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THEATER

The Signs of Progress

From 'Children of a Lesser God' to the current 'Equus,' Phyllis Frelich has helped forge a path for other deaf actors. She wishes it were wider.

February 25, 1996|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Although she loved the stage, Phyllis Frelich grew up with little hope of becoming an actress.

"I always enjoyed theater," she explains in an interview, speaking through her interpreter and husband, set designer Robert Steinberg. "But when I was young, it was hard to have those thoughts [of being an actress].

"There were no careers [in the theater] for deaf people," she continues. "And there was no way for a deaf person to study theater."

That was back in the 1950s. Flash-forward a few decades to 1980, however, and you find Frelich accepting one of the stage world's highest honors, a best actress Tony for her performance in Mark Medoff's "Children of a Lesser God," a role that she originated at the Mark Taper Forum.

The actress went on to perform at other major theaters, including the Manhattan Theatre Club and South Coast Repertory. It hasn't all been so high-profile, of course, but throughout her career, Frelich has worked regularly at both large and smaller venues--particularly those in the deaf theater world that gave her her start in the late 1960s. Currently, for example, she's playing the role of the psychiatrist in Peter Shaffer's "Equus," directed by Andrew Shea at Deaf West Theatre in Hollywood.

Although there have been substantial gains since 1980, deaf thespians still face daunting odds.

"When you look at the big picture, you do see changes: the National Theatre of the Deaf, the Broadway recognition, deaf characters showing up on television and film," says the energetic actress, dressed casually in a denim shirt and jeans, as she sat near the Deaf West stage one afternoon a few weeks ago.

"There's been a little bit more opportunity," she continues. "It's a slow growth, but it is a growth. But there's still not a lot to talk about in terms of things being created for deaf actors."

This remains true despite Frelich's Tony and Marlee Matlin's Oscar for her performance of the same role in the film version of "Children of a Lesser God." "There's not one particular reason," Frelich says. "There's a certain amount of ignorance, of discrimination and, yes, of fear.

"Fear of what?" she continues. "That they're going to lose money, that they won't be able to communicate with their actors, that they're going to have to spend too much on interpreters. It's an accumulation of all those things."

*

With Frelich's hands flying as she signs, Steinberg translates at a pace few interpreters could match. Fortunately, the two of them have had decades of practice.

The actress and designer, who live in L.A. and have two grown sons, met in the late 1960s when both were working with the National Theatre of the Deaf. At that time, the North Dakota-born actress (who declines to give her age but is in her early 50s, according to previous reports) had just completed her studies at Gallaudet University in Washington.

College had, however, been a somewhat frustrating experience. "When I was a student at Gallaudet University, it was the only deaf liberal arts college in the world and they didn't offer a degree in theater," Frelich says. "Now, all colleges are open and accessible to deaf people with interpreters, but in my time that wasn't so. And at Gallaudet, there were few choices."

With acting out of the question, Frelich chose a more practical course of study. "I majored in library science," she says, not without rue. "I didn't know what else to do. That was one of the things that they felt deaf women could do, be a librarian.

"Library science was this great choice because you could then marry some deaf guy and you'd go off and he'd get hired to work and you could work in that town's library," she says. "So I graduated with a degree in library science, but I didn't have a husband."

Instead, Frelich became one of the original members of the National Theatre of the Deaf, which she'd learned about when its founder, David Hays, came looking for actors at Gallaudet. "I was very fortunate," she says. "All of a sudden, you could make a living in the theater."

Launched in 1967 in Connecticut, the groundbreaking troupe provided Frelich with an on-the-job education that was unavailable anywhere else. "We traveled all over the world," she says. "We taught people a lot. We did as much educating as we did theater."

Moreover, some of the people that Frelich worked with there--including Deaf West artistic director Ed Waterstreet, actress Linda Bove and others--went on to create other theaters for the deaf. In fact, Waterstreet says Frelich was instrumental in helping establish Deaf West.

In the early 1970s, when her sons were young, Frelich wasn't able to pursue acting full time. But it wasn't long before her career took another important turn.

In the late 1970s, she met playwright Medoff through her husband. "In our very first conversation he asked me, 'Well, you're an actor, what kind of roles are there?' " Frelich says. "I said that nobody writes roles for deaf actors and he said, 'I'll write one for you.' "

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