|Deaf Side Story|
Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets, and a Classic American Musical
From Santa Barbara News Press
Diane Brewster, who attended school in Santa Barbara and worked in our local theater, finished her doctorate in drama and landed a drama department chairat MacMurray College, a small and struggling school in Jacksonville, Ill. Onthe other side of town is the Illinois School for the Deaf, and her idea, fearless and a little brash, was to stage the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim musical “West Side Story” with a mixed cast of hearing and deaf actors.
This is a lively and innovative idea, but it hardly seems like sufficient fodder for a book. But not long into the production’s planning stages, Mark Rigney, Ms. Brewster’s husband, realized that the drama around the drama brought together cultures that rarely meet with the sustained intimacy the theater generates; he has put together a surprisingly interesting account of the dynamics that repeatedly created havoc and eventually came together to produce a successful and unusual production.
Mr. Rigney starts by setting the scene. Jacksonville has a thriving Daughters of the American Revolution group and is known for being the place where the portable Ferris wheel was invented. Its local Hardee’s franchise, known for drive-through biscuits and gravy, is hailed as the chain’s busiest. EMI presses compact discs there, Nestlé makes Cofffeemate, and Hefty turns out OneZip bags. Musical theater is not generally high on the local priority list.
The theater Ms. Brewster inherits isn’t really a theater. It’s an old cinder block dance studio, complete with mirrors and barre, used for years for fencing tournaments and then home to general storage. A serious cleaning and coat of black paint begin to make it acceptable, and an alumnus donates lights, but the small space is still difficult for a fully staged musical.
As in any academic-related endeavor, the meetings come first. The merging of agendas, needs and concerns are compounded here by the deaf community’s issues: Will deaf students portraying a minority street gang with violent tendencies be stereotyping? Will it create more prejudice or heighten the tension between deaf and hearing people? Tables are pounded and sign language translators keep their hands flying.
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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