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The trials and tribulations of ‘Tribes’
Thunder River Theatre production explores deafness and belonging
The cast of “Tribes” during a recent rehearsal.

In the arts world in general, and in theater talk in particular, there’s a word that comes up again and again: voice. The playwright has a voice in his or her writing that is conveyed through the actors. They in turn bring the words alive with their voices, all under the supervision of a director who has expressed a vision for the play by vocalizing what he or she is looking for, to the actors.

Theater is such a spoken medium that it can be easy to take words and voices for granted. But what would happen if all those voices – the communication between director and actor, the dialogue between the actors, the message intended for the audience – couldn’t be heard?

That’s a bit dramatic, perhaps, but now you have a sense of the dilemma that faced Corey Simpson, executive artistic director of Thunder River Theatre Company, when he decided he wanted to direct the Nina Raine play “Tribes,” which has its preview June 13 at TRTC’s theater in downtown Carbondale. It’s a play about a young deaf person who finds dignity and a whole new world through learning to sign, and for the play to ring true, one of the actors has to be deaf and two need to know sign language.

“When I began doing research for the piece, I almost immediately started to discover so many things that I had never considered before,” said Simpson, whose first measure was to try to contact the artistic director of ImaginASL, a deaf theater company from Denver. 

“I started dialing the number and stopped,” he said, “because I realized: Wait a second. The artistic director is deaf. How do you have a phone call with that person? I’m sure that people who have had close relationships with friends or family who are deaf would roll their eyes at that, but I was immediately confronted by my own complete ignorance of all the issues and challenges that face the community that this play addresses.”

The role of Billy, the play’s protagonist, was filled by Michelle Mary Schaefer, an actress who has played the role three times before and, while deaf, is not only fluent in sign language but is also an expert at reading lips. That ability made it easier for Simpson, as the director, to communicate with her, but Schaefer’s casting as Billy brought up a new problem since the role was originally written as a young man.

In the past, Schaefer has played Billy as a man, with her hair cut short and clothes that hid her figure, but this time around, a role in another play is requiring her to keep her hair long, so Simpson decided to reimagine Billy as a woman. It’s a choice that required little more than pronoun changes to the dialogue, and while Billy does find romance with Sylvia, who teaches her to sign and brings her into the “tribe” of deaf people, the nature of their relationship has no bearing on the message and outcome of the play.

“This is going to be a piece of theater that has a lesbian relationship where the piece has nothing to do with sexual orientation,” said Simpson. “It’s just a given and it’s never addressed, which is how all art should be.”

Much more important than the gender of the people involved are the themes of finding a way to express yourself in a world where everyone, including your own family, take hearing for granted and discovering who, beyond the tribes you’re born into, are the people you really belong with.    

“When we look at ourselves, we all belong to many different tribes,” said Simpson. “We relate to those tribes sometimes based on the color of our skin. We relate through our religion, if we have one or if we don’t. We have all kinds of ways that we separate ourselves out. All of the isms that we think about – ageism, classism – those are all tribes. That’s the central theme of the play: looking at what it means to be part of those tribes.”

Audience accessibility

The final hurdle Simpson had to clear came up when he decided that a play about a deaf character should be available to a deaf audience. He wanted the last two shows, June 28-29, to feature ASL interpreters and a post-performance talk with the director and cast. It seemed straightforward enough until Simpson went looking for people who know ASL.

“When I started to look for interpreters, I pretty quickly discovered there’s not a single certified ASL interpreter in our entire valley or on the entire Western Slope of Colorado,” he said. “So we’re bringing two interpreters up from Denver for the last two performances.”

It seems a bit surprising that there are so few certified interpreters in this area, but it points up another theme of the play that Simpson learned firsthand: When it comes to the deaf and understanding the challenges they go through, we probably don’t know as much as we should, and we could all stand to learn quite a bit more.

“Tribes” previews tonight, with opening night tomorrow, and runs through June 29. For a full performance schedule and tickets, visit