COVID-19 Theater Series: Deaf West Theatre Broadens our Horizons - An Interview with David J. Kurs

Having grown up in a deaf family in Riverside, California, it was no surprise that David J. Kurs became interested in theater performed in American Sign Language (ASL) early on. His passion for the power of the arts was realized when in 2009 he joined the Deaf West Theatre (DWT), founded in 1991 by Ed Waterstreet. Upon Waterstreet’s retirement in 2012, he became the second artistic director in the history of the company. Prior to becoming artistic director, Kurs wrote and produced Aesop Who?, a multimedia show for young audiences, and served as associate producer and ASL master for Deaf West’s productions of Children of a Lesser God (2009), My Sister in this House (2010), and The Adventures of Pinocchio (2011). To quote Kurs: “Deaf West has had a great impact on me in my artistic development, and I can only hope to spread this passion on to others and to create opportunities for them so that we all can achieve a shared goal of artistic growth.” In 2020, he was named “Deaf Person of the Month” by David took time from his busy schedule to interview in May 2020.

Daniel Durant and Natasha Ofili in "Orphee" - Photo by Brandon Simmoneau

When and how did Deaf West Theatre first form? Were you there from the beginning? What are some of the most popular shows you presented? Have you received any rewards? 

David J. Kurs:  Deaf West Theatre (DWT) was founded in Los Angeles in 1991 by deaf actors. Our theater engages artists and audiences in unparalleled theater experiences inspired by deaf culture and the expressive power of sign language. We weave American Sign Language (ASL) with spoken English to create a seamless ballet of movement and voice. Committed to innovation, collaboration, and training, DWT is the artistic bridge between the deaf and hearing worlds.

Recent and past productions include Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, The Solid Life of Sugar Water by Jack Thorne, and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a co-production with the Pasadena Playhouse. In co-productions with the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, we also presented Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo. The Deaf West production of Spring Awakening transferred from a small 99-seat theater to the Wallis and then to Broadway, where we received three Tony Award nominations in 2016. American Buffalo was named the Los Angeles Times “Critic’s Choice.” In a co-production with the Fountain Theatre, we also presented Cyrano, which won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for outstanding production. Big River won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and Backstage Garland Awards for best musical in its Los Angeles premiere, as well as a Tony nomination and four Drama Desk Awards on Broadway. In a co-production with Center Theatre Group, DWT produced Pippin, which was presented at the Mark Taper Forum, and Sleeping Beauty Wakes, produced at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Oliver! won the Ovation Award for best musical, and A Streetcar Named Desire won the Ovation Award for best play. In 2005, the Secretary of Health and Human Services selected DWT to receive the highest recognition award for its “distinguished contributions to improve and enrich the culture lives of deaf and hard of hearing actors and theater patrons.”

I have attended DWT shows since the company’s inception when I was in high school. I began working with the theater in 2009 and succeeded our founding artistic director Ed Waterstreet as artistic director in 2012.

Daniel Durant, Eddie Buck, Troy Kotsur, Ipek D. Mehlum, and Maleni Chaitoo in "Cyrano" - Photo by Ed Krieger

When did you close the theater for COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run?

DJK:  We opened and closed our new production, Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, on the same night. It was heartbreaking; but, in retrospect, I am thankful that everyone is safe. My heart goes out to the actors, designers, and creatives who labored so mightily and valiantly to bring together an exemplary show that was seen by so few. The memory of coming together with the company in the empty theater after the curtain will remain in my heart for a long time.

How has the COVID-19 shutdown impacted your theater?

DJK:  We had to cancel our run of our play on the first night, as well as a planned tour to Tokyo. We also cancelled a planned fall show. Other than readings and workshops, we don’t have anything on the calendar for another year. But I’m still hoping that we’ll get back onstage before then.

Sandra Mae Frank, Treshelle Edmond, Natacha Roi, Katie Boeck, Lauren Patten, Amelia Hensley, Alexandra Winter, and Ali Stroker in "Spring Awakening" - Photo by Tate Tullier

Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Are you streaming? Do you have virtual meetings? Are you planning for your next show when the theater can reopen?

DJK:  We are staying in touch every day, mainly on Zoom. We collaborated with NBC on an episode of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist that premiered a few weeks ago, and it was extremely gratifying to see the love and praise from the community. We also collaborated with Kelly Clarkson and helped create a community-sourced video for her latest song, “I Dare You.” It’s a blessing to be able to generate work for all of the actors from our community during these times, and we’re not going to stop. We’re also working on several digital projects, including a full production to be streamed.

Nick Apostolina, Natalie Camunas, Sandra Mae Frank, and Tad Cooley in "The Solid Life of Sugar Water" - Photo by Brandon Simmoneau

What do you think the impact of COVID-19 will be on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you foresee any permanent changes?

