We have five senses but only rarely do we experience the gift of having them heightened to a point of ecstasy. A Broadway musical, with its controlled delirium of sight and sound, can do that. A Broadway musical enhanced by, say, a particularly skilled interpreter of American Sign Language, adds not just the experience of the musical to deaf theatergoers, but also a sensual uptick for the rest of us — a conjugation of language and movement that transcends dance.
You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever attended a concert of storytelling with ASL signers on board, even more so if you’ve been lucky enough to have seen either of the two landmark Broadway musical revivals brought by Deaf West, the company that made its New York debut
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in 2003 with a spectacular, Tony-nominated production of Roger Miller’s Huck Finn musical Big River or, this season, when the company returned with a heartbreaking, electrifying staging of Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening, which again put the company in contention for the Tony Award for Best Musical Revival (the Tonys are this Sunday, broadcast live by CBS beginning at 8 PM New York time).
Deaf West often doubles the roles in a show, pairing hearing and deaf actors in a single part. That sounds confusing but it isn’t; quite the opposite, it’s liberating for both the actors and the audience. Spring Awakening was staged by Michael Arden, who appeared in Big River. As you might imagine, convincing producers to finance and audiences to come to a presentation by a company with a name like Deaf West offers a pile of challenges (all of which slip away as soon as the show starts). Spring Awakening was brought to Broadway by Ken Davenport, a producer who leads with his heart but carries a fistful of data. But first there was the ferocious determination of Deaf West’s artistic director, David J. Kurs, known as DJ, who came to Deadline HQ in Mahattan a few days ago and spoke with me through an ASLinterpreter, Dylan Geil.
DEADLINE: I have to confess that I don’t know your history with Deaf West, so let’s start there.
DAVID J. KURS: The theater was founded around 25 years ago, 1991, by Ed Waterstreet, who came from the National Theatre of the Deaf. The National Theatre of the Deaf never actually did a musical, but maybe they were experimenting, playing around with music at that time. Their primary focus was just to put deaf actors on stage, and I think Ed Waterstreet, the founder, had the idea of actually combining hearing people with deaf people onstage and combining it with music, because he, as an artistic director, already felt confident enough putting deaf people onstage.
DEADLINE: Were you born deaf?
KURS: Yes, my parents were deaf, so I grew up going, actually seeing the National Theatre of the Deaf. Their shows would come to L.A. So I was fortunate enough to have that exposure at an early age. Most deaf children don’t have exposure to the theater. For example, now, we’re the only theater still producing theater in sign language. So I hope that there’s going to be more opportunities and more theaters will follow, but we’ll see what comes of it.
DEADLINE: Are your parents culture freaks?
KURS: Yeah. I’d say so, more or less. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s where they were growing up, they didn’t have the same kind of access, so when National Theatre of the Deaf came, it was a big event and most of the deaf community went. They had a little Theater of the Deaf, but I don’t remember exactly what it was. It was a children’s show. I mean, but I remember seeing deaf people on stage and remembering that it was powerful and when I went to Gallaudet University, I wanted to major in theater and film, but my parents said “No, you’re never going to have a job. There’s not opportunities for deaf people in that field.” So I switched over to business.
DEADLINE: How’d that work out for you?
KURS: Not so well! I actually worked for a dotcom for about two years and then I decided it wasn’t for me. I moved to L.A. and got a job in film development and I worked for a producing company, and I was trying to get a deaf film made, but the movie industry is completely different than the performing arts world, because it takes stars to produce things, and if you don’t have a star, you can’t produce. At the same time I saw Big River, people lining up outside the Mark Taper Forum, and I thought, What is this? What’s going on? All these people want to come see our shows? See it in our language? They want to learn about our culture? That’s how I became involved with Deaf West.
KURS: Big River was special because it’s not often that our language and culture are seen on national stage. Presented on a stage of that size, and I remember the mutterings of the deaf community and it was fantastic. Especially in New York, where there wasn’t much theater happening in sign language, and so an event of that size was really nice. We saw a similar response with Spring Awakening. I hope to create more opportunities for deaf actors. I think they’re the most talented people that I know — and the most untapped.
DEADLINE: There’s something visually inclusive and wonderful that gets…I think that’s one of the reasons Big River was such a success, and I wrote about that in my review of Spring Awakening, because it added so much to the experience of the show. You’ve got a show that’s about sensuality. About discovering sensuality and it’s not just in here, but in the presentation.
