When Deaf Voices Are Left Out Of “Tribes”

September 8th, 2016 § 2 comments

Russell Harvard and Susan Pourfar in David Cromer’s production of Nina Raine’s Tribes (photo by Craig Schwartz)

Russell Harvard and Susan Pourfar in David Cromer’s production of Nina Raine’s “Tribes” (photo by Craig Schwartz)

“Unfortunately, no deaf actors showed up to the auditions.”

The statement above was made yesterday in a public statement to the Deaf and hard of hearing community by Leslie Charipar, artistic director of Theatre Cedar Rapids in Iowa. It was issued in response to complaints that Charipar has received from the Deaf community at large about the theatre’s upcoming production of Nina Raine’s Tribes, which TCR has cast with hearing actors in the roles of Billy, who is deaf, and Sylvia, a young woman raised by Deaf parents who is now going deaf. The statement is in response to what Charipar calls “questions, complaints, rants, and vitriol against our production.”

The statement about “showing up” is not a unique one, as it has been used by various theatres in a variety of circumstances, when they say they are unable to cast roles authentically for race, ethnicity and disability, but forge ahead with a show regardless. It places the onus on people whose lived experience mirrors or approximates that of the role in question, blaming them for not “showing up” and, ostensibly, then absolves the producer for proceeding with casting solely from the pool of those who did, regardless of the specific requirements of the role.

Now it’s worth noting, as Charipar points out in her statement, that TCR is a community theatre. It casts locally and no actors are compensated. Indeed, many positions at TCR are volunteer, but based on online evidence, they’ve built a thriving company dating back 90 years. They offer ten productions a year ranging from Sister Act to The Flick, as well as programs for children and teens. The company is sufficiently sophisticated to operate on a budget that totals over $3 million annually in expenses; even if one removes the in-kind contribution of $750,000 for its venue, it’s still over a $2 million operation.

Having been entirely unaware of the company or issues surrounding its production of Tribes until Charipar’s statement began to be shared widely on social media, it’s difficult to assess all of the communication that has taken place to date. There are certainly many comments about the issue on the company’s Facebook page, though none there that I saw rose to the level of rants or vitriol, only passionate statements on behalf of the Deaf community and authenticity in casting. Certainly with a statement like Charipar’s being issued, surely a great deal of communication of all kinds led up to it. It’s important to acknowledge that some of the commenters I did see appeared to be making the assumption that TCR was a company that is hiring actors, rather than casting local amateurs, and which could have gone beyond their immediate community, engaging an actor from outside their metropolitan area.

But coming back to the statement about Deaf actors not showing up, Charipar writes, “It is our policy at TCR to cast from the pool of actors who auditioned. That is the only fair way to cast…that is the purpose of auditions.” She also writes, “I know that at least one organization that advocates on behalf of the deaf community was contacted to let them know that we were holding auditions for a show with a role for a deaf actor.”

Regardless of whether the theatre is amateur or professional, TCR is a major creative and entertainment resource for the Cedar Rapids community. Having produced Dreamgirls with a black cast, having cast an actress of Korean heritage as Christmas Eve in Avenue Q, it would seem to be incumbent upon them to make all necessary efforts to at least find a deaf actor for the role of Billy in Tribes. That means going beyond their usual policy of just casting who shows up, but really making a concerted effort to reach out to the Deaf community in their region.

TCR did put out a casting notice for late August auditions indicating that they were seeking, in their words, “two hearing impaired actors in their 20s, one male who can speak and sign, and one female who can speak and sign, or be able to perform with a hearing impaired accent.” But with performances beginning in October, presumably with rehearsals in September, they didn’t allow any extra time in the event that Deaf or hard of hearing actors didn’t materialize. If they had been committed to authentic casting, they might have worked further ahead of their usual schedule, and made their call for Deaf actors more vigorously.

The results of their casting call obviously led Charipar to the following questions in her statement:

“My question to you is: with no deaf actor in the role of Billy, should we just not do the play, thereby ending any conversation that this play or the controversy of our casting might bring? Or is it more valuable to do the play with the actors available so that we can talk about the issues confronting the deaf community?”

