Staging the play, “Children of a Lesser God” last week was no easy task for the people at Henry Ford Community College.
As the drama’s setting is in and near a school for the deaf, director George Popovich wanted to make the play as authentic as possible. To do this, he cast deaf people in two of the main roles and had another lead performer spend six months learning American Sign Language (ASL).
Popovich said his desire for authenticity as well as an unfamiliarity with working with deaf people proved to be a difficult but rewarding experience for him as well as the entire cast and crew.
The initial problem for Popovich was how to stage the play.
“The original production wasn’t done for a deaf audience,” Popovich said. “It didn’t have interpreters for the deaf. The script says for a professional production to use deaf performers, but it doesn’t say anything about how amateur shows should do it.
“I could have gone with a hearing actress for the part of Sarah (the main character), but I would have had a lot of problems,” he continued. “The show probably would have been picketed. Besides, deaf people, with their sign language, tend to be naturally theatrical.
Besides casting two deaf actresses, Popovich opted to have interpreters sign the speaking parts to the audience when the characters weren’t signing their lines, something not usually done with this play.
Work on the show officially began in May, when the play was cast. Before auditions were held, Popovich looked for people to help with the signing and to act as interpreters on the show.
“I found four people who knew sign language who were interested, but when they saw the script, they all literally said goodbye,” Popovich said. “The script was just too much for them to handle
He finally called Mary Wells, who was the speech consultant for the Attic Theatre’s production of the same show in 1981. When he called her, he got her roommate, Kim Willett, a nationally certified sign language interpreter. It was Willett who became the consultant for Popovich’s show.
“I found her at the last minute, just before auditions,” Popovich said. “I’m glad we found her. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have had anyone to help us on that part of the show.”
When auditions came around, Popovich had several people try out for the seven roles. Michelle Lytle, a deaf student at Madonna College who was the final choice for Sarah, was one of about 10 actresses trying out for the part. Only two of the actresses were deaf.
Once Lytle was cast, there was the problem of find the right “James” to play with her. The character James is a teacher at the school for the deaf who comes to love and eventually marry Sarah.
Enter Jeff Simms, whose big hope when he tried out was to get a role, any role, in the show. Popovich and Willett saw that Simms and Lytle seemed to interact well with each other. “They had a chemistry all of their own,” Popovich said.
As a result, Simms was given the lead male role of James.
“Jeff and Michelle got along real well,” said Willett. “Sometimes, there were no interpreters on stage, but Jeff would need to tell Michelle something. Between his signing and her reading his lips, they communicated to each other very well.”
Preparing for the show was a major project for the entire troupe. Popovich read several books on the history of the deaf community. He saw several deaf theatre plays. He interpreted and re-interpreted the script for his needs and limitations, much more so than for a typical show.
At one point, he had to throw out his entire blocking plan and reblocked the show in the middle of rehearsals.
“I discovered I couldn’t have the cast walking and signing at the same time,” Popovich said. “If they walked while they signed, it distracted from the signing. I had to throw out almost all of my blocking and start all over with a very simplified blocking.”
When Simms was given the lead male role in the show, he had no idea how much was involved in preparing for his part. He started taking sign language classes in June. Yet, despite six months of classes, “All I really know in sign language now is what is in the show,” Simms said.
The classes have had their effect on Simms, however. When he talks, he now has a tendency to sign as he talks.
“I’ll be talking and signing at the same time,” Simms said. “Friends will look at me and say, ‘What are you doing?’ I never realized how complicated sign language really is. It really is a beautiful language.
“It’s like what Sarah says in her speech at the end of the show: What a deaf person can say with one sign can reflect a meaning which would take a hearing person 50 words to explain,” Simms said.
The cast adjusted very well,” said Willett. “If there were interpreters there, they would sign for other people. If there weren’t, the cast would use what sign language they knew and Michelle and Nancy (McCall (the other deaf actress) would read their lips and they found a way to communicate.”
In the middle of rehearsals, Popovich ran into a problem of his own.
“I got really scared, because I realized what I was into,” Popovich said. The director was facing a number of unique problems he had never dealt with before, among them, the problem of the translation of the stage directions.
“When the interpreters would translate to Michelle what I wanted, I wasn’t sure she would really understand what I wanted,” Popovich said. “It’s like translating from English to French or any other language. The translation is always approximate.”
Just as there were problems for the hearing members of the troupe in dealing with the deaf, Michelle had problems dealing with a hearing company as well.
“Sometimes, everyone would be talking, but there’d be no interpreters around, so I wouldn’t know what the people were saying,” Lytle said.
The constant use of interpreters was the cause of a major mistake by Popovich.
“After awhile, I did a big faux pas. I started telling the interpreter to ‘tell her to do this’ and ‘tell her to do that.’ I was told that was not a cool thing to do. You talk directly to the person, not like they weren’t really there,” Popovich said.
Another embarrassing experience Popovich had involved trying to figure out how to give Lytle stage directions, such as having to speak toward the end of the show.
“George asked me if Michelle would mind doing certain things,” Willett said. “I told him to just ask Michelle. She’s a normal person and she’ll decide for herself if she feels uncomfortable doing something.”
As it turned out, Lytle did the speaking in the show on her own, because she read the stage directions in the script calling for her character to do that, Popovich said.
Popovich also managed to communicate some of what he wanted directly to Lytle.
“I physically showed her what I wanted,” Popovich said. “I went the full spectrum, from showing her the facial expressions I wanted to how I wanted her to roll on the floor.”
Simms found his own new problems with which to contend.
“In normal theatre, when you have an emotional scene, you say your lines with the left half of your brain, and give the emotion with the right half,” he said. “For example, to get the right emotion, you might imagine what it would be like to see one of your friends lying dead in a casket.
“In this play, there’s a scene where I have to recall my mother’s suicide,” Simms went on. “I would say my lines with the left side of my brain. I would sign my lines to Sarah with the right side of my brain. I didn’t have any sides of my brain left to think about my friend lying dead in the casket.
“The only way I was able to do the scene was by really becoming the character,” Simms said. “That was the one thing I learned from this play that I wouldn’t have otherwise is how to absorb myself into a character so I wouldn’t have to recall a scene to get the needed emotion. I would just automatically do it.”
“I really enjoyed it a lot,” Lytle said. “I feel like everyone is a part of my family. I’ll miss them, probably more than I realize now.”
Lytle did have a small role before a deaf theatre production of “Cinderella,” but this was her first time in a major role. It also was her first time in dealing with hearing theatre. After this experience, she said she is a lot more comfortable with hearing theatre.
“I feel very enlightened after all this,” Simms said. “The deaf community is like a separate world. One of the hardest things was trying to get American English and (sign language) to connect together. They each have their own idioms.”
Simms attributed the success of the show to Lytle , Popovich, and the rest of the cast.