Unleashing the Animal Within at Deaf West

Ashley Steed

Non-Registered Critics, Writer

Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo, produced by the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts and Deaf West Theatre opens in the Lovelace Studio Theater at The Wallis on Friday, March 10. It will run through March 26. Single tickets: $40 – $75 (prices subject to change) TheWallis.org

In 1958 Edward Albee wrote his first play, the one act The Zoo Story, about two men, Peter and Jerry, who happen to meet at a park bench in New York's Central Park. It's an intense play which examines isolation and a desperate need to connect and to communicate. Although a success, Albee always felt there was a piece of the story missing. He felt Peter needed more exploration. Nearly 47 years later, towards the end of his illustrious career he wrote Homelife, a prequel to The Zoo Story which examines Peter's relationship to his wife Ann.

As with all Deaf West shows, the production is done in both American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English with open captions. Usually there's a mix of hearing and deaf characters, but with this production all of the characters are played by deaf actors (with the hearing actors voicing their characters on stage with them). This adds to and enriches the themes of isolation and miscommunication.

I sat down with deaf actors Troy Kotsur (who plays Peter), Russell Harvard (who's playing Jerry from March 7-15, with Tyrone Giordano finishing the run) and Amber Zion (who plays Ann).

Deaf West did The Zoo Story back in 2007 which starred both Kotsur and Giordano and was directed Coy Middlebrook, who has returned to the helm for this production. Last time they didn't have the prequel Homelife, thus Kotsur had to create and imagine a backstory for Peter. This time he says, “I see what has happened before [Zoo Story begins] and it gives me a better idea of who Peter is.” He smiles, “it's a much better idea than what I had and what I knew ten years ago. Now, we know that he has two daughters. I have a daughter who is now 11. That Peter has these two daughters is a great thing for me to bring to the character - I understand his frustrations, I know how hard it is to find your own private time when you have a family.”

Troy Kotsur [Peter]. Photo credit: Kevin Parry for The Wallis.

This production is very different than when they did it ten years ago - most notably by the set design by Karyl Newman. “We're in a cage,” says Kotsur. “It's very different for me, as my character, to experience life in a cage. It's fun discovering these things and we're not through discovering them.”

He goes on to add, “Albee is really talking about people being animals. We are animals. We breathe, we feel, we think about sex, we think about food just like animals do. It's interesting to see how Peter is in this - he feels very isolated and he can't really give love. His marriage is pretty commonplace, he goes to work to the same bullshit everyday and he feels like he's disappearing. Where is the Peter inside who used to have a better outlook on life? Who could be excited about love and about his family? He has this wife in Act One now who's trying - we're playing this game of cat-and-mouse - she's trying to find the love inside him. It's hard for him to express it. And then, when I have the scene with Jerry - what happens in the park in Act Two relates to what happens at home in Act One. Both acts are getting to this notion that people are animals.” When Peter meets Jerry there's a realization that he needs to release this animal. Kotsur continues, “Jerry's really trying to break through the ice to find the animal inside him, to help him find love again. So throughout the rehearsal were finding all this new information - we have so much more now than we had ten years ago.”

The first act, Homelife, focuses on Peter and Ann's marriage. Both feeling stuck in a routine, they're trying to communicate to each other - with neither one really getting through. Zion elaborates on Ann, “I need to discover what these problems Ann is having are. Are these things that Ann has known about and been thinking about for some time or she discovering them through the process of the story? I have to figure out why I come to him at the beginning of this play and feel the need to talk to him about our lives. I'm feeling like it's too stable too boring and am thinking what if I had an affair? What would you do what if I left? I'm feeling stuck inside - again like the animal that is stuck - there's a lion in here that needs to get out. I'm trying to pull it out of Peter, trying to pull it out of myself and Peter just isn't quite getting it. Finally there's a moment in the play where I just say, okay this is what I need and it starts to get through to him. It's a very emotional process.”

Kotsur poses the question, “Did you party a lot in college? Did you have a lot of fun back then and then years later as you get married, move on, grow up, do you tend to forget what those years were like? The question here is can you bring that excitement from college back into an otherwise routine marriage? Can you find yourself, that old spirit you used to have. For Peter and Ann, they've been married for a long time, they're almost like roommates. That's kind of what it feels like. She's trying to tell Peter, we're not roommates we're in love. Where's the passion we used to have?”

