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National Forum on Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities

Keynote Addresses:
Phyllis Frelich

Monday, June 15, 1998 (8:45 AM EDT)


Tim McCarty

It is my pleasure to introduce our next speaker, who has gone to great lengths to be with us tonight. (Flew in from Los Angeles on the red-eye.) I'd like to introduce [Gordon Davidson], [a man who] has led the Mark Taper Forum as its artistic director throughout its 31-year history and guided more than 250 major productions to the Taper stage. In 1994 in New York, three of the four Tony Award nominations for best play were for plays developed and produced by the Taper: Angels in America, Part Two - Perestroika, The Kentucky Cycle, and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. In addition to his position at the Taper, he is in his eighth season as the artistic director/producer of the Ahmanson Theatre. Ladies and gentlemen, Gordon Davidson.

Gordon Davidson

Thank you. That was funny hearing your biography rolled out before you. Made me think of the most important two things in my life that bring me here: the opening of this building in 1971, [and my work with the Mark Taper Forum]....

[The Mark Taper Forum is] dedicated to the proposition that theater must reflect in every possible way the complexity of life and the diversity of society and of the people that live in it. This is easy to say and hard to do, but it has to begin at least with a commitment, and so over the years we have done a live variety of material for the theater, introducing new talent and new ideas, hoping to break down some barriers and attempting to say to first of all the community of artists, second of all the community at large in Los Angeles and to the rest of the nation and the world that theater means something. It matters. It's of the moment. It preserves the past. It celebrates the present, and it brings about the future. And it's those elements that conform the work that I do and my colleagues do.

...It's an honor to be here. I celebrate with the Kennedy Center and the National Endowment for the Arts and the agencies that helped make this event happen because I feel you are addressing in a very positive way solutions to problems. We all know what the problems are. But how to find solutions to increasing access, to giving self-inspiration to a large idea of artists is crucial, crucial to the health of the theater and to the people who make theater and the people who attend theater.

For me, of course, one of the defining plays that I was fortunate enough to be able to do was a play called Children of a Lesser God by Mark Metlow. Little did I know [when I began work on this production] that this was a play that [would take] over a great part of my life, but more importantly, [would come to mean] so much to so many people. Its journey began with my introduction to Liz Frelich and her husband, Bob Steinburg, and to a community of artists who were already working to make theater, especially my good friend, David Hayes, who founded the National Theatre of the Deaf. We began a journey which of course led us to Broadway, around the United States, to London, and many other places. The remarkable thing about this was that in telling simple truths about, in giving voice, you might say, to the voiceless, in conventional terms, it really changed the way I look at what's possible to do in the theater and what's necessary to do in the theater. And it came a great deal from this singular talent, Liz Frelich. We made a journey together.

I regret I never really learned Sign. I spoke from my heart, and with my eyes and my hands in many different ways, and [with all of these elements] we found a way to communicate [despite the language barrier]. I learned a lot, I think [I even learned some things] which have helped me in the hearing world, too. I learned that I didn't complete my sentences. I would watch the [Sign interpreter] stop and wait for me to go on - I didn't realize that I had been doing this! I learned, and I think we learned together, how necessary it is to focus, how necessary it is to listen, and how rude it is to interrupt, and finally, how no matter what the language is, whether it's Sign language, language of movement, [or whatever the language] that communication, when it's true, when it's honest, when it comes from inside, can be understood by everyone. Now, the difficulty, and the thing that I'm still left with is what do we do next? How do we go on? What are the important things to follow up on? I feel even after 31 years that the job is incomplete, the challenges are still there, and that's why I came here tonight, and that's why it gives me great, great pleasure to present to you a distinguished actress, Phyllis Frelich.


