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April 10, 2005

"Big River" grew bigger and better when Deaf West staged it

From: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, MO - Apr 10, 2005

By Judith Newmark
Post-Dispatch Theater Critic
Sunday, Apr. 10 2005

The first time that Ed Waterstreet talked to Jeff Calhoun about directing a show, Calhoun figured he was kidding.

Calhoun, a director and choreographer who got his start as a dancer, is a creature of musical theater.

Waterstreet founded and heads Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles; like most members of the troupe, Waterstreet is deaf.

True, it's all theater. But isn't that like saying that sushi and chocolate sundaes both are food? It doesn't mean anyone's going to serve them together.

Calhoun admits he thought the whole thing sounded crazy - an easier admission, no doubt, once you've learned how well something can work. "Oliver!," the first musical he directed at Deaf West, went well. The second, "Big River," was a smash. It moved from Deaf West to a larger LA stage, the Mark Tapir, sweeping up all kinds of awards in the process. Then it moved to Broadway. And now it tours the country, opening on Tuesday at the Fox.

Based on "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "Big River" tells a sweeping story - and, in this production, it tells it in song, spoken English, American Sign Language, music and dance. Its cast includes performers who are deaf, who are partly deaf and who can hear. Their collaboration, Calhoun says, is "very labor intensive.

"The actors who can hear must learn ASL; the actors who are deaf must learn to dance to music they don't hear. It takes twice as long to put together as a regular show (with all-hearing, or all-deaf, actors).

"They have to use their whole bodies to communicate. It takes a certain breed of actor to commit to that kind of process.

"And I think that's why audiences react to 'Big River' the way they do. How often do people leave a theater saying, 'I never saw anything like that'?

"Our audiences say that night after night."

A long history of deaf theater

It's the musical aspect that makes the production so unusual, for deaf and hearing theater-goers alike. Many theaters - including the Fox, the Muny and the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis - have ASL signers interpret some performances, to encourage deaf theater-goers to attend. The inverse - deaf theater that includes speaking actors to interpret for hearing theater-goers - enjoys a well-regarded history, too, one that traces back almost 40 years, to the founding of the National Theatre for the Deaf in Connecticut.

Waterstreet and his wife, Linda Bove (whom longtime "Sesame Street" fans know as Linda the Librarian), both acted with the NTD. When they moved west, Waterstreet was struck by the large size of the Lost Angeles deaf community and by the paucity of cultural resources available to it.

That wasn't true everywhere. The Theatre for the Deaf at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley, for example, goes back to 1978. Today, headed by associate professor Daniel Betzler, it usually stages a show every other year. The most recent, the comedy called "Everyone Loves Opal," played last semester, directed by Betzler's wife, Lisa, another teacher in the school's deaf-communications department. Dan Betzler credits NTD with scattering seeds for deaf theater that sprouted all over.

NTD built its reputation on a commitment to staging challenging work, developing deaf artists and building an inclusive audience. Later, a single 1980 play, Mark Medoff's Tony-winning "Children of a Lesser God," drastically widened America's appreciation of the deaf theatrical community. (Virtually every deaf actress of stature - including Bove, Phyllis Frehlich, Marlee Matlin and, here in St. Louis, Lisa Betzler - has at one time or another portrayed the drama's romantic heroine.) The idea of a regional theater somewhat similar to NTD hardly seemed outrageous; Waterstreet founded Deaf West in 1991.

"A crazy dream"

Over the years, Deaf West concentrated on modern and period classics, the staples of regional theaters, says managing director, Bill O'Brien. (On "The West Wing," O'Brien plays Kenny, the interpreter who works for the political pollster played by Matlin.) The theater initially aimed at deaf theater-goers, but other people came, "and Ed was savvy enough to tap into that," O'Brien says. "He realized it could be artistically interesting to blend these two theatricalities."

But through it all, O'Brien recalled, Waterstreet "had this crazy dream" about venturing into musical theater. As a child in Wisconsin, Waterstreet and his family celebrated the holidays by attending a musical version of "A Christmas Carol," "and he saw how people enjoyed it," O'Brien says. "I think he also recognized that there was a presentational quality (to musicals) that would work in his culture."

O'Brien knew Calhoun, a director whose background in dance had developed a highly visual approach to staging. Once they set to work, "it didn't take Jeff long at all to get into it, although I am sure it puts unusual limitations on a director.

"But Jeff turned the limitations into strengths. He realized he had to be direct. You have to focus the attention of the audience; you can't just make pretty pictures. And that kind of economy tells a story well."

What resulted was "so amazing, it made me tear up," says Dan Betzler. Betzler - a familiar figure on the local theater scene because he and Mary Luebke, who heads the deaf-communications program at Florissant Valley, interpret shows in ASL at many theaters in St. Louis and Chicago - says he and his wife were so impressed when they saw "Big River" in New York that they're thinking of adding a special production next year, a musical.

The key to bringing it off, Calhoun says, is to make sure that the show is authentic theater, "not philanthropy. This should appeal to very discriminating theater-goers.

"It's not about happy handicapped people; it's not about patronizing anyone. In fact, we don't comment on deafness at all.

"It's just good actors delivering a great story. You get everything in a show that you're used to, plus this beautiful choreography of hands. In this show, the performers are dancing even when they talk."

Critic Judith Newmark E-mail: Phone: 314-340-8243

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