September 2008 - November 2008: Issue 28
A Special Issue On Deaf Performing Arts

People

Front And Center: Actors and Performance Artists

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Michelle Banks, actor

Smiling head shot of Michelle Banks.

Ms. Banks received her B.A. degree in Drama Studies from the State University of New York at Purchase. "I just had it in me that I'd be an actor since I was about 6 or 7 years old."

What are some of the things you've done over the years? How did you hone your craft?

I have directed, conducted workshops, produced productions, and created my one-woman show. I have performed in "Big River," made appearances in television programs, e.g., "Girlfriends," and "Soul Food." I've also conducted theatre workshops for artist-in-residency programs. I have honed my craft by taking acting classes/workshops and working with mentors, directors and fellow actors.

How do you communicate with non-signing colleagues?

I always try to find a way to communicate with people who do not sign. Most of the people that I work with in theatre happen to know either some signs or fingerspelling. But for TV or movies, directors and actors usually don't know sign language, so they rely on interpreters. A lot of time they have said they wished they knew ASL.

What are your thoughts on having hearing actors portray Deaf characters?

I think we deaf actors should be given more opportunities to portray real deaf characters. Hearing actors have plenty of other roles to play. We bring an authentic quality to roles we play. We have to continue to educate producers and bigwigs about the significance of hiring more deaf actors to play these or any other characters. In my view, it appears that more deaf actors are being hired for acting roles now.

What three words describe Michelle Banks?

Fierce—beautiful—sincere

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Bernard Bragg, actor, director, playwright

Head shot of Bernard Bragg smiling.

In 1968, Mr. Bragg studied with Marcel Marceau and had his own weekly TV show which ran for three years on KQED-TV in San Francisco. He has toured the country and abroad with his one-man show. In 1967 he played an important role in the establishment of the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD).

How many years were you with NTD? What was the role of NTD in formulating careers for Deaf and hard of hearing people in theatre, television and film?

I was with NTD for ten years. NTD has helped open doors for many young deaf aspirants, e.g. Phyllis Frelich, Linda Bove, and Ed Waterstreet. New talents include Russell Harvard who appeared in "There Will Be Blood" and Ty Giordano who appeared in "Family Stone" and other major films.

What are your views on hearing actors portraying deaf characters?

I have been asked to be technical advisor to two different film productions—"Avenue X" and "Hamill." I have agreed to work with the first one, but rejected the latter's offer—only because the actor-writer, himself hearing, is determined to play Matt Hamill, the deaf wrestler who won the national championship.

What are some of your current projects?

I am in the process of creating a website entitled "Freedom of Movement" that will show the same poem translated by 20 or 30 foreign deaf actors in their respective sign languages. The World Federation of the Deaf is currently creating a DVD with the funds I have raised from my tour entitled "Human Rights through Sign Languages."

What three words describe you?

Persistent—optimist—creative

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Sean Forbes, co-founder D-PAN, musician, songwriter, sign language performer

Sean Forbe's profile. He is slightly hunched, arms up, fingers spread, with an expression of, 'I already knew that.'

Mr. Forbes co-established D-PAN with Joel Martin who owns several recording studios and is Eminem's publisher.

How did you come up with the idea of a website of deaf performers? Why did you pick this medium?

I was on a road trip, signing songs ranging from Usher to Eminem and thought, wouldn't it be neat to make music videos with ASL that can be enjoyed by everyone? Music is a powerful art form, ASL is a beautiful language, and combining the two could really build a bridge between the hearing and deaf worlds.

Who were some of the people you worked with?

When we shot the newest D-PAN video for "Lose Yourself," which is an Eminem song, we re-recorded the song featuring a popular Detroit group called "Sponge" who had a platinum record in the 90's, I already had a friendly relationship with Vinnie Dombrowski, Sponge's lead singer.

Who is your audience?

Our audience is everyone, both deaf and hearing! We have gotten over a million hits on the website and YouTube combined. The response has been overwhelming.

Are mainstream musicians interested in what D-PAN has to offer?

We are getting calls from musicians wanting us to sign their songs. It's important that our first DVD compilation "It's Everybody's Music" does work well, which will enable D-PAN to create more music videos and branch off into different things. Currently we are working with animators and developing something cool for kids!

What are some of your future plans?

I would love to see D-PAN do shows where we could have a deaf cast performing songs. I do concerts performing my own original songs all the time.

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CJ Jones, comedian, actor

Cj Jones' head shot

Mr. Jones discovered the joy of acting at age 5. He was a member of the National Theatre of the Deaf touring company and also toured with Broadway's "Children of a Lesser God." He has made guest appearances on "Frasier," "Lincoln Heights," "Sesame Street" and other programs.

What was your most unusual role?

"Voicing over" for a Deaf Indian (played by a hearing actor) in the 20th Century Fox film, "Pathfinder."

What are some of the things you've done over the years?

