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BWW Interview: The Directorial Team Behind The Ziegfeld Theater's ASL and Spoken English Production of NEWSIES

BWW Interview: The Directorial Team Behind The Ziegfeld Theater's ASL and Spoken English Production of NEWSIES

The much-beloved musical Newsies follows the tale of Jack Kelly, a newsboy and leader of a ragtag group 'newsies' in turn of the century New York City, who dreams of a life better than the streets of New York can offer. When publishing titans Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst raise distribution prices at the newsboys' expense, Jack and the newsies find a cause to fight for and strike for what's right. Newsies is a musical all about striving to have your voice heard, and The Ziegfeld Theater has found an especially exciting and poignant way to delve into and celebrate the themes within this musical:
The Ziegfeld Theater will present Disney's Newsies done entirely in both American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English. The show will feature several deaf actors with shadow actors performing their vocals.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Newsies Director, Caleb Parry, and Assistant Director and Choreographer, Bryan Andrews, to learn more about what went into bringing this production to The Ziegfeld Theater stage!


How did the idea for an ASL production of Newsies come about?

Caleb: I'm the Executive Producer and owner of the theater, and my artistic director and I had kind of talked about, 'Hey, it would be interesting to see if any shows in the near future fit being able to do an ASL interpretation of them.' So, we were just kind of like, 'Yeah, that would be fun!' And then Newsies came up and I was directing, and I got to thinking about the show, and Newsies is a whole show about people trying to be heard. And immediately, the concept resonated. These are kids that are having to fight for their rights, fighting to be heard from, trying to make a difference in the world and not let what they are doing be hindered. As I pitched it to Bryan I said, 'What do you think about this?' And Bryan, being raised by deaf parents, being a CODA, a Child of Deaf Adults, it kind of all just started coming into place. We thought, 'Let's see what we get with auditions' because you never know the talent you're going to find, and it was key to us to find at least two-plus deaf actors that could participate in this performance. And they came out for it! This wonderful deaf brother and sister, Boston and Callie Gunther, came out for the show and it was this wonderful moment of concept meeting what the needs are of our community...We came up with this whole concept behind Pulitzer, the villain, never signing. He only signs the last line he says in the whole show. ASL is almost like a language of the newsies, if you will, which Pulitzer is not willing to hear. It's been a fascinating concept to deal with as we've continued to grow the show.

Bryan: I was already set to choreograph this show before the concept came into place, and it was very convenient that I happened to know the language in order to merge the language and the choreography together. And that's when we decided that I would step in as Assistant Director as well. I have been playing different roles in teaching ASL and the dances, and making sure we're respecting the deaf culture as we go along. It's a new process, so we played around with ideas like how rehearsals work and interpreters that we would need for deaf actors at rehearsals. So, it's been interesting, it's been a lot of fun to get to do.

I would love to hear about the audition process - do the deaf actors that you cast in the show have any prior musical theater experience?

Bryan: They actually don't. I know they do extracurricular activities involving dance and performing with their classes, but with them being based out of the Utah Schools of the Deaf and Blind, they didn't really have a program for them to be able to, and they still don't. The theater world in general is very hearing-based and it would take a lot for a deaf person to put themselves out there and try to audition for a musical that wasn't catered to ASL or being deaf. We're hoping that this opens doors for deaf actors to feel more confident that, 'Hey I can audition for a community theater musical and have there be a place in the theater world for deaf people.'

Caleb: It's been fascinating that as we've talked with Boston and Callie's parents, we almost had to talk them into letting their children do this show, because they were so nervous about the possible backlash. Literally their mother looked at me and said, 'I feel like you're going to regret this entire thing.' And I listened to her and said, 'Your children are amazing and there's no way we're going to regret this. We're so excited to share this.' She was nervous about how everyone would accept them and I told them, 'Look, theater becomes family quicker than any other institution, and they will be assimilated into this process so quickly.' And that's exactly what happened from minute one. One of the things that Boston says in our promotional video is, 'I wouldn't' be able to do this at school. I don't have this opportunity.' And I have been talking with the Gunther parents about this process as we've been going, and they've constantly thanked us and said, 'This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for them.' And I've done my best to reassure them and say, 'No, I'm hoping that this isn't a once in a lifetime opportunity, I just hope this is the first.' And to that end, as a theater owner and a producer, as we have worked with these individuals it's made me realize there's a barrier here that we think is there that really isn't. I would be open to having a deaf actor in any show of mine... It's not a hard convention to get around and to help them feel supported, and that it's something that community can also participate in.

What were the conversations like in the beginning of rehearsals between your team about the best way to approach the rehearsal process?

Bryan: It has been a very unique process, and we're still making changes as we go based on what comes up and what challenges we face. But I think that mostly, we were very careful about making sure that the deaf actors felt comfortable and understood and able to communicate when they feel like they want to communicate. So we've been trying our best to have interpreters at every rehearsal for our actors that need it. At the first meeting we established all of the newsies' sign names and things like that. So it's been fun to come together as a group, hearing and deaf, and have a common ground of what's familiar to everyone and moving forward with that. It's been amazing to watch just how much the hearing cast has been picking up sign language. They don't realize it, but half the time now that they know their lines, they're replying back to our deaf actors in sign.

Bryan, what was the process like for you in creating the choreography?