Pictured (l-r): Paige Lindsey White [Voice of Ann] and Amber Zion [Ann]. Photo credit: Kevin Parry for The Wallis.

He adds, “Peter has a past trauma, he had a bad experience that happened in a fraternity in college with a girl - a horrible experience that has never left him and since then he's been very careful. Too careful with Ann. They get to the point where, finally, they both open up about how they're feeling - they get it. They understand each other but, they don't quite get everything they need. Peter is still not able to give her enough.”

Harvard interjects, “it seems like you've been tamed. You want something crazy, something more exciting, something more filled with life.”

Zion agrees, “Ann has a speech about life being like approaching icebergs and how you avoid them. Ann gets excited by the notion of almost hitting an iceberg or almost going to the bermuda triangle but their marriage has been about avoiding those dangers. She wants to wake up, she wants to fight.”

Harvard's character Jerry, perhaps, is the iceberg that Peter runs into. He's an intense and enigmatic character, and he demands Peter's attention. This role, “it's hard,” says Harvard. “It's a strange character, he goes down a strange path. The more that I think about Jerry, I do see a lot of myself in him, which is actually quite scary. But I think that my experiences are going to enhance the character. It's been an exciting process.”

Not only is it a challenging role, but there's also the added task of translating the spoken English into ASL. Harvard says, “First you need to understand theses line, I need to understand everything that [Jerry's] saying. Translating this from English [to ASL] for all of us - we are deaf actors - and understanding both the English and the sign language that are working in concert with each other. I have to stop thinking about the English words that are printed and get myself more in the headspace of the sign language. My [translated] sign language script in and of itself is difficult. I have this crazy four page monologue which is just a beast. Those four pages are a struggle.”

Pictured (l-r): Jake Eberle [Voice of Peter] and Troy Kotsur [Peter]. Photo credit: Kevin Parry for The Wallis.

Although it's a difficult piece to learn he adds, “this is a universal story, people are going to be able to relate to all three characters in many different ways. It's this similar experience that they are all having - this pain they all have. I think that audiences who come see this are going to be able to reflect on their own lives and find the painful moments in them, which will help them relate to this story being told.”

Adding on to this, Kotsur believes that their deaf experiences definitely inform their characters and the play. Having deaf people randomly meet at a park, or a mall, or a theatre is a rare experience and when it does, “you chat and connect,” says Kotsur. “That's what happens here. Peter and Jerry, two isolated people meet not just some [random person] in the park, but someone else who's deaf.” When Jerry notices that Peter can sign, he is compelled to talk to him.

“Peter is very resistant to opening up to Jerry,” says Kotsur, “but because they're both deaf there is a moment that they're able to connect. Coy [Middlebrook] has been working with that - this idea that deaf people don't just happen to bump into each other randomly all the time and that's helping to spark their relationship. It's a way that Coy has used deaf actors to inform the story.”

As all of the characters were originally written as hearing, they've had to make some adjustments for the translation. What's being spoken is as written, but some of it wouldn't make sense to a deaf audience. For instance there are times when characters say “I don't want to hear that' so that's been translated to “I don't want to see you.”

Being a play that is driven by miscommunication “there's a lot in this play of ‘what?', 'huh' - these very short lines that are typical of spoken conversation,” says Zion. “It's not something typical of deaf conversations. As a deaf person you don't really look away when someone is signing. We've got to look at each other. You have to keep the eye contact. It's a different type of discourse that happens in sign language. So we have to translate that [into something that fits with] this husband and wife relationship.”

Pictured (l-r): Troy Kotsur [Peter] and Russell Harvard [Jerry]. Photo credit: Kevin Parry for The Wallis.

A lot of what Albee writes is purposeful confusion. Zion explains the difficulty of translating this into sign language while retaining Albee's intention. “We'll translate it and I'll think, ‘well that doesn't make any sense' but then realize, the English doesn't make sense either. Deaf people may look at our signs and think, ‘what are they talking about?' Well, that's right. There is a lot of abstraction in the writing and we're trying to keep that.”

