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'Our Town' actor Russell Harvard says any play can be done in American Sign Language




(L-R): David Gautreux, Harold Foxx, Russell Harvard and Marie France Arcilla in Our Town at Pasadena Playhouse.
(L-R): David Gautreux, Harold Foxx, Russell Harvard and Marie France Arcilla in Our Town at Pasadena Playhouse.
Jenny Graham

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Russell Harvard recently played the hitman Mr. Wrench in the FX series, "Fargo." The television star is also a veteran of the stage, now starring in a new production of "Our Town."

Harvard plays Mr. Webb and shares the role of the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's classic American drama, produced by Pasadena Playhouse and Deaf West Theatre, a company that performs simultaneously in American Sign Language and spoken English. Deaf West staged an adaptation of the musical "Spring Awakening" in 2015, which Harvard also performed in on Broadway.

Russell Harvard, Alexandria Wailes and Troy Kotsur in Our Town at Pasadena Playhouse.
Russell Harvard, Alexandria Wailes and Troy Kotsur in Our Town at Pasadena Playhouse.
Jenny Graham

Harvard was born deaf and has been acting since childhood. His feature film debut was as the adult version of Daniel Day-Lewis' son in Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood."

In the FX series "Fargo," a TV adaptation of the 1996 Coen brothers' film created by Noah Hawley, Harvard plays Mr. Wrench, one of two hitmen who pursues Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) in season one. He resurfaces in the third season as  a partner-in-crime to the protagonist Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).

Adam Goldberg, Martin Freeman and Russell Harvard in FX's
Adam Goldberg, Martin Freeman and Russell Harvard in FX's "Fargo."
Chris Large/FX

Russell Harvard was joined by an interpreter when he spoke with The Frame's John Horn at the Pasadena Playhouse. Below are some highlights from the conversation.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

Is there something about "Our Town" and "Spring Awakening" that are useful for a company like Deaf West to mount? Do they translate better than other plays might?

No, any play can be done in American Sign Language. There's no limitation, there's no barriers. But I do know there's some songs that are impossible to translate like, for example, Tori Amos, the singer. What the ****? I mean, how the hell are you going to translate her music, right? It's, like, out there.

If we were to watch your rehearsal process, what would we notice that is different in terms of how you know you're doing good work and how other actors who might be hearing can speak to you?

Laughter's important. That means we're doing our job, when we see the laughter and we see each other laugh. And I think actors, we listen with our eyes. Most of the actors are reliant on their sound. They forget to look with their eyes. And lately we've been doing that more. We're becoming more aware.

Jane Kaczmarek and Troy Kotsur in Our Town at Pasadena Playhouse.
Jane Kaczmarek and Troy Kotsur in Our Town at Pasadena Playhouse.
Jenny Graham

When you were growing up, was there a performance or a play you saw that made acting something you wanted to do?

When I was a kid, I watched my cousin in "The Wizard of Oz" as the witch. I said, I want to be her. I want to be the witch. We had to create our own Christmas performances so we created this play, and I said, I want to be the witch. They said, You can't be a witch. You're a boy. I'm like, I can be a male witch! So it happened.

I remember my dad saw the show and he said, Why are you a girl? I said, Because I wanted to. Playing the villain, I've been passionate about that. So when I received Mr. Wrench in "Fargo," it was a dream come true.

I want to ask about something that you said not that long ago: We need writers and casting directors to be fearless in working with actors who happen to be deaf. I'm a little bit exhausted to be called in a category of deaf performers. Do hearing actors have a category of their own apart from A-list, B-list, D-list?

That's exactly right ... I'm an actor. Not an actor who happens to be hearing or an actor who happens to be deaf. And that's why I'm keeping the writer of "Fargo," Noah Hawley, I'm keeping him close because he's my ally. We need more allies. Unfortunately, we live in this world where they're always labeling us — deaf or ethnic.

Sandra Mae Frank, Annika Marks and Marco Gutierrez in
Sandra Mae Frank, Annika Marks and Marco Gutierrez in "Our Town" at Pasadena Playhouse.
Jenny Graham

Just as there are wheelchair ramps in theaters, are there ways in which non-hearing audiences can enjoy everything that hearing people can?

We see slight baby steps. I can go to any movie at anytime I want now. I just saw "It" twice with captioning. Oh, it was amazing. I want to go for a third time. I'm not left behind anymore. I laugh at the same time with the audience. I appreciate more when we have the technology and be able to read throughout the show. I remember watching "Wicked" for the third time with eye caption. I was blown away. I couldn't believe it. I didn't laugh after the audience — I laughed with the audience. It was simultaneous and so it was amazing.

To hear John Horn's full interview with Russell Harvard, click on the player above.



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