Phyllis Frelich

Thank you very much. It is so good to see you. I thank the organizers of this event for giving us a chance to visit with each other. I'll tell you a story. I really am honored to be here at this momentous gathering. It's so good to see so many old friends and have the opportunity to make new ones. When I was first approached about addressing this gathering, a conference on careers in the arts for people with disabilities, my first response was what careers? Well, they said okay, tell us about that, tell us what it's been like trying to have a career as a dumb actress all of these years. What did it used to be like? What changes have you seen and what would you like to see? Well, like the old joke goes, I have some good news and some bad news. Of course, let me start at the beginning. My own beginning. About 35 years ago when I first came to Washington, D.C., this wide-eyed young girl from North Dakota to become a student at Gallaudet University, I never could imagine that I would be doing what I am doing right now, that there would be a gathering such as this. I came to Gallaudet, at that time the only place where a deaf person could get a higher education because I wanted something more. It didn't take me long before I found I liked the theater department, got bitten by the acting bug, but I was disappointed to find that there was no degree offered for a deaf person in theater at that time. No career opportunities for people were largely available. So I didn't know what to do. Well, all my friends told me that library science was the best choice for a deaf woman. Because then I could follow my deaf husband wherever he would get hired and hopefully at some state school for the deaf and then I could work at their library. Okay, so I graduated from Gallaudet with a library science degree in my hand, dreams of acting in my heart, and no husband to follow.

It was then to my great good fortune that David Hayes, the founder and artistic director of the National Theatre of the Deaf, came and saw me at one of Gallaudet University productions and asked me to become one of the funding members of his company. Dave, at that time, you didn't know sign language. He just wanted a new form of theater. He had no social or political agenda. He simply saw sign language as ultimately purely theatrical. So the National Theatre of the Deaf was the first professional deaf theater company ever. And used sign language in ways that made it accessible to both the hearing and the deaf audiences. That was the time that I first began to feel that sign language finally was coming out in front.

One of the things that NTD understood right from the beginning was that they would have to accept responsibility for training their own people because there was no history of professional deaf theater. There was no pool of deaf actors, no training programs they could tap. So they started their professional summer school, training program, and NTD has trained hundreds of designers, directors, teachers, and has been the inspiration behind the formation of several other sign language theater companies all over the world. NTD has also branched out to new programs such as the national and worldwide conference, whose purpose is to encourage the development of deaf writers. There are now at least four professional resident sign language theater companies in the United States run by staff primarily by deaf people. That might not sound like very much, but for me, it represents an improvement of 400 percent.

Last year, for example, I appeared in one play and directed another for Deaf West, a theater company in Los Angeles, and I just recently returned for six weeks in Cleveland, where I worked in a new one-character play produced by Cleveland science stage theater which was directed by the deaf. How wonderful it is to have this modest little network of deaf theater companies now where we deaf actors can practice our craft. No one is getting rich but with a little bit of support from the government and frankly they are maintaining, growing, they grow from year to year, and I would have to tell you there are powerful sources of pride, they are a powerful source of pride within their communities. Of course, my own work has not always been limited to deaf-run theater companies. Like many other NTD alumni, my training, my experience, my work with both the deaf and hearing professionals gave me the confidence to become involved in various experimental projects, often as the only deaf person in the company. The most memorable, of course, was when I first met the playwright, Mark. I was his first deaf person. He knew that I was an actor. He asked me what kinds of roles I had been doing. I explained that, we deaf actors mostly worked on conventional plays adapted for sign language, that there simply were no roles written for a deaf actor.

All right, he said, and he just learned signs, I'll write one for you. Sure you will, I thought to myself, and I walked out. Just about two years after that conversation, I found myself on Broadway in Children of a Lesser God. Of course, it wasn't that easy. There were a few things in between, but I am still amazed at the number of circumstances, the connections that had to be made in order for that to take place.

