When Next to Normal opens at Ground Floor Theatre on Dec. 5, most of the roles will be performed simultaneously by two actors – one performing in English and one performing in American Sign Language.
It’s something Ground Floor’s artistic director, Lisa Scheps, has wanted to do for several years. Now, thanks to a collaboration with Deaf Austin Theatre, she’s been able to make it happen.
“Since we started Ground Floor Theatre, which has a mission of producing works by and for underrepresented communities, [I] have wanted to do a show with the deaf community,” says Scheps. “Back in 2015 … I wanted to do that. And then when I brought some people in and started talking about what’s really required to work with a fully inclusive deaf cast, and doing things both in English and American Sign Language, I learned that it’s a huge job, much bigger than I could ever hope to do.”
Brian Cheslik laughs when Scheps mentions the amount of hard work involved. He’s a theater teacher at Texas School for the Deaf and the co-artistic director of Deaf Austin Theatre, so he’s got a bit of experience directing plays in ASL.
“I am deaf myself, so I know what it’s like … to work with deaf actors in ASL,” he says, adding that it creates a real challenge to make sure all the cast and crew, both hearing and deaf, can communicate with each other at all times. “Interpreters basically are dancing during rehearsals all around the room to make sure that everybody can see them at all times. So it’s a beautiful, beautiful, strategic dance that is happening every day during rehearsal.”
Riley Wesson is the only actor who’s performing his character alone; without a counterpart performing the role in ASL, he’s had to get some signing lessons from Cheslik.
“It’s actually been a really great acting tool to me as well,” Wesson says. “It’s really informed a lot of my acting choices … the signs themselves have their own kind of life to them. It’s a beautiful language and it’s really lovely to get to learn a tiny bit of it.”
Cheslik says that Next to Normal is a show he’s been hoping to direct for a while.
“I saw the original production and it’s always been one of my favorites,” he says. “And as any director does, we always have a list of shows we want to do at some point.”
When Scheps approached him about the partnership, he was eager to take on this musical and to help showcase some of Austin’s deaf actors.
“We need more opportunities for deaf actors,” he says. “Deaf Austin Theatre was created about two years ago, and this will help show more people that you can work with deaf actors. Often, even if there is a deaf character in an play, a movie, a TV show, they tend to go ahead and hire a hearing actor anyway.”
Scheps agrees. “We get so much when we are working with deaf actors, or any actors that may not fit what you may think of as stereotypically ‘normal,’” she says. “So I would challenge other theater companies out there to open your mind to things that you’re not thinking of. So if a deaf actor walks in, or if an actor in a wheelchair comes in and auditions for you, just take that extra moment to think, yeah, that could work in this role.”