina story.
Those playgoers who already know the film Brief Encounter will anticipate how this 90-minute one-act work will end, but either way, the getting there is an entrancing and uplifting ride. And such a gift to be able to enter the non-hearing world in this inviting piece of theatre.
Although, you will soon realize, it’s not just about deaf (or Deaf) people, but about the larger human condition to which we can all relate. People come and go in our lives, some of whom we will never forget. But in the end, as with other characteristics such as race, age, religion, language, as Russell observes to Mya, what’s most important is not what you see on the outside, but who you are on the inside. Where’s our ticket to that place? Maybe at the Fountain Theatre box office.
Arrival & Departure runs through Sept. 30, with performances on Fri. and Sat. at 8 pm, Sun. at 2 pm, and Mon. at 8 pm (dark July 16, Aug. 4 and 27, and Sept. 3). The air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible Fountain Theatre is located at 5060 Fountain Ave. (at Normandie) in Los Angeles. For tickets and other information call (323) 663-1525 or go to the Fountain website. Parking can be tight in the area; secure, on-site parking is available for $5.