DJK:  It is my observation that theatergoers in Los Angeles are creatures of habit. Once we emerge from the end of the tunnel, I think that things will return to normal quicker than we expect. I also think a lot about what prospective patrons will need to feel safe in a theater again.

Troy Kotsur, Matthew Ryan Pest, and Paul Raci in "American Buffalo" - Photo by Noel Bass

What do you need right now to keep going forward? What would you like from the theater public?

DJK:  I, for one, count my blessings every day. We have a wonderful community of actors and patrons that keeps us going. Our Board has been extremely supportive, and we’ve received some wonderful donations. Theater is an art form that’s been around for ages. While we will continue to fill our need for communal experiences, our industry will continue to evolve. I think our industry will make advances in virtual space. I’m thinking about this time in our industry and how we can step up to the challenges posed by quarantine. But in my mind only one thing is certain: that we must move forward together with grace, strength, and compassion.

This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.

Ashton's Audio Interview: The cast of “The Solid Life of Sugar Water” at Deaf West Theatre

Candid, uninhibited and visceral. A Deaf couple’s relationship is revealed through their lovemaking in a startlingly intimate portrait of a marriage — made even more intense by Deaf West Theatre’s signature performance style combining American Sign Language with spoken English.*

Enjoy this interview with the cast of “The Solid Life of Sugar Water” at Deaf West Theatre, playing through Oct 13th. You can listen to this interview while commuting, while waiting in line at the grocery store or at an audition, backstage and even front of the stage. For tickets and more info Click here.

*taken from the website


This is Ashton Marcus and I’m on location at Deaf West Theatre for the American premier of THE SOLID LIFE OF SUGAR WATER.

Ashton: Hi, my name is Ashton Marcus. I’m with KUCI, 88.9 FM in Irvine. I’m here with…

Sandra: My name is Sandra Mae Frank and this is my interpreter Elli. So I’ve been involved with that bus for a long time, since Spring Awakening to this production and I’m a deaf actor and I believe in doing amazing things and doing plays in different ways and doing new shows. This is a new show, you know, and it’s a beautiful and amazing, mixed hearing and deaf cast. And it’s amazing what hearing and deaf people can do together once you get rid of that barrier.

My character’s name is Alice. Alice is a strong woman. She is blunt, she is not afraid to speak her mind. She can do anything. And she shows her vulnerability throughout the show. Especially as a woman and how women face different things. They have to do more work emotionally and what-have-you. And Alice finds a way through that.

Ashton: Great! If my viewers decide to come see this piece, what should they expect to see?

Sandra: Really, you don’t set any expectations. Don’t come in with any expectations. This is not the kind of show that people leave with the same mindset. It’s the kind of show that provokes people’s feelings. Some people have experienced this, and some people know people who experience this. Everyone has gone through relationships in their live and love. And the lovemaking process in this show just, really, the point is, don’t expect anything. Just show up and watch and see what happens.

Ashton: Well, I really loved the piece because, basically, whenever I see deaf theatre, I think this is my third deaf piece I have seen, I’m always fascinated by the other senses, that, whether it’s by facial expression, whether by movement, by just a gyration, which mimics the meter a person speaks of.

So again, all this is just an art form, which is under appreciated which I just enjoy. The same as some people enjoy, say, impressionist art, as opposed to, say, realism.

Sandra: Yeah, absolutely. I think, really, both hearing and deaf actors, there is no big difference there, but like you just mentioned, facial expressions, hearing people typically have their grammar in their voice. They change tone, they change timbre when they are changing emotion. Deaf people have to take that tone and put it all onto their face to deliver the emotion in a broad way. I open up the emotion a little bit more that way. So there are different ways and different perspectives. And it’s all put on the stage and when you get both sides together it’s amazing.

Ashton: Actually, I also must comment that basically this is not suitable for children. Do you think that this was too sexual? What do you think of the sexuality of the play?

Sandra: It really depends on the parents (laughs) with their children obviously. I learned about sex when I was seven, so, I don’t know, but really, it’s very deep. It’s very sexual, yes. So I think it’s for mature audiences and it’s important to check with the parents first.

Ashton: I also like the fact that it’s actually a very basic type of play in a sense. It’s about, about, how should I put it. You know, good vs. evil. It’s not a complex type thing. But it’s very interesting when I see a play where there is a, almost like The Brady Bunch, where there is a man and a woman and they just have a good time. I’ve seen them mix the cast, where the woman is African American and it suddenly opens the world. You see them in a different light. It’s the same thing about this. Even though the play was not about, you know, tragedies of Macbeth, it was actually about, you know, a simple piece, it actually opened your eyes when it was done in this form, with deaf actors.

Sandra: Right. Absolutely. This is the kind of show where it’s a couple that goes through a trauma and a traumatic event and they try to reconnect through love making. That’s it. That’s really the point of the show. There is bad moments, there is good moments, and each individual has equally good and bad moments. Both men and women are experiencing the same thing in that moment and I think that’s what makes the show amazing. There is no obvious evil person. You know. That’s, it’s just life.

