A play that explores what it’s like to be deaf in a world designed for people who can hear is on stage now at the Calderwood Pavilion in the South End. James Caverly, the actor who plays the main character in the SpeakEasy Stage production of “Tribes,” is deaf in real life. I headed over to a rehearsal to find out more about his role and the director of this unique production, M. Bevin O'Gara. Check out a lightly edited transcript of our conversation below and read my story on the production here.
Andrea Shea: How did you find Joey?
M. Bevin O’Gara: Our lighting designer Annie Wiegand and I have worked together on several different shows, she also happens to be deaf and she asked me how things were going with the audition process. And I said, “They’re going well, we've seen some interesting people,” and she said, “Well I've got the guy for you.”
It was a good first introduction to each other I think. It was pretty apparent from moment one that this was our Billy.
So, Joey, what attracted you to this role?
James "Joey" Caverly (speaking through an interpreter): For some time now I’ve been watching a lot of media related to deaf people, whether it’s movies, film, syndicated programs, and I also felt that in watching these programs that there was a condescending perspective about deaf people — that they’re the problem, they’re the issue in the story that needs to be fixed and frankly I’m just not feeling it, I’m not feeling that that’s the lens that the world needs to see, I’m just — frankly I’m just sick of it.
So a couple of days later after watching a couple of different programs — in fact, to give some context I hadn't seen the play — but I was reading a newspaper and I saw an advertisement about "Tribes," and I saw that the story was about family dynamics and included in the story happened to be a story about a deaf person. So the title, "Tribes," [refers to] Billy being divided between two different tribes, one being his family and the deaf world where does he have a connection. So those questions paralleled what I see in society today, people are looking for their own tribe. Everyone is. They’re trying to find where they belong. And I made a connection with that.
Can you tell me about your character and what the dynamic is like in his family? And can you contrast it with your own experiences with your family?
Joey: Who’s Billy? Billy is a person who’s very empathetic. He gets people. He’s very close to his family, no question, and you can tell right from the beginning of the play and as it progresses that he’s invested in the relationships in his family. He is close to everyone in his family, but in a way he’s also an outcast while being close at the same time. There’s the conflict. He’s lost in terms of communication within his family. Now Sylvia comes along. Sylvia is the young woman he falls in love with, and he falls in love with the deaf community through her, and there’s the opportunity for him to express probably what he’s been longing to express.
In addition he’s conflicted. Billy is close to his family but this conflict is that he really wants to invest into the relationships in the deaf community, but particularly Sylvia. And to begin one is to begin to sacrifice the other, and that’s a struggle.
Now Billy in relation to myself and my family: I think we both have very different upbringings. For some time I do identify with Billy in that he went to a school that was a mainstream public school without use of sign language. But beyond that I think we have very different identities. I think the difference between myself and Billy is that he’s exceptionally empathetic. I’m going to be a little bit raw about myself, I aspire to be that way, but I’m not there yet. That’s what I admire about him.
What are the challenges? This is your third play. I mean, even for me in this interview I want to be looking at Joey while I’m talking to him but I can’t because I have to be looking at the interpreter. It’s not two people, it’s three.
Bevin: I honestly feel strange at this point without interpreters. I feel alone in a way. There are a couple of scenes that Joey is not in, and when he was out of the room and we were rehearsing them it made me go, ‘Wait, it’s just me?' It’s something that I've grown very comforted by and accustomed to, to be honest. What was incredible about this process, which is something that I asked for from day one and SpeakEasy was able to give me, is consistency among our interpreters.
I had worked with our main interpreter and coordinator Jessica Doonan on all three projects. She knows me, she understands how I think, she understands how I speak, and there was an inherent trust there. I know that she’s interpreting the things that I’m saying appropriately. And she was incredible at getting our other two interpreters both up to speed with the story, but also me and sort of what my process is. I run around all the time, so interpreters have to follow me everywhere.
Joey: Oh she does, it’s true. One moment she’s on this side of the room the next moment she’s on the other side of the room, it’s hard to pin her down.
Bevin: And also just the language and the vocab that you’re using with actors. A real intimacy and a trust is really important and I think we really had that. It just makes the line of communication direct.
And also, theater is such a communicative art form; you have to be able to communicate emotion. It’s not just about words. Directing is not about words, it’s about shapes and space. You know, acting is not about words either, it’s about how much emotion can you convey to your audience? And actually there’s something about working with deaf actors that I have found is that they’re tapped into something emotionally that many hearing actors are not, you know. It’s sort of easier I've found in many ways, or at least the deaf actors that I've worked with, for them to really have this natural ability to access a certain part of their emotional life that I just find so compelling to watch and so exciting to work with.
Joey: I just want to add that that’s true. As a deaf person I’m already invested in communicating through my body, and in a way it is similar to the features of acting. And when I’m on stage it’s really easy for me to find that piece of emotion because I do it on a day to day basis.
Well even during this interview I’m marveling at the expressiveness watching you sign. But it must be hard, too. What’s hard for you?
Joey: Talking. Using my voice. Speech is the challenge. This is my first speaking role so that in itself is a challenge. In the work that I’ve done, predominantly I think there was one challenge that I faced early on speaking loud enough and projecting – I had to crank up the volume a bit – that was one aspect of the challenge. And also to be soft spoken but project at the same time.
Bevin: And also one of the things that was so great about this process with Joey is, first we did have to have our dialect coach also work with him on some of these things, but Joey was also just willing to take those notes. I had the ability to be very direct with him. I didn’t understand this word, I didn’t understand this sentence. And his focus on it and the hard work that he has put in to, it’s really paid off.
