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Q&A: University of Central Oklahoma stages award-winning play 'Tribes' featuring deaf actor

Feb 2020 Oklahoman.com

tribesFor Emily Heugatter, a British play about a deaf man torn between his dysfunctional biological family and his newfound place in the deaf community has proven the kind of universal, relatable story she wants her students to experience and create. The professor of theatre arts at the University of Central Oklahoma is directing Nina Raine's award-winning 2010 play "Tribes," starring guest artist Gavin Thomas Drew, an Oklahoma City-based deaf professional actor who uses a cochlear implant. UCO will stage the play, which won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play for its 2012 Off-Broadway production, Thursday-Sunday at Mitchell Hall Theatre. "It's a beautiful play that I've really loved for a long time. It's an important story to be told. I think it's very rare that we see deaf stories - or really stories from any communities that are differently abled - told on stage. So, I was certainly interested in exploring that and really being very specific to cast it correctly. I was not interested in putting a hearing student in to play the role, and I'm very, very glad for visibility and inclusion and representation that we've gone the way that we did with the casting choice," said Heugatter, who heads UCO's bachelor of fine arts in performance program. "Gavin has been with our process from the very beginning because he was originally my assistant director and then stepped into the (lead) role pretty last minute. He is an absolutely just lovely, warm and funny human being, and he bonded with the cast really early on."

Gavin DrewEmily HeugatterRight -  Emily Heugatter, a professor with the University of Central Oklahoma's Department of Theatre Arts

Left - Guest artist Gavin Thomas Drew

In addition to an American Sign Language-interpreted opening-night performance, ”Tribes" will mark the debut of Mitchell Hall Theatre's new closed-captioning system."We worked to design software that now any performance in Mitchell Hall could use this technology. We sort of thought about our closed-captioning work as like this show's legacy and gift to the university," she said.

"We worked with our Office of Information Technology and got the technology ready that any audience member who would like to use closed captioning there is a link and a QR code in the program that you click on and it takes you directly to a live feed that is run simultaneously with the show. You hold your phone up and the whole show is closed captioned. It's pretty cool, and it's actually pretty new technology that's kind of becoming, from the research that I have done, the preferred method of accessibility for the Broadway houses and the major regional theatres."

Q: What inspired you to take this on as a project? It probably has different challenges than, say, a typical show.

Heugatter: It's an incredible script that is very, very challenging. And I wanted to give my students something that would really stretch them as actors and something that would put them in the kind of acting style that's being asked of actors in the major regional theatres around the country. This play is highly contemporary. It's hyper-realistic. And for my students, being able to strike that balance between honesty and subtlety and specificity, but then to put it on the Mitchell stage that's a very large, 600-seat proscenium house ... was an exciting acting challenge that I wanted them to take on. And I think they've done really beautifully with it. I'm very proud of my cast.

Q: Can you talk about how the relationships of "Tribes" bear out in the show?
Heugatter: 
In the play, Billy (Drew) has never had really any exposure to the deaf community. He, as a child, was taught to lip read and was taught to speak. The family intentionally never taught him to sign. Then, as an adult, in the course of the play, he meets a woman who is in the process of losing her hearing, who comes from a deaf family. And she introduces him to the world of the deaf community, where he really finds his tribe. He finds where he fits. So, the play is really an examination of the communities that we form for ourselves and what that means.

Q: What were your criteria and process for casting the lead role of Billy?
Heugatter:
It was really important to me, certainly from the perspective of our audience, that we had appropriate representation. But from the point (of view) of our process, I was looking for someone who could help me, who could help the cast, who could help the designers really understands the needs and the challenges of this world from a firsthand perspective. I have never experienced the loss of my hearing, and I was very, very careful that we did this right. ... Very early on in the process, I amassed basically an army of activists within the deaf community from all over the country. We worked with a profoundly deaf man who is a disability advocate in the state of Ohio. We worked with a deaf professional actress in Chicago. We worked with another friend of mine who is the former artistic director for the National Theatre for the Deaf and communicates primarily through sign (language). So, we got as many different perspectives and experiences as we could. We worked with the American Sign Language Club on campus to help us learn all the sign and to design that. The last thing I was going to do with this project was go at it on my own.

Q: This is doesn't seem like the most lighthearted of material. What would you say to someone who is hesitant to convince them to see it?
Heugatter: 
The play is actually surprisingly really funny. It's shockingly funny, and it's funny and heartbreaking all in the same turn. It is very mature language and mature subject matter. We would consider this rated PG-13. ... I think that this play shows relationships and family dynamics that all of us live on a consistent basis. I think it's a very recognisable portrayal of human interaction and human relationships. At its heart, it's a play about families and communities and connections

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