KURS: For me, sign language is a window into the soul. And we don’t do subtexts. We put our heart right out there on the table for everybody to see. For example, you have to maintain
“For me, sign language is a window into the soul. And we don’t do subtexts. We put our heart right out there on the table for everybody to see.”
eye contact in deaf culture and using sign language. You can’t really hide behind your words like hearing people can. You express things with your facial expressions, your body language, as well as your words, and I hope that this production brought more sign language to the stage. Actually, a hearing actor, who’s been in many Broadway shows, said that for the first time he knew what to do with his hands.
DEADLINE: Which most actors don’t.
KURS: Right. Exactly, but I mean not only is it choreography and eye candy, but it’s a real language. Sign language is a true, full-fledged language that has lots of meaning behind it.
DEADLINE: That’s another question I have is, about the assertion that sign language is not as complex and so when you said we wear our heart on our sleeves or there’s no subtext, my question is, has sign language evolved and become more, let’s say…I so don’t want to say sophisticated…
DEADLINE: Inclusive of more as it expands as a language?
KURS: In the past 20 to 30 years, we have become more proud of ASL as a language and it’s become less of a code for English as it was in the past. Our parents signed in an English word order because they were trained that way. Our generation is completely different. We’re more gestural. We’re more visual. We’re pictorial and we make different choices than that of our parents, and it’s wonderful to see that evolution, and at the same time, music was inaccessible to my parents because they would always see the LP. That’s all they saw. The LP going around and around the needle, but for us, our generation, we had MTV. We had music videos. We
had high-powered headphones. We saw lyrics on the internet. We were able to reach music in a different way. Deaf people started buying subwoofers to start experience…putting subwoofers under the chairs. For example in our theatre, we actually did that for a show. So bringing sound and music in a different way and I think, now, deaf people are starting to connect with music the same way that hearing people do, and so kind of two birds with one stone on that forefront, but I’m really excited about the possibilities going forward. I think we’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg, sign language musicals.
DEADLINE: What is your job as artistic director and how is it different from artistic directors of other theaters?
KURS: Well, let’s see. We’re a very, very small organization. I mean tiny organization. We’re a small nonprofit theater in Los Angeles. We struggle for money like most other theaters do. We have to depend on private gifts and donations. It’s a challenge.
DEADLINE: Do you have one big sugar daddy? One major person who has been with you?
KURS: No. We get small donations from here and there.
DEADLINE: You’re the Bernie Sanders of theater groups.
KURS: Yeah. I mean, it’s true. It’s a huge challenge for our organization to have donors that maintain their gifts, because people seem to think we’re the flavor of the month, but really, we do a lot. We have a lot programs and a lot of educational programs. We also do mentoring and that’s a lot for a person like me to take on. We survive because of the 99-seat theater that we have in Los Angeles, which actually is in Los Angeles.
DEADLINE: Where is it?
KURS: North Hollywood and actually, we’re moving out of that theatre soon. The end of this month we’ll be moving out. June 30th.
KURS: We’re going to be homeless for a while. The good news is that we’re partnering with different theaters. For example, the Wallis. Really, I would love to find a sustainable model, but for now, I think the future holds collaboration with other theater companies.
DEADLINE: Has there been any discussion with Ken to carry you, to have an ongoing relationship?
KURS: I think commercial producers are a different breed than nonprofit producers. I’ve noticed that nonprofit producers are more open in terms of the project. They’re willing to work with Deaf West, but commercial producers, it’s a whole different game. I mean I’m sure you know.
DEADLINE: Well, sure but then again, it was Ken Davenport who brought you here, right?
KURS: Exactly and we have a great friend in Ken. Absolutely, and I hope to find a hundred more Kens. I hope we find more of them. More angels and more collaborators like Michael
Arden, who was in the original production of Big River and he learnt about our culture and our language through that production, and became a lifelong friend, and he helped us do Spring Awakening. There’s a huge learning curve when people come into our culture and community, and I hope we can make that learning curve shorter by doing more productions.
DEADLINE: What’s your dream show?
KURS: Something that comes from our culture and our community. Something that is thought provoking. The only thing that separates us is culture and language, and there’s not enough of those stories out there. So something that teaches people that we’re all the same.
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