When Nyle DiMarco won the Mirror Ball Trophy on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars in 2016, he was following in the ballroom steps of deaf actress Marlee Matlin, who danced (but didn’t win) on the show back in 2008. It was DiMarco’s second reality TV show victory in as many years: He’d already taken the top honor on The CW’s America’s Next Top Model, the show’s first deaf contestant.
And now once again, DiMarco’s life and career has intersected with Matlin’s. The model-turned-reality star and actor (Hulu’s Difficult People, Freeform’s Switched at Birth) is a producer on Broadway’s Children of a Lesser God, the revival of the Mark Medoff play that just earned three New York Drama League award nominations (for outstanding play revival and the lead performances of Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff). He’s in good company: The production’s lead producer is Broadway vet Hal Luftig, with a producers line-up that includes James L. Nederlander and The Shubert Organization, among others.
The play, of course, was the basis for the 1986 film that won Matlin a Best Actress Oscar.
Also like Matlin, DiMarco has parlayed visibility and a media career into activism on behalf of the Deaf community (and, like Matlin, he’d have some very public criticism for President Donald Trump, but more about that later). His Nyle DiMarco Foundation works to “ensure language equality and access among Deaf babies and children from day one of their birth,” working with another Deaf-led organization called Language Equality and Acquisition for Deaf Kids on legislation to ensure access to information about language development milestones, assessments that measure milestone achievements, and a data collection system that “holds our current education system accountable.”
I chatted with the Los Angeles-based DiMarco via email to discuss how he made the leap from catwalks and dance floors to the Broadway stage, and, yes, his Donald Trump moment. Our conversation was edited and condensed for clarity and concision.
Deadline: How does the winner of America’s Next Top Model and Dancing With the Stars become a producer on Broadway?
Nyle DiMarco: When I heard that Children of a Lesser God would be on Broadway, I immediately knew I wanted to get involved in some way. It is extremely important to not only have actual Deaf actors for Deaf characters, but also have Deaf people involved in all aspects of production. We connected with the creative team and I’m thankful that they felt the value in me offering my experiences as a Deaf person and I was brought on to collaborate as a producer.
Deadline: What did you bring to the Broadway production, both specifically on a day-to-day basis and, on a perhaps larger level, what were you able to contribute to the production that perhaps a hearing person might not have been able to do?
DiMarco: My role with the show was as a creative producer. Not only was I able to offer my life experience, struggles and successes as a reference, but I was able to lend support to the production in more of a media focused role. We created a series of ASL (American Sign Language) tutorials and video content to give audiences an early glimpse into the show’s main themes and share our language. That was a key thing for me when I first saw the film version of Children of a Lesser God, being able to see someone on screen that represented me, that valued someone like me in a leading role. So being able to share little bits of our culture and language through shareable content is my way of paying it forward and hopefully inspires people to learn more and maybe see people through a different lens.
Deadline: The play won the Tony Award in 1980. How have things changed for the Deaf community since then, and describe for me how you see the play’s continued relevance? Is there anything in the play that you think reflects the 1980s era that does not jibe with today’s world?
DiMarco: We all thought we would never see a Broadway play about the Deaf again. It was unimaginable. And fortunately we were wrong. The play amassed the attention of the world and changed the outside perspective of Deaf people. Ever since then we’ve had several Broadway shows about the Deaf (or at least had a Deaf actor), and then film and TV followed.
Although there is still a lot we need to do. I’m confident this play will help revitalize a new movement of #DeafTalents being a part of the entertainment world; not only as actors, but writers, producers, directors, etc. True representation happens behind the camera or the stage, if you will.
The message of the play that was written in 1979 is still relevant to today’s world. We need to start listening to all people of marginalized groups and have them be a part of society equally.
Deadline: Do you see yourself taking on another theatrical project? Any specific plans now?
DiMarco: We all learn through connection and storytelling: a person, a voice, a real experience, these all translate what we understand into something we truly believe. I believe that change happens through shared learning and community connection. My aim through partnerships is to redefine disability, teaching the public about the of abilities in everyone. The overall mission is to change the reality for hundreds of thousands of youth with disabilities across the globe. By changing perspectives, we will change policies and supports, allowing youth with disabilities across the globe to reach their full potential. I’ve recognized that if there isn’t a role for you or story that represents you, you should create it. I’m working on creating my own content and telling stories in the form of a TV series. I would definitely be open to other theater projects as well. I’m very excited to bring a new perspective from my Deaf eyes to the entertainment industry.
Deadline: You attended deaf schools growing up. Is there a particular character/viewpoint in Children of a Lesser God that you found yourself identifying more closely with – Sarah, or the more activist-minded Orin? Or neither?
DiMarco: Oh, I relate to Sarah on so many levels. The first Deaf school I went to lacked education values and had a deep focus on speech therapy. I despised missing valuable education time to learn speech. I knew I was Deaf and I loved being Deaf. My mother was a huge advocate for my education rights and moved us to one of the top-three Deaf schools. The new school asked if I wanted to continue speech, I was 8 at the time, and I said no.
Deadline: I read that you once said “the way [deaf people] communicate is naturally very expressive and shows a lot of emotion.” I noticed while attending Children of a Lesser God that the actors’ faces are indeed very expressive. Was this a specific choice made for the production?
DiMarco: Yes. Not only a specific choice but it was necessary. The structure of our sign language lies in our facial expression. Our face (eyebrows, lips, nose) is the most important part of the language. Without facial expression and body language, the language is broken… and ultimately, we wouldn’t understand a single thing.
Deadline: Marlee Matlin, of course, became a star via the film version (and she, like you, was a Dancing With The Stars contestant). Both she and you criticized Donald Trump when he used an offensive, outdated and inaccurate word to describe her. Is Donald Trump’s ignorance on this topic indicative of a segment of society still, or just of Donald Trump?
DiMarco: Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go to educating and changing the society’s ideology of Deaf people, as well as people with disabilities. Which is why this Broadway play is extremely important. Things would be more peaceful if we all took the time to start listening to each other.