When you speak on stage is it at all scary for you?
Joey: Yeah it is, to be frank, it is scary. But don’t get me wrong, I’m also scared of signing on the stage as well.
Bevin: This is a very hard play for actors to memorize. Group scenes, there’s a lot of stuff that’s repeated, and we did a speed through the lines a couple of days before we started performances and Joey knew exactly who was supposed to be speaking and when, I think he knows the lines of the play and the rhythm of the play better than any of the other actors, it’s pretty incredible watching him.
Joey: Well it’s what I have to, I have to be aware of the script and who’s going to say what lines one after the other, and be able to attend to it because Billy has to understand what everyone is saying, not just know that someone is speaking, but to understand what’s being said. So in order to do that I have to know their lines really well.
Bevin: It’s what all actors should do.
How did you get into acting?
Joey: When I came out of the womb. No, I can say I've been acting since birth. When I was younger I was a big ham, there’s no question. My entire family was hearing except for my sister, so I was just spontaneous, gimmicky; give me your attention for 15 minutes type of kid. But when I was in high school or early in college I think that’s when I started to change and mature and become a little bit more honed and think about the craft of acting as opposed to seeking attention. Very different. That’s where the shift started.
Has it been tough to get roles as a deaf actor?
Joey: Yeah it is difficult to get roles. The demographic of what’s out there and what's available there are not a lot of opportunities for deaf actors or internships. But I think that nowadays there are much better opportunities than there was before 30 plus years ago. I think there was more of a struggle, not there are at least several options. The field is growing, technology has changed quite a few things. You’ll see performances on the web where you’ll see deaf or hard of hearing actors. There are TV programs that are popular now – “Switched at Birth.” In England in fact there are television programs that are dedicated to sign language and deaf characters, so I can see that across the board things are getting better, things are expanding, but it’s still competitive. You’re talking about the acting field and there are so many roles and so many actors, so yeah it’s just generally tough.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this play?
Bevin: I always want the audience to leave questioning stuff. You know, things, themselves, what they just saw, the ability to have an intelligent conversation with the people that they saw it with.
And I also think the importance of sign language, ASL, of BSL as a language, as a tool for communication – culturally, intellectually – but also how it really I think enhances the world as a whole. As a very visual person I love watching signing. As a very emotional person I love feeling signing.
This is a play that is very much written for a hearing audience, it is not a play that is really for a deaf audience. And that has been a great deal of our focus in terms of crafting this play. That being said it is a very important play for a deaf audience to be able to experience.
On performing in a round theater:
Bevin: I understand the way the stage is set up and the action that the audience won’t always be hearing what’s being said. Part of the reason I really wanted to do it in the round is the sense of intimacy. The whole play takes place at home, but the other thing that I thought was really important is the idea that you miss things. That you’re not always seeing someone’s face, that you’re not always seeing what they’re expressing, and that depending on where you sit you get different perspectives. And I do hope there are audience members that think of Billy in some of those moments where they’re like, ‘Oh wait, I missed that.’ Because so much of what Billy talks about is what he’s missed.
Also the panels above. There are moments in the play where Billy and Sylvia are signing and the audience watches subtitles. Also there are a few moments that are intentionally not subtitled that are in sign language that again allow for that same sense of missing things or wanting to figure it out, or allowing for the emphasis to be on the sign language itself.
Joey, what do you think of this idea of the audience "missing" things. Can you relate?
Joey: Well, I think although there are these moments where the audience may miss something. I think the thing that they might miss that’s critical is that they may miss a moment of what’s happening on the face. We’re trying to make the audience, as Bevin said, walk away thinking, they’re going to go out, they’re going to go have a drink, and they’re still going to be having a conversation. And that’s the point of all this.
Take Billy. His entire upbringing is about making observations and reading everyone’s body language and now that’s what the audience is doing. How much is Billy getting from the way people behave and how can he help them based upon how they behave, so this is what’s going on for the audience, and the audience is weighing back and forth, but they’re trying to figure out, how can they be helpful, how can they engage, how can they get connected? So I think that’s how they connect to Billy. In a way they are mostly connected to Billy because Billy is missing some things, but he’s trying, he’s grasping to get the concept of what’ going on.
Is this something you experience? Trying to connect?
Joey: Yes, it is my experience. I think there are often times as I live in this hearing world, when I go out into the streets and into the world, there are things that I’m missing. I’m aware of that.
Bevin: I’ll just add going back to your first question about how often I've done this and how it has changed me. Working with deaf actors and working with the deaf community has completely changed the way I direct. I think through what I’m going to say before I say it, and I need to understand what exactly I mean more than I ever did before that because there is someone it’s going between, and it has made me be very precise in every decision I make as a director, but also in how I communicate that with every actor, not just deaf actors. I have found a sense of clarity in how I engage with my actors.
My last question, what have you learned, Joey, working with Bevin and this play?
Joey: I've learned to challenge myself more so. Acting is about knowing about what happens during the rehearsal process, knowing the logistics are important. But when you get outside the rehearsal room, I've been challenged to do a lot more research, I've raised my game that way to be more discreet about certain choices, more discreet about how I engage and find what I’m looking for and find out what I’m giving in my lines to my colleagues who are other actors. I've learned how to stretch the character to find as many aspects and dimensions of the character as opposed to being very uni-focused.
This program aired on September 26, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.