First of all, if I understand this correctly, the Mark Taper Forum had just received a grant which is strange -- the Mark Taper Forum had just received a grant. One of the plays that was in that season had just dropped out. They had an opening for us. Mostly, though, it took tremendous courage on the part of Gordon Davidson to take a chance on this play. The subject was so raw. I mean, if you could see the version that we brought him compared to the one that ended up in New York, you would understand what I'm talking about. I'm only guessing, but I would say that perhaps 75 percent of the play changed utterly. Something like six characters were cut from the original version. And it was Gordon who guided Mark through endless rewrites on the road to the reformation of this play. Courage and vision. About 40 years have passed and this play is still being produced all over the world. Actors have been applauded, millions of hearing people have been sensitized, and of course, there was the film version which reached countless millions more. I spoke before of my work in Los Angeles, and they are done in sign language and spoken English, are audiences are 85 percent hearing and we have auditions for productions, we get at least four times as many hearing actors as deaf auditioning. We do use some voice actors in very production. Most of us studied language, or want to learn sign language. They all think it's beautiful. They can't wait to learn or to use what they have already learned on stage. What a remarkable turn of events.

When I was growing up, sign language wasn't even considered to be a language. It was thought to be just this rough gesture, form of communication used by those that weren't intelligent enough to learn to speak. Even schools for the deaf had very little respect for somebody. When I was little, my teacher would slap my hand with a ruler if I were caught signing in class. So much has changed in my lifetime. It took a dramatic student revolt, but Gallaudet University has had a deaf president for 10 years now, and as a result of that, there are many deaf superintendents at deaf schools all over the country. Deaf students can now attend any number of colleges and universities. The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that interpreters are available to them everywhere. Gallaudet is no longer the only choice for a deaf person to go on to higher education. Sign language is offered in so many schools, colleges, universities now, hearing people are more aware of deaf people in their workplace.

In addition to all of that, I'm pleased to announce that Gallaudet does now offer a degree not only in theater but in television and film as well. And in my heart, I know that part of this interest is attitude change and this world of sensitivity and awareness on the part of hearing people towards deaf people and their language can be attributed to our artistic presence. Our ability to designate the artistic beauty of our people with the beauty of our language in a public forum. Theater has helped form a bridge between the two worlds. We are so fortunate to be able to educate while we entertain. Which is precisely why I think it is so important that we find ways to encourage today's young people to express themselves through the arts. I honestly believe that just a little bit of money, support for a workshop to help deaf students would do so much more good than a whole lot more money being poured down that social welfare drain. Remember what I said, you could say that's just a little bit of money to help attract deaf audience members at the forum led to the success of Children of a Lesser God and for me, of course, children led to everything else. The wonderful hallmark hall of fame film, Love is Never Silent in which I was pleased to appear, that was around for years until one of the producers saw Children of a Lesser God on Broadway and then the film finally got made. There have been a lot of changes since I joined NTD all those years ago. And I feel very fortunate to have been part of the entire history of deaf theater in America. All 30 years of it. That's it. That's how young we are. And even though there have been lots of successes, we still do have a long ways to go before we are accepted in the entertaining industry as a whole.

Other than the National Theatre of the Deaf, I know of only two deaf actors in the business who are actually making a living at it, and as for myself, in my 30 years, I have actually worked steadily and made a proper living in only two years, those two wonderful years on Broadway when I was in Children of a Lesser God. Perhaps the most important thing I can tell you is that after Children of a Lesser God closed, I was entirely without work for the next two years. Not the usual thing for a Tony award winner. And then when I did go back to work, it was on another new play written for me by Mark and directed by Gordon Davidson. With minor exceptions, hardly anyone other than Mark has shown much of an interest in writing for deaf actors and of course, I consider myself to be extremely fortunate. Mark has so far written five or six projects for me, some that get produced, some have not, but he continues to try. God bless him. After the success of the film of Children, Mark and I run around and try to sell story ideas, some film ideas to various studios in Los Angeles. We got nowhere. I'll never forget one young film executive to listened to our pitch, gave us this puzzled look and said look, there already was a deaf film. That really is undervalued for high talent. Many, many able-bodied actors such as Dustin Hoffman, John Voight, Patty Duke, Daniel Day Lewis, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Holly Hunter, all of them have played disabled characters and if I'm not mistaken, all of them either won or were at least nominated for the Oscar. The message from your entertainment business and movie industry seems to be disability is made for heart-tugging dramas, award-winning characters, hurry up, get yours while you can. That's what made me think about my Tony award. I wondered how clearly people actually see me, appreciate and understand my work. I like to think that we deaf and disabled performers are overpraised or misunderstood or simply patronized. It's the secret fear of every one of us. There is not a darn thing you can do about it. We just have to go on and pursue our art the best way we can and let other people's perceptions of us be their problem.

