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November 11, 2002

Musical miracle

From: San Bernardino Sun, CA
Nov. 11, 2002

By Evan Henerson
Staff Writer
You put in your six weeks of rehearsal, tighten your belt for a penniless existence and badger your nearest and dearest with announcement reminders. The curtain rises and you hope for enthusiastic reviews, good audiences -- heck, since we're talking live theater, you hope for !ital!any audiences. An extension is a good sign -- a move to a larger house, an even better one.

But a transfer to one of the city's leading regional houses, complete with a built-in subscription audience and an advertising budget? Buy a lottery ticket. You'll face better odds.

It's not a dream anymore for Deaf West Theatre, the 11-year-old NoHo-based company. The company's production of the musical "Big River -- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,' a critical and box-office hit when it played Deaf West in October 2001, is the first production developed at a 99-seat theater to transfer to the Mark Taper Forum.

That's a milestone both for local 99-seat companies and for the Taper, which doesn't make a habit of bringing in shows from other L.A. theaters -- pedigreed or otherwise.

"We're basically not here to be the place where plays move to,' says Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson. "We may help in the evolution of a play or of the talent that puts a play on. It does seem a bit strange that this should be the one that breaks the barrier.'

"It's a big step for us,' agrees Ed Waterstreet, artistic director of Deaf West, during an interview with producer Bill O'Brien. "And it will be another big step in terms of being able to take this production to other places. I think it really shows the value of this new musical form of sign-language theater.'

The musical -- the second to be produced by Deaf West -- features deaf and hearing actors. Tyrone Giordano, who plays Huck, for example, is "voiced' by Scott Waara who plays Mark Twain, the story's narrator. Hearing actors provide the speaking and singing voices for the deaf performers, and the entire production features sign language.

The seeds for this particular collaboration, administrators from both theaters contend, were sewn back in 1979 when Davidson directed Mark Medoff's play "Children of a Lesser God' at the Taper and later on Broadway. The play, which features deaf and hearing characters and actors, is considered a milestone in theater that features disabled artists.

"Big River's' journey from NoHo to the Music Center -- and perhaps beyond -- is a story of faith and partnerships, a pioneering director and word-of-mouth that traveled from the San Fernando Valley to Broadway.

Some significant dates along the way, in the words of the people who helped shape them:

April 1991: "That's a wonderful idea.'

As the city's best-known stage impresario, Davidson is sought out for advice and, occasionally, for favors. When Waterstreet was looking for an umbrella organization for his new company, he went to Davidson. The answer was "no,' but the message was encouraging.

Waterstreet: "We've known each other for 20 years, and I definitely got the sense he believed in me, believed in us. When Deaf West was starting out, we were a very small organization, looking for a little bit of support, the first person I thought of was Gordon Davidson. I went to his office and talked about wanting to set up a new deaf theater. I just wanted to explore, 'What do you think about Deaf West somehow being under the Taper umbrella, just to get a little support as we start?' He looked at me and he said, 'No, I think you can do that on your own,' and he gave me a big handshake. At first I was like, 'Hmmm, I didn't quite get what I wanted, but he believes that.' He's encouraging us to stand on our own two feet, develop our own pride and have our own artistic vision.

Davidson: "I think my advice was that he could probably do better with fund raising and everything if it was not all under the (Center Theatre Group) umbrella. He could target funders and move more freely. I said I would keep an eye on it and try to be helpful whenever I could. It's just my own experience, sometimes things flourish out there on their own. ... This wasn't some wacky idea that wasn't going to thrive. This one seemed to me to have legs, as they say in the business.'

March 2000: "I know this director ...'

Looking to mount the company's first musical, "Oliver,' Deaf West Producer Bill O'Brien remembered Jeff Calhoun, a director he worked with on the 1997 staging of "The Will Rodgers Follies' at the California Musical Theatre in Sacramento.