Agreeing, Harvard adds, “Deaf West has got a great team in place, working on the sign language with us. Working to understand what the text means. Once we understand it then we can paint our picture. Hearing people who don't know sign language will be able to see things that they didn't really notice before.” Sign language is a visual and physical language. You communicate not just with signs, but with your body and facial expressions. This may allow one to see new themes that have a greater resonance. Sign language has the potential to express more than the written text can.

He adds, “Deaf West is a different type of theatre, it's a different experience. Jerry's monologue for an example - I'm acting like a dog. I'm drawing this character in space which is helping me become the character in this story.” Thus, the translation and sign language helps to create the character physically.

“It's a very special thing that Deaf West does,” says Kotsur, “to combine the original meanings with the new meaning that the deaf adaptation gives it.”

Deaf West was founded in 1991 and has proliferated deaf theatre to the masses, not just here in Los Angeles, but also Broadway (with the most recent transfer of the musical Spring Awakening). In recent years, the deaf community has been very vocal when deaf characters are played by hearing actors. “We have felt oppressed,” states Zion. “We've been speaking up and using #deaftalent on social media. Whenever there's a movie with a hearing person playing a deaf character, we come together and say quite loudly why that isn't right.

“I'm not giving up my power,” she asserts. “I'm here to educate people why something like that [giving deaf roles to hearing actors] is wrong. We start a dialogue. With #deaftalent, it's bringing more [deaf] actors out that I've never seen before.” Which means deaf talent is growing.

Kotsur adds, “I have witnessed [the growth] since the founding of Deaf West, from when Ed Waterstreet founded the company to his retirement, to DJ [David Kurs] as the new Artistic Director. I was here before Russell and before Amber,” he smiles, adding, “I was here before all of you - and I've seen it grow. I've seen all the new faces and it's great to see a new generation. It's great to see theatre continue. And it's great to see more opportunities [for deaf actors].”

Pictured (l-r): Jeff Alan-Lee [Voice of Jerry] and Jake Eberle [Voice of Peter].
Photo credit: Kevin Parry for The Wallis.

Working at Deaf West is a unique experience not just for deaf actors but also for the hearing actors. Kotsur elaborates, “When hearing actors come in for the first time, when they haven't worked with us before, they're scared. They're just seeing these weird hand movements. But slowly they start to pick things up and they start to match what they're saying to certain signs. There are times when we have to stop because the English and sign language aren't matching up. So we do need to work together. Sometimes what happens is our lines are too short and the hearing actors are behind while we [the deaf actors] have moved on to the next part of the script. Everything needs to be in sync between the hearing and deaf actors on stage.”

Even though their lines are being voiced, Kotsur hopes that the audiences recognize the expressivity of sign language. “I'm sure there are some who can't imagine [ASL] having any sort of equivalency with English - especially with a play of this stature. I hope they see that sign language is a language and it can also give a new perspective to a text. It can open people's minds. Especially for those who know the play, it can give them the chance to see a new dimension to the show.”

Harvard also wants audiences to see something different with this production, especially if they've seen the play before. “I hope people come to it with open eyes and an open mind,” he says. “I want people after [the show] to want to see more deaf work, to want to work with deaf actors and to see deaf theatre grow.”

For Zion, she hopes audiences are on the edge of their seats “with their mouths agape.” She adds, “I hope they leave the theatre thinking. I want married couples to look at each other and say ‘we need to talk'. I want them to think about what just happened here.”

Perhaps audiences will wonder about their own personal cages, wonder about their own animal within.

Zion, with a smile asks, “What kind of animal are you?”

Ashley Steed is a theatre maker, creative producer and writer. In Los Angeles, she's started a company that devises new works called The Visceral City Project and is also a member of Son of Semele Ensemble. She's worked on numerous projects as a director, performer or producer here in LA as well as London. She began her writing career with LA Stage Magazine under the mentorship of the late Lee Melville. Ashley holds a BA in Theatre from USC and an MA in Theatre and Performance from Queen Mary, University of London.