When we met Sheryl Kaller, director of the Pasadena Playhouse's new production of "Our Town," it was hard not to notice her use of the word, hear, when describing the message of Thornton Wilder's 1937 play: "We don't have to be this society where we are constantly agreeing. But we have to hear each other."
Kaller's choice of words was noticeable because the show features members of the Deaf West Theatre company.
Wilder's play is set in a small town during the industrial revolution. It tells the story of the town characters as they change over the period of time from 1901-13. According to Keller:
It was at a time where this country was changing. And what [Wilder] wanted us to do is to hang on to what's important to us. Regardless of whether you believed in industrialization, regardless of whether you believed in assimilation, you realized, Oh, we are living in this time when people are on two opposite sides of a line. And the beauty of living together is maybe not crossing the line, but hearing well enough, moving the line in order to cohabitate.
It was novel for Kaller and the Playhouse to team up with Deaf West Theatre, an astounding company of deaf and hearing-impaired actors based in Los Angeles. Deaf West has been part of two shows that went to Broadway and were subsequently nominated for Tony Awards: “Big River” in 2003 and “Spring Awakening” in 2015.
As with all Deaf West productions, every line is delivered in American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English. The deaf actors are paired with speaking actors. (Jane Kaczmarek plays the Stage Manager.) Kaller says:
[The dual casting] is about community — which is kind of what "Our Town" is about. When you have to pair two people to play a singular unit, necessity becomes the mother of invention. You are completely reinventing the way that you're presenting these characters. And, as a director, sometimes you want to pay attention to the voice and sometimes you want the voice to disappear.
Kaller had never worked with Deaf West and she's not conversant in ASL. "I do not sign very well," she says. Instead, she relies on interpreters to talk with the actors, making it fascinating to observe a rehearsal.
Kaller says ASL is made for the stage: "They say in theater [that] you have to get it past the footlights and still feel intimate." Working with actors performing in American Sign Language takes the theatrical mandate to another level. "Everything that one would think about hearing is put into their hands. Therefore, there's a synergy and a beautiful intimate largess to the language."
To hear the full conversation with Sheryl Kaller click the play button at the top of this page. "Our Town" is at the Pasadena Playhouse through Oct. 22.