Touring with the National Theatre of the Deaf led to further acting opportunities. As a writer, I have developed several one-man shows and brought them to stages throughout the world. I am always developing new material with opportunities for audience involvement and improvisations. I am at this time an associate member with Cornerstone Theater Company, an innovative grassroots theater ensemble. I am the only deaf actor...how much time do you have?

You're definitely not a "stand in one spot" guy. You act, do one-man shows, produce and direct. And you have moved into the Internet?

Ah yes… never ending guy on the go go go! I am developing "Sign World TV," and right now we are working on that platform. We're not quite ready to share details, but I can tell you that the goal is to create quality sign language programming and collect data on the sign language market, to build support and find funding for a quality cable TV channel. There is a huge audience out there, and we want to entertain them!

The Internet makes projects available to everyone; it is an even playing field. Deaf people use the computer for so much of their communication; it is a natural extension to provide entertainment for ASL users through the Internet. It is an open forum, and I think it is exciting to watch what amateurs and professionals are posting on the Internet.

What about Deaf West?

Yes, that was good. For Deaf West I directed "Aladdin" and acted in two of their productions, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and Mark Medoff's "Road to Revolution."

What are some of your views on having hearing actors portray deaf characters?

My view is simple -- hearing actors cannot ever portray a deaf character accurately!

Give all the deaf characters to the deaf actors.

Not too long ago, you coordinated the International Sign Language Theatre Festival in Los Angeles. How did it go? Who were your audiences?

It was an exciting and successful event. Sign language artists were thrilled to have a place to showcase their work and network. The audiences loved seeing such a diverse group of performers. We had some glitches with bringing performers in from other countries, mostly visa problems. This was our first time, and the staff learned a lot from the experience.

One of our goals was to broaden the exposure of sign language in the professional acting world and provide opportunities for deaf artists. An example, a "Cold Case" casting director invited one of the festival actors, Michael Davis, to star in one of their episodes. We plan to host more events in the future through Hands Across Communications, a non-profit organization.

What's your toughest challenge?

As a deaf actor, my toughest challenge is to find work in Hollywood. I have worked very hard for the roles I won. It is rare to find producers and directors who are willing to explore interesting casting options. For this reason I have formed my own entertainment company. This is a place where we can produce 24/7 SWTV programming that will provide job opportunities for deaf and hard of hearing people.

What's around the corner?

Hilari Scarl's documentary film, "See What I'm Saying," a documentary about deaf actors and performers will be submitted to Sundance Film Festival in August (2008), We are hoping that the film will be accepted as one of 30 films scheduled for the January 2009 Sundance Film Festival. I believe that this wonderful and powerful film will change the way the general public view deaf people. I also believe the film will open doors for many professional deaf and hard of hearing people in the industry.

Any pearls of wisdom?

I do think that we can become mentors to each other and build upon the relationships that some of us have created. Those of us, "we of, by and for" the sign language community, must work together to create opportunities, without discrimination, without prejudices, and inspire ourselves to do greater things in life. United we stand, divided we disappear.

What three words describe CJ Jones?

Energetic—creative—comedian

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Monique Holt, actor, dancer, translator, director

Monique Holt's smiling showing off her dimpled cheeks

Ms. Holt is currently a MFA student at Towson University, where she is studying theatre. She is a Presidential Fellow with the Gallaudet University Theatre Arts program. She recently appeared in "Inside/Outside" by Ping Chong/Sara Zatz, which was sponsored by VSA arts for the Kennedy Center.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and how you started acting.

Like any child, I had a vivid imagination. However, I never thought about acting as a profession. As an adult, I lived in NYC and worked for Jacques d'Amboise - National Dance Institute for 1½ years. He asked me what I wanted to do. I simply said I wanted to go into acting. He paid for my first two courses at NYU. It got me hooked. I enrolled at Tisch School for the Arts. I began my career as a modern dancer. In high school, I learned a little of everything. I studied dancing with Merce Cunningham in New York. I shifted my focus to movement: Grotowski technique and Viewpoints. I love movements and stillness. I write poetry and Blues/Hard Rock lyrics.

I was living in Paris, France and studying European theater when I learned of the audition for Milwaukee Repertory Theatre's production of Thorton Wilder's "Our Town." I got the role of Emily Webb and my Equity card.

What are some of the things you have done?

I like to take things apart, and try to put them back together. Half the time I succeed. It is the same for theater works I have done. I have done some commercial theater and also created some original work. I've also appeared in some commercials.

How do you handle translation of your lines into ASL and back?

I read and imagine the situation first. Then I try the signing next to see if my hypothesis is correct. I read and sign different approaches to them to see if it feels right or if it matches the situation or the mood. If it feels right or is almost there, I write down the gloss.

What are some of the current projects you are involved with?

I have three projects going on right now: My MFA Theatre Thesis Production -- "Are Your Ears Blind?" -- an exploration of how to make theater accessible for both Deaf and hearing audiences; and "Snow Queen," created by Mara Neimanis. I am playing Gerda in aerial theater, using trapeze and aerial fabric as apparatus, which will be shown at Gallaudet in December 2008; and "Urinetown," Gallaudet University's 2009 spring production, which I will be directing.

