Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks,
Hearing Jets, and a Classic American Musical
Despite the room’s eccentricities, progress has been made. The college painted the entire space black (walls, floor, and ceiling) before the fall 1998 production, creating a proper black box theater space. The same workers, employees of Mac’s physical plant, also covered the skylights. They routed extra power to the room, allowing for more lights (which, during earlier productions had repeatedly overloaded the circuits and pitched the company into darkness). They removed or covered most of the mirrors, along with the barre. Using simple two-by-four frames covered in Duvateen, a flame-retardant black fabric not unlike thick felt, students and staff created a system of movable, modular walls. People entering the space to see Tartuffe could not believe the difference. “It’s like a real theater,” was by far the most frequent comment. Like but not, apparently, the same. The studio theater still lacked a proper lighting system (previous shows had relied primarily on rentals) and any sound effects or music had to be routed through a single-disc CD player hooked into two monaural public address speakers dating from the 1950s. Each successive production had to make a choice between two equally dubious seating options. First, a stack of small metal chairs allowed for somewhat greater seating capacity, but the chairs were notoriously uncomfortable and many exhibited suspicious stains and obvious rust. The neighboring student union building housed a number of newer, more comfortable plastic chairs, but these had to be ferried over by hand on opening night and returned the night the show closed, a time-consuming and arduous project.
Thanks to a sizable donation from Amy Wolff Stein, a 1932 Mac alumna, the lighting system and the chairs were both upgraded in early 1999. A local company, Brent Lighting Systems, hung a proper forty-circuit lighting grid from the ceiling. They installed a forty-eight-channel dimmer board and a twenty-four-channel patch bay. New chairs arrived, padded and covered in purple cloth, just hours before the student-directed spring show of Moliere’s The Learned Ladies. A technician added new speakers to the grid, together with the requisite amplifiers and a graphic equalizer. Going into West Side Story and its forebear, the fall production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, Mac had, for the first time in recent memory, a recognizably functioning theater, renamed the Marian Chase Schaeffer Studio Theater. While not overly large, the space is extraordinarily flexible and more than sufficient, especially from ISD’s point of view: ISD has no theater space at all.
With other Mac theater productions, no more than a few months of advance planning have been required. West Side Story demands a longer horizon, both for logistical reasons and because of the show’s unusually high budget. Diane has not attempted a musical before, and aside from the difficulties that the music itself poses, American musicals are an expensive breed to stage: the rights to the libretto and score alone will cost twelve hundred dollars. Given the large cast, costumes (especially shoes) will also be a factor. The set, which ricochets from various streets to a soda shop to a dressmaker’s store, in and out of bedrooms, and down to Manhattan’s back alleys, will be complex. In a perfect world, money to pay for such expenditures would grow on every tree, but since it does not (at least in Jacksonville), Diane turns instead to the slow but rewarding process of applying for the IAC grant that she later presents to Ron Dorn.
The bulk of the IAC funding, which takes months to approve, is slated to bring and house Christopher Smith, a choreographer from the Chicago area. Christopher is a member of the Deaf community and is the only deaf artist that IAC has ever added to their list of eligible resident artists (which they did expressly at Diane’s request). He comes highly recommended by Stephen Buescher, who met and worked with him while both were members of Sunshine Too at NTID. West Side Story will require nine weeks of rehearsals, and Christopher will need a place to stay during that period. The IAC grant is intended to cover these costs as well as his fee as an artist-in-residence. Diane has modified the grant application to cover one other position: an interpreter, who will need to be on hand when deaf performers attend rehearsal. Whether this role will be filled by one person or by a pool of interpreters who will rotate from night to night is not mentioned in the grant proposal.