Ashton: Well, I loved your performance. I connected with you for some strange reason because usually, I don’t know why, because I don’t meet that many deaf people. I meet a lot of handicapped people but I don’t meet a whole lot of deaf people, so when you connect with a person, at times I’m wondering, why do I connect with them? Why do I have a good feeling about them? Why do I like her? Why is that? I really enjoyed your piece tonight.

Sandra: Thank you! It’s probably because you aren’t looking at me as a deaf person. You know, I was just a human. A human person in that moment going through that experience. And that’s a good thing. Yeah!

Ashton: Once again, thank you very much for being on the show.

Sandra: Thank you! It was nice meeting you! Thank you so much!

Ashton: Hi, my name is Ashton Marcus. I’m with KUCI, 88.9 FM in Irvine. I’m here with…

Tad: Hi. I’m Tad Cooley. I’m from Texas. I just recently moved to LA in January and I’m just really happy to make this my first performance with Deaf West. I’m very excited.

Ashton: Great. And which character did you play tonight?

Tad: I played the character of Phil. He is very neurotic. He is very neurotic about making the right decisions. Making the right choices in his perspective. But what happens when he acts on instinct, he makes the best decisions. And the story is about two people trying to find the connection with each other. And it’s just something terrible has happened to them, so we try to find the connection back again. And that’s really the point.

Ashton: Great. If my viewers decide to see this piece, what should they expect to see?

Tad: They should expect to laugh, cry, laugh again, cry again, and then laugh, and then smile and then cry.

Ashton: Well, I really enjoyed the performance tonight. I really liked your performance, too. How do you connect with the audience. Because, you know, I’m a hearing person, that’s why.

Tad: I think the connection is found, I think like for deaf people, who watch TV, you have to use captions, and so the captions are for hearing people in this case. So, for example, after a while, you just get this instinctual knowledge of knowing that the sound is happening but you are following the person and watching the actor on stage. I mean, I’m not speaking. I’m signing in that moment but after the first few scenes, the first few moments, you feel like “Okay. All right. I understand that the person is talking, and now I can focus on the person on stage signing. You know, we are all humans. We are all humans.

Ashton: I feel this piece is kind of like, you know, if you go to art shows, you can see realist art, but you can also see impressionist art. There are two different forms of art. This is kind of like that. If you see deaf theater, you, it appeals to other senses. You see more movement. You see, almost like dancing. Like seeing ballet. You know what I mean?

Tad: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a very musical language. I mean it’s tricky for me even because I’m not ISL fluent. I’m part of hearing myself. I recently, actually, I had to learn a lot of sign for this play. It was a challenge. But now I feel like, starting to become almost in my bones. So now I can really tell the story effectively.

Ashton: You know I really loved the performance because it was about a very basic type of story. It wasn’t really complex, like there is a world war, like that. But something about changing it up a little bit. If I were to see something like The Brady Bunch, where there is this white woman and this white man together and all they did is nice things, I wouldn’t like it very much. But suddenly, if you put an African American woman in there, suddenly things would just open up. Now that I see this kind of basic story line, it’s amazing when you add a deaf cast to it.

Tad: Yeah, that’s a good point. I think, DJ (David J. Kurs) had a vision about this play. Originally it was not written for deaf actors, but now, well, DJ saw it, he read it, and he thought it would be perfect for Deaf Actors. You know, the story, it makes the story much more interesting. It tells it in a much more interesting way.

Ashton: I agree. I really loved your acting. It was very expressive. I felt your emotions. And even though, again, we are communicating almost like in two different languages, I still understood everything. I felt all the feelings you tried to convey. So I really enjoyed your performance tonight!

Tad: Thank you so much! It was very nice to meet you!

Ashton: Thank you very much for being on the show.

Tad: Thank you! Thank you!

Ashton: Hi, my name is Ashton Marcus. I’m with KUCI, 88.9 FM in Irvine. I’m here with…

Natalie: Hi. I’m Natalie Comunas. I’m born and raised in Los Angeles and I’ve been acting for the last 10 years or so and I mainly do regional theatre across the US.

Ashton: Great. And which character did you do tonight?

Natalie: I played the voice of Alice. I think that Alice is a really beautiful representation, an actual representation, of what I imagine a woman would be going through in this really traumatic event. I think she shows incredible strength and vulnerability and I think those two are really hard to portray.

Ashton: I always ask that question: what’s the actors take on their character. Because they are the only ones who can do it. Like if you do Romeo and Juliet, you have two different actors, two at two totally different plays. In this particular case, you and the deaf actors were playing the same character. How is that different? What are your thoughts on that?

