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 DeafPeople.com. 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.



Dot-Marie Jones Wrestling From A Glee-ful Beiste Into an OUR TOWN Gossip

Dot-Marie Jones has been acting professionally since 1992, but it's her five-year stint as Coach Beiste in the Fox hit series Glee that propelled her into instant street recognition. Dot's latest acting gig has her portraying the character of Mrs. Soames in Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN, a co-production of the Pasadena Playhouse and Deaf West Theatre which just began September 26, 2017.

Dot took a few minutes away during rehearsal week to answer some of my probing inquiries.

Thank you for taking time out for this interview!

Pasadena Playhouse. 2017. Our Town. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Do you like to be called Dot? Or Dot-Marie?

Dot.

In various press releases and websites, I find a floating hyphen in your name that seems to change positions or completely disappear. Why the different spelling of your name?

For SAG-AFTRA, I go by Dot-Marie Jones. That happened because in 1994 when I went to join SAG, there was a Dottie Jones, and SAG thought it was too close! So I just put the hyphen and joined as Dot-Marie Jones. Marie is my middle name. And Dot is short for Dorothy, my birth name. 

Have you seen any other productions of OUR TOWN?

No. 

Have you seen any productions at The Pasadena Playhouse in your years living and working in Los Angeles?

Yes, most recently we, my wife and our 17-year-old daughter, saw A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN. In fact, we loved it so much we saw it THREE times. Mary Bridget Davies was fantastic! 

This co-production of the Pasadena Playhouse and Deaf West Theatre will feature bilingual staging in American Sign Language and English. Did you have to learn sign language for this production? Or were you already fairly versed in it?

I am indeed learning ASL. I was a little familiar with it. I had studied with friends who had a deaf daughter. We would meet at their house once a week and worked with Bob Hilterman, a deaf actor, to better our skills and better our communication with their daughter. It's been quite a few years though. I'm learning so much, I love every minute of it.

You were part of the Fox hit series Glee from 2010 to 2015. Do you still get stopped on the street by people shouting out your character's name "Coach Beiste"?

Ha! Ha! Yes, I do. It was an amazing experience and I loved being a part of Glee because of how many people it helped! 

How would you compare and contrast your characters of Coach Beiste with Mrs. Soames in this production?

Wow, good question. They are totally different. Beiste was strong, but yet kind of stuck to herself. Mrs. Soames is more of a gossip and sociable. Not so much for Beiste, though she tried.

As a 15-time world arm wrestling champion, do you still arm wrestle for fun or for exposition?

No, but I wish I could! My shoulders are shot from so many years of weight training and arm-wrestling, and also throwing the shot put. Those were some incredible years. I loved every one of them.

Any immediate projects for you, you can share with us?

Pasadena Playhouse. 2017. Our Town. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Working on a new show/film Combat Nuns about crime fighting nuns. It's so fun and I'm working with friends. They were some of my first friends in L.A. over 25 years. Also working on a web series. Not sure if I can share that right now.

What would your dream role on stage be for you? 

Would be a dream to play Madame Morrible from WICKED. And Mama Morton from CHICAGO

What particular message of Thornton Wilder resonates with you, and that you hope the Pasadena Playhouse audience will be receptive of?

That life is fleeting. So enjoy every minute and hold tightly to the people you love  

Thank you again! I look forward attending your TOWN's socials at the Playhouse.

For OUR TOWN ticket availability and show schedule through October 22, 2017; log onto www.pasadenaplayhouse.org