And still, every once in a while, some small roles, minor roles for deaf actors do show up from time to time in TV and film, and all too often we have to fight the same old battle to prevent some hearing actor from pretending to be deaf. We fight because they are the only roles that are available to us. I believe in principle that any actor should be able to play any role that he can play. But not until the entertainment industry is ready to make broader use of their actors that I feel -- I'm sure that every disabled forum, every minority actually feels the same way when they think about how their own roles are portrayed.

Whatever is meant by nontraditional casting, it has had little or no effect on my life. They aren't that much better than they are in television or film. I can tell you that I have never once been invited by any professional theater to do a traditional role in a nontraditional way. And I'm not asking for anything inappropriate. I never liked to watch when so-called nontraditional casting goes too far, and for example, the biological son of two white parents would be cast with an Asian actor or something. This kind of thing just raises more questions than answers. It has to make sense. It has to come back to some intelligent concept.

At best, nontraditional casting can be a fresh insight into a traditional script. Why not, for example, a production of The Glass Menagerie where Laura's little problem is actual that she is deaf? Or am I too old to play Laura? But if anybody is interested, I'll ask for your ideas. In the long run, the only way to really integrate the deaf actor into American theater is to integrate sign language into American theater, the deaf audience into American theater. The only way for truly nontraditional casting to become the norm rather than the exception is for all of us, for all minorities, [to become involved in the creation of theatrical art]. Only when that happens will theater and the media truly reflect the diversity that is important in society.

I have come to understand that the bottom line for us is that we disabled people in general, disabled artists in particular, we are just not very important in the eyes of those people in power. All political correctness aside, at the end of the day, they find it very easy to dismiss us.

A few months ago, I was invited to Sign the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in San Diego. I was thrilled. The opportunity to be seen by what could be the largest television audience in history was thrilling. After rehearsal Friday afternoon I was disappointed to learn that I would not share the screen with Jewel, that woman who was going to sing the anthem, but I was going to this little box over at the corner of the screen. That unattractive device that was old a long time ago. After rehearsal, they came to me and said we don't like the way this looks. I said "Neither do I." There are other ways, there are better ways, there are more attractive ways, superimpose the images, cross between the singer and the signer, let's try a different set. No, they said, we are cutting it from the telecast, but, but, but, you are welcome to show up at the stadium and sign for the people there if you wish. The next two days were spent mostly on the telephone with agents, producers, TV executives: "Think, think, think about the 22 million deaf people and their friends. You are dismissing 50 million disabled people." It had no impact. I almost went home in disgust, but finally I decided that the most professional thing I could do was show up, and do what I was hired to do. And damn if they chose not to show it. It's not the first time. It won't be the last. I can't think of a better example of how very important we are in the eyes of those people. I can only hope that Mr. Dick Ebersol, head of NBC sports, will live to feel similarly like me.

Yes, it still happens. It's important to know that the world is full of situations and people like the one I just described, and I know that there are many, many people in this room tonight who have had similar experiences. But we can never let them beat us. At least not in important ways. As I stand here tonight, I know that we have made tremendous efforts, the changes can't always be big and dramatic, things like Children of a Lesser God, that can only happen once, but I know that the best way to continue to progress, to continue to do what we have been doing, and if anyone doubts that, all you have to do is look around that room. The product of the skills and commitment of this group of people can change more attitudes and open more doors than 10 more laws of the ADA. If we do it the right way, through our heart, there is nowhere better than to have the public perception of us than to have us out there doing it, whatever it is. And I promise you all that I will continue doing my bit for as long as I'm allowed. And I thank you.

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