But earlier in the statement, Charipar made clear her priorities:

“It was a decision made in service to the show we have committed to do, to the audience who has already purchased tickets to this particular show, and to the actors who showed up to audition.”

Despite the artistic director’s intention to begin a conversation about the issues of the play, TCR neglected the real concerns of the very community they sought to explore through the theatre’s work. This is contrary to a central tenet held by many Deaf and disabled activists, “Nothing about us without us,” which is to say that they should be included whenever and wherever their lives are being explored or affected.

Since Charipar posed rhetorical questions, let me pose my own:

  • Did TCR have ASL interpreters available at auditions and did it announce that interpreters would be present?
  • If an insufficient number of black actors had auditioned for Dreamgirls, or no Asian actors had auditioned for Avenue Q, would TCR have proceeded with those productions using only the people who showed up? Does TCR differentiate between respect for communities of color and the Deaf and disability communities?
  • Did TCR find hearing actors who sign, or will they need to engage an ASL consultant to train the actors who were cast (or, if being strictly accurate to the British setting, BSL)? If it’s the latter, does TCR understand that they will be asking the actors required to sign to perform in another language without actually speaking or comprehending that language, since ASL is not English?
  • If there is an ASL or BSL consultant, who presumably works closely with individuals who are deaf or a broader Deaf community, what does that person think about training people to pretend to deafness?
  • Has TCR made arrangements for open-captioned or sign interpreted performances, to ensure that no Deaf members of their community are excluded from experiencing the show, if they are willing to accept the casting?

The Theater Cedar Rapids production of Tribes is clearly going forward after weighing opinions for and against producing the play without authentically casting the role of Billy or Sylvia. That’s their right. But returning to the theme of having a conversation about the issues raised in the play, it’s fair to say that Theatre Cedar Rapids is already engaged in that conversation, though perhaps not in the way that they intended and not as soon as they intended. That’s the right of the Deaf community and those who support them.

Let’s hope that the result of this conversation is some real learning not simply at TCR, but in Cedar Rapids at large, about the Deaf and disabled community, and the many barriers that exist to their participation in the arts both as professionals and amateurs. This shouldn’t simply be a fleeting speed bump for TCR on the road to doing things the way they’ve always been done.

Update, September 14, 2016: Theatre Cedar Rapids has postponed their production of TribesIn a statement, artistic director Leslie Charipar wrote, “In light of conversation among and feedback from the Deaf community and after a great deal of conversation and soul-searching with TCR staff, Tribes director David Schneider, and the cast of Tribes, TCR has decided to postpone our production of Tribes until we can gain the support of the Deaf community and collaborate with them in finding d/Deaf actors to play the deaf roles as well as ensure that we are portraying the deaf experience in an authentic and respectful way.”


Howard Sherman is the interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.

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  • nancy_f

    I appreciate how you’ve laid out the issues involved in the lack of Deaf actors in the upcoming Tribes performance in Cedar Rapids.

    While I find “Tribes” a flawed show, it highlights the social-cultural aspects of being Deaf in a hearing family irrespective of geography. (Yes, it’s set in London, but there is no acknowledgement that BSL & ASL are different languages, so that issue is moot.)

    My own guidance would be to get some Deaf adults in there to educate the company, re-cast with a qualified Deaf actor (of whom there are many but perhaps not so many in Iowa – did anyone ask the National Theater of the Deaf for their summer school alumni list?), and postpone the show to later in the season or ’til next year, but apparently the company have decided otherwise.

    Charipar’s questions are rhetorical, your questions are not: You offer practical, logistical and creative ideas for how the audition process might have been handled differently, and for keeping the conversation going as part of the performance schedule.

    As just one example, why would local deaf communities want to come as audience? The show as it is written and performed is not accessible to a deaf audience. Assuring them ahead that there will be interpreting or open-captions and a chance for discussion between performers/producers and audience about both the issues raised by the play, and those raised by the process of staging it could turn a big mess into an interesting exchange in the community if handled well.

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