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A Sign of the Times

Stephen Sachs' play deals with a controversial, high-tech alternative to deafness.

June 22, 1997|Daryl H. Miller | Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based theater writer

Smiles, waves, hugs. As they gather for rehearsal, cast and crew greet one another and launch into cheerful conversation. Some use sign language; others speak. Stephen Sachs walks among them, speaking with this group, using sign language with the next.

Sachs is author and director of "Sweet Nothing in My Ear," about a hearing husband and deaf wife who must decide whether their 6-year-old son should receive a cochlear implant--an invasive yet incredible bit of technology that would partially restore the boy's hearing. The play opened this weekend at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood, where Sachs is managing artistic director.

"I think we all communicate pretty well," Sachs says of his cast of five hearing and five deaf actors.

He ponders that statement for a moment, then amends it by adding that, occasionally, the strain of simultaneous speaking and signing leads to mind overload--and humorous mistranslations. "You think you're telling an actor to cross to the table and have a drink of water, and instead you're signing 'Go to the table and drink from the fishbowl.' "

He laughs. "When they all suddenly look at me, I realize, 'Oh, I've done it again.' But they have been very patient with me."

Gianni Manganelli, 6, enters with Terrylene, his mom in real life and in the play, and heads straight for Bernard Bragg, who plays his grandfather, to show off a toy helicopter. Freda Norman, who plays Terrylene's mom, maternally combs her fingers through the younger woman's windblown hair. As everyone settles down to business, Terrylene kneels and plants a kiss on Gianni's cheek.

"Sweet Nothing" aims to create an inclusive kind of theater. Sometimes, actors simultaneously speak and sign their dialogue; other times, the sign language is translated by "voice" actors who sit at the sides of the stage. All of the spoken dialogue is, similarly, translated into sign language.

Sachs' involvement with deaf theater dates to 1987 and his staging of his own adapted play "The Baron in the Trees" at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. While readying a special sign-language interpreted performance of that acclaimed production, he became captivated by American Sign Language.

"It was that experience that really got me excited about what ASL can do," he says, miming starbursts of ideas exploding in his head. "The energy and the passion of the language, the theatricality and the vivid visual reality of it. Ever since then, I've just had this little bug in my brain--in my heart, rather--of wanting to do more of that kind of work."

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Shortly after co-founding the Fountain in 1990, Sachs helped orchestrate a deaf writers' workshop there. About that time, he linked up with others looking to found a deaf theater company, and Deaf West Theatre was born at the Fountain, moving on to its own home in 1993. Sachs directed Deaf West productions of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and " 'night, Mother," while with the Fountain he fostered an ASL poetry workshop and an outreach program to deaf teens.

Ever sensitive to his deaf friends and colleagues, Sachs, 37, is quick to say that he has been "very careful" about what he's written in "Sweet Nothing." "I don't want to appear to be a hearing person speaking for the deaf community. I'm just a theater person trying to tell a story."

Communicating through an interpreter, lead actress Terrylene says, "I think that this play is very fair. It's not about right or wrong. It's about people and perspectives; it's about sensitivity and respect for others."

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It was a photograph accompanying a 1990 story in The Times about cochlear implants that got Sachs thinking about a play.

"There was a photograph of a boy wearing one; he had this device sticking on the outside of his head, behind his ear, with the wires coming down." Sachs touches his own skull in that place. "It was that image of that innocent little boy, with this thing hanging off his head, that startled me--and it made me stop and stare at this picture for the longest time. And when I read the article, which described the controversy involved in the implant issue, I realized that this would be great theater. Because the conflict is very hot and very strong and complicated. Both sides are very passionate about their beliefs."

The device consists of a small component implanted in the inner ear and an external microphone, speech processor, transmitting coil and battery pack. Sounds are collected, analyzed, coded and digitized, then converted to electrical signals that are passed along to the implanted electrodes. The electrodes stimulate hearing hair cells and nerve fibers, which the brain recognizes as sound.

Sachs filed the information away, returning to it a few years later. By then, he'd become a father, which gave him a new appreciation for the responsibility involved in making decisions about a child's well-being.

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