Natalie: Well, I think we definitely started with different ideas of how to justify having two of us saying the same words, and it kind of evolved into in me being the type of like a protector, some sort of, like higher self that already knows the story. Kind of like when you want to tell yourself what to do but you don’t listen. Like I’m that voice. So I already know where I’m going. But we are helping usher her through it. So that was my choice and how I played the voice of Alice.

Ashton: If my viewers decide to come and see this piece, what should they expect to see?

Natalie: What should they expect to see. They should expect to see a really really really honest portrayal of a couple in the midst of an incredibly traumatic situation and there is no guide book on how to get out of it.

Ashton: And this is the third piece I’ve actually seen with deaf actors and basically I feel that, it’s kind of a different take on theatre. Different senses emphasizing on sound, on vocal characteristics. And even the meter. You see almost like a dance to the person’s body when they are talking. What are your thoughts on that?

Natalie: I don’t think that’s specific to this show. I think that that’s part of every show. I think that every play and every ensemble has its own dance and its own rhythms. And I think that this one is really specific, just because all four of us really have to be incredibly in sync to be able to tell the same story.

Ashton: Well, I really enjoyed your performance tonight. Because even though it was a, you know, how should I put it. The story wasn’t a tragedy, because I basically love soul crushing pieces, but this added a different artistic taste to it the way it was presented. You know what I mean?

Natalie: That’s really interesting that you don’t think it’s a tragedy. I think it’s a devastating tragedy. I think it’s incredibly human and I think, you know, I think especially women are often, really families are shamed for going through miscarriages and stillbirths. And I know there are a lot of women in a lot of countries that are imprisoned because they have a stillbirth. And it’s “their fault”. And I think that plays like this can really work to get this conversation going about how miscarriages are fairly normal and it’s okay. And I think the more you talk about it, the more it can help couples get through that process.

Ashton: I agree. Once again, I loved the performance, and I loved your performance also. Than you very much for being on the show.

Natalie: Thank you so much!

Ashton: Hi, my name is Ashton Marcus. I’m with KUCI, 88.9 FM in Irvine. I’m here with…

Nick: Nick Apostolina. It’s a cool play. I’m so happy to be part of this play. So happy to be part of Deaf West in an incredible way. It’s a company that I’ve admired for a long time and it’s exciting to get to be thrown into it. Hope I’m doing an okay job. (laughs)

Ashton: Great! And which character are you playing tonight?

Nick: I’m the voice of Phil. So Tad Cooley is playing Phil. And I’m also playing Phil. The voice of Phil. It’s very complicated. Phil is an interesting guy. If you spend any time…, he is the kind of guy that everybody knows of Phil, very planning, very meticulous, trying to get things right, and never really…, the more you try to get things right, the more you are getting things wrong. So, an endearing character, hopefully, and an interesting story, and a heartbreaking story to go on.

Ashton: I basically always ask the actors, you know, what’s the take on their character. Cause you know, like two guys, basically who play Romeo in two different plays. They would be totally different plays even though it’s the same story. Right? In this case, we have two actors playing this character, Phil. How is that different? How can it express that? How is that unique?

Nick: I think it’s a balancing act. We talked about it, whether we are the same person.  Whether I’m listening to a subconscious. What we ended up deciding was, as long as we saw the same thing, as long…, because it’s a very reflective play, so if you see the same thing, and you can talk about it, you can talk about it in slight nuances but the character comes through if you are saying the same thing.

Ashton: Great! If my viewers decide to come see this piece, what should they expect to see?

Nick: Hopefully something funny, something, maybe a bit hard to watch but ultimately worthwhile, I hope? (laughs) Something worthwhile and life affirming. That’s a good word. Right? Life affirming.

Ashton: Yeah. I really loved the piece. It was kind of like, first of all it talks about things that are uncomfortable, like, again, it’s not a tragedy where people die, but it is tragic. It’s not a comedy basically, you know what I mean?

Nick: No.

Ashton: But it’s also a different kind of art because it’s hard to… It would be really hard for me to communicate. I probably just wind up smashing lots of dishes. But that’s what its like. You communicate in a different way. Not through words but through memories, kind of through body movements, kind of through gyrations,… You know what I mean?

Nick: Yeah, you’re trying, you’re trying to express something that’s wholly, usually inexpressible, and I think theatres are an ideal medium to do that. Especially with the cast we got here, with the ASL  and spoken english going on at the same time. You get so many different layers to the story. So it’s a hard thing to express or explain in a lot of different ways at the same time. Hopefully something comes through.

Ashton: Well, I really loved the performance. I loved your performance. I love your voice. (laughs)

Nick: Thank you very much. Thank you!

Ashton: Thank you very much for being on the show!

Nick: I appreciate it!

End: The Solid Life of Sugar Water will be playing at Deaf West Theatre, from September 12th to October 13th. For more information, go to