What three words describe Monique Holt?

Artist—creative—risk-taker

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Rosa Lee, multimedia performer

Head shot of Rosa Lee Can you describe your background?

My family is what I'd like to call, "the perfect bite," just like the movie, "The Mirror has Two Faces," with Barbra Streisand. There was a scene where she was using her fork to carefully choose the toppings from her salad. Her date asked why she was doing that. She said it was so that she could experience the perfect bite. I say this because my family is a mixture of all sorts of things -- race, religion, education, political views, to name a few. My mother is a black Deaf woman from the Midwest, and my father is a deaf white man from the South. I was this biracial girl from Indiana who was very naïve (and very shy). I think I was about 14 years old when I first had my taste in performing on stage through Youth Leadership Camp at Oregon. That was when I found my first perfect bite.

What is the Rosa Lee Show?

The Rosa Lee Show is a multimedia performance filled with humor, passion, and culture. It is a combination of storytelling, ASL, poetry, video skits, sign songs, and live audience participation.

You are a multi-media artist. Describe your work.

Most of my work is self-taught. I started out by writing my own materials as, well as including other people's works. But I have since been focusing on developing my own materials. I remember wanting to create a show that maximizes visual stimulation as much as possible. I started fooling around with my DV camcorder, trying to make video skits such as "My Deaf Lady," which is a spoof of "My Fair Lady." In my shows I include music and voice interpretation. I use American Sign Language throughout my show.

What are your views on having hearing actors portray deaf characters?

The same way as having white actors play black roles. It makes no sense to me.

What do you have planned for the future?

I am currently working on The Rosa Lee Show DVD and hope to release it soon. I am also working with my younger brother, Frank Gallimore, on creating a "word of hand" magazine that is now made available online for free. It is titled: "Kiss-Fist Magazine."

What three words describe Rosa Lee?

Passionate—creative—sincere

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Howie Seago, actor

Close up of Howie Seago

Mr. Seago, a native of Washington state, is a graduate of California State University, Northridge. His acting credits include stage, film and television roles. He was involved in the creation of the Emmy-award winning PBS series, "Rainbow's End." Mr. Seago recently appeared in "The Little Flower of East Orange" with Ellen Burstyn at The Public Theatre in New York.

What led you to acting?

I was first lured into serious acting onstage by my college roommate, Ted SupaIla on the premise that he would translate and teach me the script in ASL. I grew up in the "oral method" and had only very primitive signing ability at the time. After performances of Ted's play, people would congratulate me in sign language, and I had to tell them to slow down or repeat their comments. They were shocked to find out how crude my everyday signing skills were compared to what they witnessed onstage. I found this gratifying, to be able to be another person onstage than who I am in real life. I love to wrestle with language and enjoy the challenge of translating scripts into ASL or into whatever mode of communication fits the scene. I also enjoy the opportunity to delve into the mind and spirit of another character that may be totally different than me.

How did you hone your craft?

I developed my acting skills by actually acting onstage. My only real formal training was from participating in the National Theatre of the Deaf Professional Summer School program one summer. From that experience I was invited to join the company. I try to observe other actors and engage in discussions with them about their philosophy of acting and stage techniques. I had the great fortune to work with notable directors like Peter Sellars, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Bart Sher, who gave valuable input and great insights on life and human nature.

You've been in numerous theatre, TV and film productions. What are some of your favorite experiences?

The stage production of "Ajax" directed by Peter Sellars for the Kennedy Center and a tour of Europe was very intense and challenging. To perform the depth of the title character with the wide range of emotions and scenes under the tutelage of Peter and with a super cast was a personal epiphany in my development as an actor and also how war can impact my family in personal terms. I was able to utilize my deaf experiences as an "outsider" for the role of the military general betrayed by his government.

The "Beyond Silence" film is memorable because of the lovely story, which was an eerie parallel to my own upbringing and experience as a deaf father with hearing children. It was very rewarding to work with the talented Emmanuelle Laborit and the large cast of German Deaf extras.

How do you work with directors and actors who do not sign?

I don't have any problems working with hearing directors and actors as long as I have excellent interpreters. I make sure to educate them on proper and considerate etiquette in communicating with me and keeping me involved even in social situations when an interpreter may not be available. My advice would be mainly to deaf actors in being assertive in expecting equal treatment and access to conversation through whatever means necessary.

What are some of the projects you're currently involved with?

In August 2008 I will be working on a Mark Wood film, "The Legend of Mountain Man" and really looking forward to working once again with Freda Norman and Chuck Baird as well as the talented Berdy boys, Sean and Tyler. I recently accepted an offer to perform with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which will run January to November 2009. I will be in "The Music Man," "Henry VIII" and "Don Quixote."

What three words describe Howie Seago?

Passionate—dreamer—daring

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