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Deaf Side Story
Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets, and a Classic American Musical

Mark Rigney

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Read reviews: Santa Barbara News Press, The Boston Globe, SIGNews.


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From Santa Barbara News Press, cont’d.

       After all feathers are smoothed and everyone feels assured, the casting can begin. The now-pregnant Ms. Brewster engages Christopher Smith, a deaf choreographer, to work out routines for the production that are complicated by the fact that half the cast can hear neither music nor the tricky rhythms it requires. ISD has only 150 students, so inclusion means lowering the talent bar. Additionally, they are high schoolers often perceived as having attention spans even shorter than hearing students.

       After much debate, as Maria they cast Pearlene Jo Theriot, from a fifth-generation deaf family, whose plump knees are dimpled and who looks the Midwestern teenager she is. After an initially solid audition, Pearlene seems unable to remember lines or blocking, and then there is the fact that, profoundly deaf, she hates music—“a coded and mysterious world whose portals remain firmly shut against her.” Pearlene, after much trauma, manages “to cross a cultural divide of enormous proportions”; she turns herself around and becomes not only a solid performer but a fierce cheerleader for the production.

       Forbearance, doggedness, innovation and luck slowly begin to pay off, and despite multiple abandonments and myriad unforeseen difficulties, the two communities work together and the production starts to take shape. With the fortuitous addition of a master signer, signing interpreters and shadowing voice actors eventually become integrated into the performance. Ticket sales, for the first time in years, are brisk and soon the run is oversold.

       Mr. Rigney not only does a good job of keeping all the volatile characters in the picture and of tracing the arc of the show’s trouble and progress, he also provides important information about the varieties and derivations of sign language the deaf community uses and much about the serious determination of that culture to define itself.

       Deaf Side Story proves itself to be a small and unlikely pleasure and an account of not only a momentary theatrical triumph of collaboration but a powerful and humbling learning experience for all those involved.

Mark Rigney is a writer whose stories have appeared in THEMA and The Bellevue Review, and whose plays have been staged at the Foothill Theatre Company, the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and the Alleyway Theatre. He lives in Evansville, IN.

ISBN 978-1-56368-145-5, 6 x 9 paperback, 232 pages


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