O'Brien: " 'The Will Rogers Follies' ' was such a visual thing, and it was built around these stairs. Having performed it so many times, I couldn't imagine how you could do that play without pretty girls coming downstairs; that's all that happens in that play. All Jeff had was this bare stage that was round, and he made it an even more beautiful production, figuring out the space he had and working from a really visual context. It just seemed he'd be a natural at figuring out how we would need to explore all these visual elements we would need to explore.'

Calhoun: I think Bill liked how I handled challenges, and I think he certainly looked at a musical for the deaf as a challenge. If I knew what I know now, I wonder if I would have been as brave, because I didn't know how hard it would be. Everything we do in the theater is based on timing, and the one thing that's the most difficult and challenging working with the deaf culture is timing. For a hearing actor, you're on stage, you know how long to wait for a laugh to subside, or if you have a laugh. You know when the applause gets to a certain peak and when it starts to wane, you go on. I had to figure out a visual way of creating timing, and you realize that it's all timing.'

November 2000: Deaf West wins five Los Angeles Ovation awards, including best musical performed in an intimate theater.

July 2001: Calhoun hired again to direct "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.'

October 2001: "Big River' opens. It's a critical hit and quickly sells out its run. Davidson, who is besieged by requests from smaller theaters to attend productions, attends.

Davidson: "This particular one might have slipped by, had my wife not said, 'Everyone tells me you should really see this.' We turned it into a theater party with some of our North Hollywood friends, and we had a wonderful time.'

December 2001: "Yes or no.'

Waterstreet: "I called Gordon and said, 'Just a simple yes or no. Do you think it's possible for "Big River' to move to the Taper?' He said, 'I can't answer yes or no.' But he called me for a meeting. We went over there, and there seemed to be a lot of questions, exploring the idea of moving it. We had some funding from the U.S. Department of Education that we could use as enhancement money, which certainly helped.'

Davidson: "I may have placed the call. I certainly saw Ed at intermission and at the end, and timing is so important. Sometimes you see something, but there's just no way it can fit into a season. So you say to somebody, 'Why don't you try elsewhere? If it's still around later, maybe I can do something.' With this one, I think I took some positive action to start with, based a little bit on some lobby discussion with Ed after the show.'

March 2002: Meanwhile, on Broadway ...

At the cast party of the musical "Sweet Smell of Success,' Calhoun encounters former New York Times drama critic Frank Rich. Rich and Jujamcyn Theatres president Rocco Landesman had been talking about a production of `'Big River' they had heard about on the West Coast.

Calhoun: "Frank asked what I was doing. I said I was in L.A. working with a theater for the deaf doing strange things, and he asked me if I had heard anything about a production of 'Big River' that he had heard about. And it was one of my favorite moments in show business to be able to say, 'Well I do. It's my production. I directed the show. He said, 'Rocco, come over here. Do you remember the production of "Big River' we were talking about? Jeff directed it.' And Rocco said, 'Do you have anything to show me?'

"A week later, Ed and myself were in his office with our videotape and pictures that the set designer had taken of the set. Six minutes later, he stopped it and he said, 'Guys, this doesn't have to be a long meeting. I want to do this.' '

Landesman: "I love the show. It's the first show I produced, and it's the whole reason I have a career. This seemed like a new form, something I hadn't seen before, a different dimension of expression on stage. The fact that the cast is mixed, half hearing, half deaf, so you see and hear the whole show, struck me as quite thrilling.'

April: Mark Taper Forum to Deaf West Theatre: We have a deal.

During a meeting between Deaf West and CTG managing director Charles Dillingham, Deaf West agrees to put up $300,000 toward production costs. CTG announces that "Big River' will play the Taper in November.

Waterstreet: "As soon as there seemed to be some New York interest, it seemed to be a little more viable for the Taper to do it sooner rather than later. I think that helped.'

Calhoun: "We had had such a wonderful meeting in New York, so I was a little bit leery. The Taper was just like one more obstacle to get over. What if we do it at the Taper and they don't like it? Why risk it? But being that this is Deaf West's home, I think it's very important to Deaf West to play this premiere theater in L.A. This is Ed's baby and Ed's theater. We wouldn't be here without Ed.'

Copyright © 2002 San Bernardino County Sun