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Working With Heart and Hands

Deaf West looks forward to an expanded mission as it marks nine years of productions using hearing and deaf actors.

March 05, 2000|DARYL H. MILLER | Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based entertainment reporter

Suanne Spoke is rehearsing the scene in "A Streetcar Named Desire" in which Blanche DuBois' brother-in-law demands that she account for the lost family fortune.

She bravely faces him at first, but--already exhausted by the effort of maintaining her self-delusions--she begins to crumple, her sentences deflating in gasps and sighs. The same thing happens in her hands as she uses sign language to communicate with the brother-in-law, played by deaf actor Troy Kotsur. Her fingers flutter weakly, futilely--and, suddenly, Tennessee Williams' famous description of his central character as "a moth" has never seemed so vivid.

This added level of communication is the happy byproduct of Deaf West Theatre's efforts to create professional theater for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

By populating plays with both hearing and deaf people, most of whom communicate in American Sign Language, Deaf West not only reaches its target audience, but extends an enticing proposition to the hearing public as well--for its productions contain context and color that the same plays at other theaters may not possess.

Indeed, if attendance patterns hold firm, hearing people will constitute about 75% of the audience for Deaf West's production of "Streetcar," which opens this weekend. Even if these patrons don't know sign language, they will always know what's being said because secondary actors are woven into the action to lend their voices to the deaf performers.

Spoke, a hearing actress who has attended Deaf West productions for years, says, "I was always astounded by the perspectives that came to me, watching theater in this context."

"Streetcar" inaugurates Deaf West's new home in North Hollywood and follows close upon news of a $4-million grant--the largest ever in this nonprofit group's history--from the federal Department of Education.

Word of the grant has put founder and artistic director Ed Waterstreet in a particularly giddy mood, and he's signing so quickly that, to keep pace with him, voice interpreter Beverly Nero must speak in a nonstop torrent.

"When I was a child, I used to go to the theater with my parents and my brothers and sisters, and I used to sit there in the dark, very isolated, and think to myself, 'Boy, someday there has to be a deaf theater,' " explains Waterstreet, 56, who lost his hearing at age 2 after a bad bout of pneumonia.

He spent 15 years performing with National Theatre of the Deaf, the touring organization that, at 34, is the granddaddy of deaf theater, and he had a principal role in the 1985 TV movie "Love Is Never Silent."

After settling in Los Angeles, where the county population includes about 750,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing people, Waterstreet was gripped with the idea of founding a theater. Deaf West opened for business in May 1991 with a production of "The Gin Game" that featured Phyllis Frelich, the 1980 best actress Tony winner for "Children of a Lesser God."

Since then, Frelich has become a regular at Deaf West, as have Bernard Bragg, a National Theatre of the Deaf founder and student of Marcel Marceau, and Waterstreet's wife, Linda Bove, the deaf actress who has long been a fixture on "Sesame Street."

Nurtured early on as a guest of the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood, Deaf West has been itinerant except for five years in the mid-'90s at the Heliotrope Theatre in Los Angeles.

Its new home is a shiny Art Deco storefront next door to the equally sleek Lankershim Arts Center. Deaf West has a five-year lease on the Lankershim Boulevard site--which it has spent almost $90,000 to renovate--and hopes to settle there permanently, rooting itself in the burgeoning NoHo Arts District.

The theater accommodates 49 to 60 patrons and is equipped with under-the-seat subwoofers, which enable deaf patrons to feel music and sound effects.

The new Department of Education grant, to be paid over five years, will boost the theater's $350,000 annual budget to $1.15 million, helping Deaf West to present three main-stage productions a year, while sending one show on a national tour.

In addition, the grant will foster Waterstreet's long-held dream of establishing a professional training conservatory for deaf theater artists. A summer-session program is scheduled to begin this year, with plans to gradually expand year-round.

Meanwhile, on-site theater programs are in place at a handful of deaf and mainstream schools in the area, and Saturday morning storytelling workshops are held for youngsters and their parents.


So far, most of Deaf West's 24 productions have come from the standard theatrical canon--chosen because the stories took on new shades of meaning when populated with deaf characters.

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