How Michael Jackson Influenced My Acting Process

Posted by A Quiet Man with a Loud Voice | Labels: , , , , , | Posted On Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 10:47 AM

It’s been a while since I posted last and a lot has happened since then – but not all of it has been good. Shortly after posting the entry entitled “The Breakdown” I went off to an even worse rehearsal. I’m convinced I jinxed it. I’m not going to delve any more into it – because we had enough negativity floating around last week.

I am happy to report, however, that things have moved into a tremendously positive direction since then. We’re only slightly behind where we should be, and the rehearsals these last three days have all been gigantic leaps forward. Which is a good sign – tech week (sometimes known as Hell week) starts on Monday and we open on Friday. Boy, time just flew right on by.

Anyways, there are a few things I noticed at rehearsals that I wanted to expand upon for the purposes of this blog…

And they are the challenges in staging a play with Deaf actors.

(Note: I struggled for the better part of a day to find a word that fit what I’m trying to express. The word challenge makes it seem as if putting Deaf actors in a play is just asking for trouble. It’s not. To paraphrase Chuck Palahniuk, “Challenges is not the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind.”)

I’ve been acting onstage for nearly all my life. I first stepped in front of an audience at the age of eight and as I grew older I began to notice things in the theatre world that hearing actors take for granted.

First: Cues.

What is a Deaf actor to do when his cue is given and for some reason or another, he cannot make out what is being said? There are three solutions.

The first option is the use of lighting changes. Light design is one of the most important and underappreciated technical aspects of a show. And because lighting is so necessary for to establish mood and setting – this option is not always available. It’s usually my cue for an entrance at the beginning of the scene or a scene shift, but beyond that, it can’t be used for anything else or you risk unsettling the audience as they wonder why the hell the lights are flickering all over the place.

So instead you move on to the second option, physical cues. By the end of the rehearsal process most actors have begun to lock down speech patterns, body language, and blocking to a semi-permanent state. There may be subtle variations in the movement, but for the most part it remains the same. In one instance, I was seated at the far end of the stage while a conversation between a pair of actors was going on at the other side. My cue was to approach the duo from across the stage. But the problem was both actors were seated and not facing me for dramatic reasons. So I could neither see their lips nor read their body language. Instead I approached the actress who would be delivering the line directly before mine and asked her to make a small in-character movement with her hand. Once I saw her tuck her hair behind her ear, I knew that was my cue to approach and I could continue on as normal.

The third method tends to be the method I utilize the most. But first I think I need to a little more detail about my type of hearing loss.

I have a moderately severe to severe hearing loss in both ears caused by nerve damage. What this means is that without the help of my hearing aids I am essentially deaf to the world. I can hear loud sounds like the El train passing nearby, but for the most part I am unable to comprehend much of anything. With my hearing aids in the range of my hearing is dramatically increased to the point where I can hear voices. I, however, am not able to pick up the subtle variations in voices that make a person’s speech patterns unique. I have a general idea of what a British accent sounds like (and I can duplicate it poorly) but I cannot tell the difference between Ian McKellan and Michael Caine based solely on their voice. I’ll probably recognize the hanging vowels as British, but beyond that – I’d be clueless.

I also read lips (though not very well) and combine lip reading with what I can hear to understand what people are talking about. While I can probably figure out what you’re saying just by relying on lip reading (though again, I’m not very good at it) – it is highly unlikely that I’ll be able to comprehend you if I was unable to see your lips. It’ll sound like incoherent mumbling. Imagine Chewbacca with a muzzle on and you’ve got the gist of it.

There is an exception, however, and it’s something I discovered by accident when I was very young. My very first music album was a copy of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, which I listened to for hours on end. I’d follow along with the lyrics he helpfully printed out in the cover notes, and dance (badly) and sing (even badly-er) along. One day I was riding along in the car and a Michael Jackson song came on, and I found I could hear every single word he was saying – because I had memorized all the lyrics. The sounds made sense – I couldn’t read his lips, but I knew exactly what he was saying.

"Holy crap!" I said to myself, "so this is the secret to enjoying music! Memorize the lyrics!"

A couple years later, after I finally got a big role in a children’s theatre production, I found that I was having trouble picking up my line cues for various reasons and I hit upon the solution. It’s not enough for a Deaf actor to just memorize his lines and the line cues – he must memorize the entire show. Or at least the entirety of the scenes he is in.

Shakespeare’s the easiest to memorize, the iambic pentameter and rhymes lend itself to quick retention. Harold Pinter? Good luck. Random changes of pacing, stilted dialogue, and other such nonsense just drives me insane. I can still remember entire sections of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but ask me to recite a line from a performance of God of Hell by Sam Shepard and I’ll be hard pressed to come up with anything more than a single line or two.

On the plus side, when someone screws up – I’m usually able to improvise a line to get the show back on track since I know everyone’s cues and I have used this several times over the past dozen years or so. On the negative side, it’s just a lot of work and I probably would have quit the theatre a long time ago if I didn’t enjoy it as much as I do.

There it is, three ways to help bring Deaf actors into the mainstream theatre world. Well, three ways to include Deaf actors who communicate primarily through speech. When you have Deaf actors that communicate primarily through sign, it’s a different set of rules – but can lead to some very interesting possibilities. And that is one of the reasons I’m enjoying the process of the show so much – watching how artists who communicate almost exclusively through sign has been a fascinating experience for me.

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