BWW Interview: ZOEY'S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST Creator Austin Winsberg Talks The Show's Collaboration with Deaf West Theater Company
On Sunday, April 5th's episode of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, Zoey engages with her father's caregiver's daughter, Abigail, who is deaf, and hears her heart song as "Fight Song." The number takes place in the deaf dorm on a college campus and is entirely done in American Sign Language and dance - with no singing and no subtitles.
Zoey's creator Austin Winsberg spoke with us about the episode and their collaboration with Deaf West Theater Company!
Read the interview below!
How did you decide which episode/storyline to collaborate with Deaf West on?
It actually started in the writers' room. We're always trying to think in THE WRITERS' ROOM ways in which we can define expectations of Zoey's powers or learn about the rules of the powers or her abilities in new ways and thinking of different ways that we can be theatrical or unique or different or say something with that. One of our script coordinators, George Sloan, suggested one day, what if, Zoey can hear somebody's heart song who's deaf, what would that look like? Would they sign it? Would there be subtitles? Would there be someone singing it while they're signing it? How would that work? And I think probably at that moment was when I instantly thought of Deaf West. I was always so moved and impressed by the way that they combined sign language with storytelling, with choreography into this amazing, beautiful, seamless production. I was always really moved by their work.
And so I went off that idea and thought, "What if it's a big group number where it's a lot of people all signing?" From that point on, I really locked into that idea that we should just do a big deaf dance number, and then it was just about trying to find the right story that could go along with that. When we came up with the character of Howie the caregiver, we realized it could be good story for Howie and his daughter, Abigail, we locked into it. We then made a call to Def West and to David Kurs, who is the artistic director, because I felt like it was important that this number feel authentic. I wanted to make sure that all of performers in it were deaf or severely hearing impaired, because I wanted it to be honest and true to them and their experience.
Then it was about David working with Mandy Moore, our choreographer, and this was probably one of the most challenging, if not the most challenging number, she had to do all season. Mandy had to learn a whole new language for the dance. She had to learn ASL and she had to learn how to communicate with the deaf dancers. She had to work in a space where they're mostly dealing the silence. She had to learn how to put sign language and dance together. I was also very steadfast from the beginning that I didn't want anybody else singing the song while they were performing. I didn't want subtitles. I wanted their emotions to come through the movement and the instrumentation so that we, the audience, understood what they were feeling without having to spoon-feed it to them in any other way.
Sandra Mae Frank is incredible as Howie's daughter, Abigail. How did you go about casting that role?
Our casting director is Robert Ulrich, who also cast Glee, and I think he became really great during that time of finding, unexpected people for parts. He brought up a bunch of choices for deaf and hearing impaired actors for the part. When I saw Sandra's tape, it's amazing how much she conveys through looks and emotions and gestures and we all just kind of fell in love with her instantly. It's amazing the degree of believability that she brings. I instantly felt her passion and her connection.
What does it mean to you to be able to show this representation on network television?
I was really important to me. I'm a firm believer in representation in any way and I'm also a big believer in authenticity. I felt the only way to really make this number feel true and real was to be authentic. From minute one, I felt very strongly about that. I feel like it is really important to show people who are under-showcased on television. That's why I wanted to make sure that we did it all right. That was why getting David and that company involved early on in the process was important. We had auditions all across America and we had people send in tapes. We had to fly in people from everywhere to do this number in Vancouver where we shot the show. I remember on the day, crew members were crying, Jane was crying the first time she saw it.
What do you hope that audiences take away from the episode and the ASL number specifically?
I think it's important that everybody has a voice, that everybody has their own unique form of expression. I think true to anybody with some sort of handicap or disability, singing their fight song, that the idea is they're capable and they're not going back down and they can say, do, and be whoever they want to be and nobody can tell them otherwise. So that was an important message and it was also an important message for Zoey to hear in the episode, too, because Zoey was at a point in the story for the season where she's feeling particularly broken after what happened in episode eight, where she glitched and she was feeling very down on herself. I think that there's something about watching that number that to me feels very powerful and empowering. I want people to take away from that no matter what sort of struggles we have and we go through we can be strong and overcome them.
Is there anything you can share with us about the final episodes of the season?
Yes, and there are actually a couple of things for the Broadway community. Renee Elise Goldsberry plays a big part in the next few episodes, as Lauren Graham's office rival, and she gets to have a couple of numbers herself. And then in episode 11, we bring in Bernadette Peters who plays a surprising, unexpected character that ends up helping the family. It was so amazing to get her and she was great at it.
And then we continue in the next few episodes to explore the love triangle between Zoey, Max, and Simon. We continue to explore THE FAMILY dynamics as they're coping with the bad news they got about Mitch, and we continue to do dynamic musical numbers, including a seven-minute runner, which is one shot, no cutting, in episode 12 that I'm really, really proud of.
That's going to be incredible.
Yeah, that felt like doing live theater, because the amount of things that had to be figured out in advance, the amount of lighting changes, set changes and all these things we had to do to create dynamic seven-minute number is probably one of the things I'm proudest of all season.
Any news on a second season?
I can tell you that I am pitching season two to NBC next week I'm feeling optimistic that there will be more Zoey's to come.
Photo Credit: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC