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‘Big River’ Breaks Down Stage Barriers

Washington’s deaf theater community is about to show audiences at Ford’s Theatre that hearing impairment will not keep actors from pursuing their craft, even in musical theater.

A group of hearing, partially hearing and deaf actors, many from Gallaudet University, will present “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” starting Friday. The production co-produced by Deaf West Theatre and Ford’s will run through May 1.

In addition to the song and dance, deaf actors sign their lines while “voice actors” provide vocals for the hearing members of the audience. Many musical performances feature actors in synchronized American Sign Language in addition to dancing.

The musical is told through the eyes of Mark Twain, from whose novel the play is adapted, and in Deaf West’s performance, the actor who plays Mark Twain also “voices” for Huck Finn.

The actors view the production as a chance to break down logistical barriers between hearing and deaf actors, as well as an opportunity to show the audience that deaf actors can perform in mainstream theater.

“Mark Twain can live vicariously through this and help really deliver the message,” said Bill O’Brien, the actor who plays Mark Twain and the voice of Huck. “The message is that these two people who are from a very culturally divided place, originally just black and white, but now hearing and deaf as well, through this adventure that they go on, what they’ve been taught to believe sets them apart dissolves as the evening progresses.”

O’Brien, who also plays the interpreter Kenny on “The West Wing,” first became involved with deaf theater after meeting an official from the National Technical Institute of the Deaf while visiting D.C.

“I grew up in Iowa and like any farmer, you decide to go into show business,” O’Brien said with a laugh.

Christopher Corrigan, an 18-year-old freshman at Gallaudet University, also must adapt his style to working with hearing actors.

“I’ve done theater for a long time, not professionally, but I’ve always worked in a deaf theater realm,” Corrigan said through an interpreter. “It’s never been an issue to communicate with one another, not only on stage, but the audience has almost always been deaf. But now I’m working with hearing people. I’ve got to make sure that my voice actor, Bill, understands what I’m saying. I’ve got to make sure that the audience understands from my body language. I need to change all my actions, my blocking what I’m doing.”

Corrigan added that he has enjoyed the new challenge and that “it has been a great experience to work through those [challenges] and see how they can get resolved.”

The Philadelphia native and his family relocated to Frederick, Md., several years ago, and before his semester off from Gallaudet to focus on theater, Corrigan was class president and involved with the school’s TV station and theater program.

He said he finds many parallels between Huck’s life and his own, which assisted in adapting himself to the character.

“The only thing I can say about Huck is that I am Huck. I just am,” Corrigan said. “No matter what, if I have a different characteristic that’s me. I’m not trying to adapt myself to look like Huck. I’m becoming Huck. In my real life, I’m on an adventure just like Huck is. You know, I’m only 18 years old so I’m a boy too in a brand new world, looking for adventure, looking for trouble.”

The parallels between the challenges of the deaf community and the black community have added significance for Michael McElroy who plays Jim, a slave who befriends Huck on his journey. Yet, he said he appreciates the fact that his character is unique because he signs.

“What has been special and unique is not just that he’s a slave, which is an incredible weight to bear, but the fact that he speaks another language, that elevates him to another level,” McElroy said.

McElroy said Jim has “dignity and is a product of his circumstances, but not limited by them.

“What I’ve learned is to honor the history of my ancestors and really shine a spotlight on history. I feel we want to push all the bad things under the rug,” McElroy said. “If we don’t look honestly at our past, we’re in serious danger of repeating it.”

McElroy, a Cleveland-area native, has acted professionally since graduating from Carnegie Mellon University. He founded the gospel group Broadway Inspirational Voices in 1999.

Just as the actors struggle with racial issues presented in the play, they balance the artistic demands of both deaf and hearing theater.

“This isn’t just simply hearing actors following deaf actors, and it’s not hearing actors signing for deaf actors. It’s just a different kind of a stew that it becomes in a way. It’s a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts,” O’Brien said. “In some ways, it’s a little bit for the audience being able to walk into a ‘never never land’ where there are no barriers between the two [hearing and deaf]. They’re able to take advantage of deaf expression in a way that they can’t as soon as the curtain comes down and they walk out of the theater.”

The Broadway production of “Big River” was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Revival in 2004. The cast was also honored with a “Tony Honor for Excellence in Theater” (a different award) for its achievement in the theater community.

Founded in 1991 by Ed Waterstreet and his wife, Linda Bove, the Deaf West Theatre has produced 12 seasons of theater in both ASL and English, with the contributions of a grant from the Education Department and other nonprofit organizations.

“It’s a perfect example of real results. These actors would not have had these opportunities otherwise. There are possibilities for these actors to have meaningful employment,” O’Brien said of the funding. “It’s something that someone on either side of the aisle can appreciate.”

O’Brien summed up one of the missions of the performance — bridging the communication and cultural gap between deaf and hearing.

“Really there is no difference and there shouldn’t be a preconceived difference of what [Corrigan’s] human experience is as opposed to mine. It’s just as full; it’s just as rich. It’s just as capable of communicating immensely meaningful things.”

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