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March 3, 2005

Richland native rediscovers his talents on 'Big River'

From: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, PA - Mar 3, 2005

By Alice T. Carter
Thursday, March 3, 2005

"Big River" director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun understands theatergoers' wariness about attending a musical where half of the cast is deaf.

He was initially a skeptic himself.

Back in 2000, when Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood, Calif., first approached him about directing and choreographing a musical performed by deaf, hearing-impaired and hearing actors Calhoun thought it was either a hoax or an insensitive bad joke. "I thought they were pulling my leg," he says.

Five years later, Calhoun credits his experiences with Deaf West Theatre with re-energizing his career. "It re-sparked and rekindled my creativity," says Calhoun, a Richland native who lives in Manhattan, and who produced, directed and choreographed "Brooklyn," which opened on Broadway last fall. "Between 'Brooklyn' and 'Big River,' these have been the greatest four years of my life."

Calhoun's first production for Deaf West Theatre was a production of "Oliver!" in 2000. That production won a Theatre LA Ovation Award for best musical as well as one for Calhoun as best director.

In 2001, Deaf West Theatre and Calhoun returned with a production of "Big River" that earned six nominations and won five awards from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. It then moved on to Broadway, where it became the first-ever deaf musical to play there.

The national touring production of "Big River" opens Tuesday at Heinz Hall as a presentation of the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh Series.

According to Robert Hurwitt, theater critic for the San Francisco Chronicle: "A large cast of deaf and hearing actors speaks (or sings) and signs every word simultaneously, sometimes with speaking and signing actors playing the same role, in a manner that delights the senses, deepens the textures and adds new dimensions to the text and music."

A revival of the 1985 Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Roger Miller and William Hauptman's book, "Big River" is a stage adaptation of Mark Twain's classic novel, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Set on and along the Mississippi River in 1849, the musical concentrates on the relationship that develops between Twain's rebellious counter-culture Huck and the runaway slave as they drift downstream and away from Hannibal, Mo., and its societal strictures.

As it was for Huck, Calhoun's "Big River" journey was a learning experience.

Working with a cast of hearing, hard-of-hearing and deaf actors forced him to rethink almost everything he had learned while directing and choreographing the Broadway revival of "Grease!" and serving as choreographer for recent Broadway revivals of "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Bells are Ringing."

"I had to start over and pretend I knew nothing," Calhoun says. "My skills as a director didn't work."

To ease communications, he learned American Sign Language. He quickly discovered that actors' need to sign with their hands limited how and when they could handle props. Stage cues that the hearing actors could react to -- someone knocking on a door or calling out -- had to be backed up or substituted or augmented by a subtle wink or nod from another performer. Instead of listening offstage for an entrance line, deaf actors watched for a signal from a small offstage light. Choreography offered similar challenges. "You can't tell a deaf dancer to start on the seven (beat). They can't hear the seven," Calhoun says.

"It was very important that the hearing actors not patronize the deaf actors," he says.

He also was committed to making the experience an equal one for hearing and deaf audience members. "I was very adamant that every moment be very equitable for everyone both in the audience and on the stage.

"It forces you to be creative as adversity always does. It pushes you to a place you haven't gone before."

In the process, Calhoun feels he invented something akin to a new art form.

The Broadway revival not only won the 2004 Tony Award for best revival of a musical, it also received the Tony honor called Excellence in Theatre.

"It's so special, something that has to be experienced," Calhoun says. "A lot of people may think (this production) is the punchline for a joke. The same people are crying at the end of the show."

Audiences quickly stop worrying about which actors are deaf and which are hearing and concentrate on the story as it unfolds, Calhoun says.

Calhoun is working on "Himself and Nora," a new musical with Broadway aspirations for which he's doing the musical staging and directing with Joe Hardy at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

But his ties to Deaf West remain firm.

In mid-February, Deaf West Theatre's artistic director and chief executive officer Ed Waterstreet and managing director and producer Bill O'Brien flew to London to talk with producer Cameron Mackintosh about creating a new production of "Oliver!" in which Calhoun would again direct and choreograph a mixed cast of deaf, hearing and hard-of-hearing actors simultaneously speaking, singing and signing.

"It's a unique art form that touches special people, and they appreciate the magic of it," Calhoun says. "Open your heart, open your mind. The show will pay back with great interest."

Copyright 2005 Tribune-Review Publishing Company

Alice T. Carter can be reached at or (412) 320-7808.