Bryan: That was one of my biggest fears going into this! I had a list of questions before I said 'yes' to this process to make sure we were going to do this show justice. But I wanted to choreograph Newsies really badly so we decided, 'This is still going to be a dance show.'

Caleb: And that was one of the biggest things for Bryan, making sure that the choreography still had the integrity that Newsies needs to have, and making sure that the sign language enhanced the experience and didn't diminish the experience of the choreography that Newsies needs to be.

Bryan: I think honestly, it just comes down to the amount of work that I put into it. I sit down and think about the signs that they're needing to sign, and also what they can do with their legs at the same time. Sometimes I have actors on stage signing while they're dancing, and I have some times where they're dancing and they're not needing to sign because it's an instrumental dance break. But for the most part I found a unique way to blend ASL and choreography to make it visually appealing. ASL has just been natural choreography from the beginning. When I started creating the combos for auditions and things like that, it just started clicking and I thought, 'These signs are working out and they're looking great along with the dances.' So it's gonna be a really fun thing for people to watch because I think it's going to be something they've never seen before. If you didn't know sign language already and you came to see the show, I really honestly wouldn't know if a hearing audience member would realize they were even signing in the first place.

I would love if you could talk to me a little bit about the onstage relationship between the deaf actors and the shadow actors performing their vocals.

Caleb: The shadow actors are always on stage with the deaf actors. Sometimes they're more involved, as in, we even have moments where they're part of the blocking and choreography and part of the song, and other times where they're not. As we've been working on the process, you find these wonderful moments where it's beautiful to have almost this alter ego, or this second brain to the character, be present. Theatrically it's led to a lot of interesting moments and different interpretations to moments that are traditional in the show. Watching our voice actor Wyatt, and Boston communicate together in rehearsals, there will be moments where Wyatt, the voice, will step up and say, 'You know, Boston, I really feel like our character feels this at this moment.' And there's really this sense of them creating character together, and it's just been absolutely amazing to watch both their friendship develop, and also their characterizations develop. There's never a moment where they're out of sync. There's never a moment where the voice is giving a different feel than the signer is. They're so synonymous with each other and really working well on group mind, being one character. It's been fascinating to watch, it's been amazing.

What has the response been like from the deaf community about this production?

Bryan: Like Caleb said at the beginning, the deaf turnout wasn't quite as much as we'd hoped for as far as auditions go because it hadn't been done before, they were nervous, they weren't sure how they'd fit in the picture. But now that our video has gone out and buzz has been getting around, I think people are actually really excited to see how it turns out and how we incorporate this community. I know that a few universities locally are requiring their ASL classes to come see this show, so that alone has been great for us and for exposure to the language for students, and Boston and Callie's friends and family are coming. We have another deaf actor in our show whose name is Bret, he's the ASL professor at Weber State University, which is our local university, and he's been getting the word out. Everything has been so positive so far and very supportive. So we're excited to see how much this art form grows after exposure to it.

Caleb: We do get emails, about once a week right now on the back-end of the business asking us, 'Hey, I had a question about... how are you going to handle this, and that...' In doing something like this, we wanted to make sure that we included the deaf community, but in no way offended them. And that has been an interesting balance. Just even in our promo video, we had some moments where we ran that by Bret, who's kind of our aficionado of ASL for the show, and he said, 'You might want to change some of the way that you worded some of these things in this.' We want to make sure that there's no offence taken in the deaf community and that they feel included and that this is for them in every way possible.

When it comes down to it, what does staging a production like this mean to you both?

Bryan: I think, for me, it's been so amazing to see how much hard work this cast has put in and how much it's paying off. I get emotional more and more as I come to rehearsals based on the fact alone that we're doing this, and that they are able to learn a language and still put on an amazing production of Newsies. So that has been so great to watch. And I am so excited to see how it comes together, and that is rewarding in itself. I think that's been my biggest interest and passion in this show, is how much they've had to work through.

Caleb: There's a line in the show where Katherine talks about doing something that no one has ever done before and to watch what happens. And it has been an absolute joy doing this process. There are moments in this show that normally would not make you emotional at all, you'd be like, 'Yeah, good for the newsies!' But the way it's coming across with the language is just absolutely amazing. It's going to be a difficult show to sit through without lots of emotion happening to you as you watch a story that you think you're familiar with, and then you see this different turn with the language and with people not being able to be heard. It's just fascinating.

Bryan: Sometimes I truly forget that this show wasn't already meant to be in ASL. I guess I'm so used to being here at rehearsals every day and I'm always seeing them sign their lines, but I can't imagine going to another Newsies and not seeing them sign, because it seems like such an intricate and important part of the story already. And the fact that we just added that in extra, it's been so natural, it's been great fun.


Check out the promo video below!

When:

February 21 - March 14, 2020

OPENING NIGHT Friday, February 21

$5 STUDENT NIGHT Saturday, February 22 - use code: STUDENT

Performance Schedule Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Saturday matinees February 29 and March 7 at 2:00 p.m.

Where:

The Ziegfeld Theater, 3934 S. Washington Blvd., Ogden, UT 84403

Run Time: approx. 2 hours 20 minutes

Content Advisory: Suitable for most ages. Parental discretion is advised.

Box Office:

855-ZIG-ARTS or www.theziegfeldtheater.com.

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity


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