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Developing ASL-Centric “Not Another Deaf Story”

The cast of Not Another Deaf Story. Photo by Doug Engalla.

Inspired by the linguistic wordplay of American Sign Language and empowered by a Creative Capital grant, director Hilari Scarl worked with an ensemble of Deaf actors and artists to create the new multimedia theater experience Not Another Deaf Story.

In a darkly comical ghost story, eight Deaf people are summoned to an isolated cabin in the woods. Before the night ends, they will experience a haunting, reveal their most intimate stories, and face their deepest fears.

This developmental production, devised entirely in American Sign Language, will be made accessible by voicing actors for all audiences to enjoy. Scarl co-directs with Monique “Momo” Holt. We asked them about the development process.

Could you give a little background about your experience working with Deaf actors?

Hilari Scarl   My journey working with Deaf actors began as a voicing actor on tour with the National Theater of the Deaf. I spent nearly two years on a tour bus with some of the most talented actors I’d ever worked with. My passion to share the talents of these gifted actors and erase the misconceptions about the Deaf community ignited my journey to partner with Deaf artists in theater, film and television.

Monique “Momo” Holt   I am a Deaf individual who was adopted and raised by a Deaf family. My career has been focused on the theatrical industry, specifically within the Deaf community. I work alongside and for Deaf theatre groups, but also collaborate with hearing theatre companies that employ Deaf actors and creative teams.

As a professor at Gallaudet University, I teach courses within the Theatre and Dance program in which we produce both Deaf plays written by Deaf playwrights and traditional hearing plays and musicals. I teach my Deaf students how to find success in the theatre world despite any challenges they may face.

What inspired you to create this show, from the creative, to the financial, to other factors? 

Scarl   I was inspired by the richness of ASL storytelling, not only by the linguistic wordplay, but the authenticity of the content of the stories. I’m keenly aware of the cultural barriers and lack of opportunity for Deaf artists. I created an experimental 15-minute play at REDCAT devised in ASL by three Deaf performers that I then translated into English. I knew I had to do a full-length play, so I applied for a Creative Capital grant and was awarded the funds to cover the majority of this first stage of Not Another Deaf Story.

I immediately assembled my core team—Monique “MoMo” Holt as my co-director and Gail Winar as my Creative Producer. We supplemented the grant with a successful crowdfunding campaign on Seed&Spark, but it was the enormous generosity of Group Rep, who wrapped us into their season as a supplemental production, that made Not Another Deaf Story possible.

Why did you select a cabin in the woods and a scary theme for the show? 

Scarl   I always knew I wanted to have an ensemble of Deaf actors have an evening of diverse stories created through their own experiences, but wanted to weave these stories together with a narrative thread to make it captivating. I chose the theme of “fear” for this project since overcoming fear is something I felt was universally relatable, especially coming out of the pandemic.

I felt the most natural setting for a story based on fear would be a ghost story in an isolated cabin in the woods where we could layer frank discussions about things that scare us intertwined with some fantastical scary stories.

Do I understand that the show was developed completely in ASL, with voicing and other elements added later? Can you talk a little about that process?

Scarl   Sure! MoMo and I spent several months hashing out our outline over Zoom, and then had a week of intense pre-production where we sketched out the bones of our narrative foundation. The only wild card was the eight stories—one for each actor. We knew we wanted a different storytelling device for each story, and allowed the time and space for each actor to create their stories.

We spent a few days on character development, and every actor organically gravitated towards a handful of archetypes MoMo and I suggested, along with creating some completely unique characters drawn from their own experience.

All of our development period and rehearsals were in American Sign Language, including the improvisations that were used to create authentic dialogue.

Holt   The title Not Another Deaf Story came from Hilari. During the brainstorming process, Hilari wanted to focus on the theme of fear. I suggested a specific incident to serve as the basic structure of the storyline, which was later enhanced by the contributions of the eight Deaf stage cast members.

The Deaf film cast and voicing stage casts did not contribute to the story’s development. Hilari wrote the play, while I assisted in transcribing the Deaf stage cast’s ASL stories into English for the voicing stage actors. Hilari and Gail directed the voicing cast to ensure they matched the signed lines of the Deaf stage cast.

There were three sets of casts involved in the play: the stage cast, consisting of eight Deaf actors who performed live on stage, the voicing stage cast, which included eight hearing actors/interpreters who were visible but kept to the far side of the stage to allow the Deaf cast to take center stage, and the film cast, which was entirely Deaf.

How did the Lonny Chapman Theatre become the home for your show?

Scarl   Our Creative Producer Gail Winar connected us to Group Rep. I instantly fell in love with the theater and was completely smitten with the members. The Group Rep stands for everything a theater should be—a communal effort, a creative home, and a supportive atmosphere.

Talk a little about how the two of you have worked together in the past and how it led you to this project.

Scarl   MoMo and I met over 20 years ago. I always respected and admired her work as an actor and a director, and we exchanged creative ideas through the years as we both moved up in our careers. I cast MoMo in my music video for See What I’m Saying: The Deaf Entertainers Documentary.

MoMo stepped up to rehearse the Deaf actors in our outdoor fantasy scene, while I worked with our young Deaf actress inside the house location. I instantly saw her directing prowess, and her dance background was apparent in her choreography. MoMo is one of the smartest and most intuitive directors I know, and she is also one of the world’s most respected Directors of Artistic Sign Language (DASL).

Holt   I have collaborated with Hilari in the past, but this marks my first time working with her as a co-director. Hilari sought my assistance in bringing out the authentic voices of our Deaf cast.

What has it been like to work together on this project? How do your individual skills and perspectives mesh?

Scarl   MoMo and I have a flow to our collaboration, as we often share similar sensibilities. There’s definitely a give and take aspect, as we both come with different strengths. We have a strong mutual respect and healthy boundaries (ASL is MoMo’s territory, and the written English script and sound design are my areas), and we definitely challenge and push each other. It’s been an absolute joy to collaborate with someone who can make me laugh, make me think, and make me a better person.

Holt Hilari and I have different formal training and philosophy we use in theater and film works. I think it is very normal for a new team trying to find the rhythm of how to work together—the Jung model remains true: forming, storming, norming and performing. Come and see and let us know what you think. To remind you, this show is not a final production. It is still a “work in progress.”

There are five performances of Not Another Deaf Story between August 10 and 13: Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 pm at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd. in North Hollywood. General Admission tickets are $35 and can be purchased here.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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