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May 27, 2005

Deaf and hearing worlds come together in 'Big River' musical

From: Seattle Post Intelligencer, WA - May 27, 2005

Friday, May 27, 2005


Ed Waterstreet's eyes open wide. His hands are at shoulder level, fingers spread. He has the astonished, disbelieving look of a person who perhaps saw a train take flight or an airplane enter a subway tunnel.

Actually, what he's doing is describing the reaction he got from Broadway director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun when he was trying to persuade him to stage a musical using deaf actors. Waterstreet is artistic director of Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles.

"Deaf actors?! In a musical?!" he exclaims (in sign language -- interpreter Joanna Ball supplies the voiceover). Waterstreet wore down Calhoun's resistance. Their production of "Big River," a 1985 musical based on Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," opened four years ago. Eventually it played on Broadway. A touring production opens Tuesday at the Paramount Theatre.

Waterstreet was in town earlier this month to speak at the Community Service Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Waterstreet himself is deaf, the result of meningitis when he was 2. For 12 years he worked with the National Theatre of the Deaf.

Twenty years ago, he and his wife, deaf actress Linda Bove, sought new opportunities and challenges in Los Angeles. Bove became a "Sesame Street' regular -- Linda the Librarian. Waterstreet's jobs included playing the father in "Love Is Never Silent," a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie that aired on TV in 1985. The job provided some contacts that proved useful when Waterstreet went on to do what he really wanted to do: start his own stage company that featured deaf performers.

That company has been in operation since 1991. "TV and film are expensive and complicated," Waterstreet says. "If you want to set up an organization that fosters deaf artists, live theater is the simplest way to go."

Waterstreet started with your basic, inexpensive, two-character, one-set production: "The Gin Game." But as Deaf West gained momentum, Waterstreet's artistic ambitions also revved up. By 2000 he was ready for, yes, a musical. He chose "Oliver!"

"Using both deaf and hearing actors is useful when there's a clear power difference or social split in the show you're producing," Waterstreet said (through Ball) during an interview. "I went to the Wisconsin School for the Deaf. Like in most schools for the deaf, the staff and teachers are hearing people. And the students are deaf."

One also might mention that the National Theatre of the Deaf has traditionally been headed by a hearing artistic director.

"In our 'Oliver!,' " Waterstreet continues, "the orphans were played by deaf performers and the people who have power over them were played by hearing actors." The deaf cast members signed their lines and lyrics. Interpreters spoke and sang for them.

"The same distinction worked for us in 'Romeo and Juliet' in 1998," Waterstreet continues. "Romeo and his family were deaf. Juliet and her people were hearing. In our 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,' the doctors and nurses were hearing. The patients were deaf. In 'Big River,' Huck is deaf and Jim is hearing." (Jim is the runaway slave Huck helps to raft his way to freedom.)

When he was growing up, Waterstreet was fascinated, and frustrated, by his family's enthusiasm for music and theater. He has three brothers and a sister. "Of course, they took me along when they went to church or to a show," he says. "They didn't want to leave me home. I'd watch them. It was amazing. Afterward they'd try to explain how the music had affected them. Even though I never really understood, I was tremendously impressed."

Waterstreet was born in Green Bay. When he went to Gallaudet University for the Deaf he "naturally," as he puts it, played football. More importantly, he got involved in dramatics.

When "Big River" became a very big deal, Waterstreet put his Los Angeles home base on hold. After the tour winds down, he's intends to get the Deaf West operation in North Hollywood up and running again. He's thinking of a remount of "Oliver!" -- an elaborate full-scale production that could go on tour with maybe a stop on Broadway.



CREATORS: Songs by Roger Miller, book by William Hauptman based on the "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," the 1884 novel by Mark Twain

WHERE: Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St.

WHEN: Opens Tuesday, runs through June 5

TICKETS: $18-$54; 206-292-2787, or at the box office (no service charges on tickets purchased at box office)

P-I theater critic Joe Adcock can be reached at 206-448-8369 or

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