Deaf actor and sign language signer meet for To Kill a Mockingbird at Conservatory

In playwright Aaron Sorkin’s take on author Harper Lee’s masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird, Link Diess Deas’ character is a kind-hearted white Southern business owner who hires Tom Robinson, then Tom’s wife, Helen, who, after black Robinson, is imprisoned and tried for murder. When racist, town alcoholic Bob Ewell tried to tarnish Robinson’s good name during his trial, it was Diess who defended Robinson and was thrown out of court for his troubles.

Anthony Natale paints the complexities of Deas without giving up on the far-reaching tale, made famous by Lee’s Pulitzer Prize, at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music’s Kim this month. Mel Cultural Campus (July 12-24).

Natalee is a well-known stage, film and television actor who happens to be deaf – known for his transformation in Mr Hollander’s work and birth – and this is both due to his dynamism as a performer. A secondary factor, but also a positive gospel for him. He teaches in the ASL (American Sign Language) community and is used in the role of Deas.

At a time when ASL art and equity in the deaf community are being recognized, with CODA and its Best Supporting Actor Troy Cotsur winning an Oscar as recently as 2022, maintaining high visibility, commercial relevance and aesthetic excellence is paramount.

In Philadelphia, which is also a sign of solidarity when it comes to Hands UP Productions, the ASL signing team consists of CEO/actors Donna Ellis and Brian Morrison, who perform sign language interpretation services for theatrical events across the region , The Academy includes Music and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Donna Ellis and Brian Morrison of Hands UP Productions

Through interpreter Kirstin Nelson, Natale talks about becoming an emerging actor in high school in Canada, with the help of mentors and deaf actors. After first roles like “Artful Dodger” in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Natale was hooked. “I loved doing it and realized I was gifted,” says Natale, whose next move is to train at the National Theater for the Deaf in Connecticut and learn everything from dramatic body language arts to ASL training.

As an actor, Natale is capable of anything and any role, finding roles that complement his skills and bring ASL and his deafness to the extreme. “Anything that helps me paint what I have to paint, as society changes and an understanding of the deaf community opens up, my role expands,” he said. “Right now, I don’t want to be a deaf actor who only does deaf roles. I can audition for any role.”

If he had to become a Marvel, DC or comic book virtual world character, Natale said he wanted to be Superman. “There’s a dark side to this character, he’s kind of geeky and socially inept — kind of like me, because I’m not super social,” Natale begins. “However, when he becomes another character… Dada. Like Superman, I am more confident and motivated when the power overtakes me. “

Diess’s role in To Kill a Mockingbird – Natalee against a powerful actor like Richard Thomas, who plays the bad guy in the Ozarks and the good guys in the Waltons Famous for the character – finds Natalee making the most of his sign language, not to mention the drama of his facial twitches and body language. “The directors told me that they cast me in the role because they wanted to explore, to try – which is good. My character, being a deaf person, is separate from the rest of the play because I have my own barriers. Dees is not deaf, but he separates from white culture and rebels against it.” As a deaf in a hearing world, as an anti-racist in a racist world, Natalee truly understands Dees’ character. To that end, Natale’s ASL brand adds life and beauty, adding breadth and nuance to Sorkin’s language. “I think my ASL and I added another dimension, a certain depth,” Natale says proudly.

In a broader sense, Natale believes the importance of ASL, and the underlying aesthetic, is critical to where the theater must go. “The language, the tone and the delivery drive the story itself, and I use them very differently—my hands, my face, my eyes to portray that. It’s a very specific vision,” Natale said. “Sign language is straightforward and straightforward. ASL gives them a picture of what those words are visually translated into.”

Although Natale did not attend the July 22 Echo session of To Kill a Mockingbird, he hopes that audience openness to deaf theatre and arts practitioners and the use of ASL is an aspect of the present and future. “It’s another part of inclusion, diversity and accessibility,” Natale said.

Hands-UP Productions ASL theater signatories Donna Ellis and Brian Morrison met in Philadelphia in 2003 while simultaneously performing Bob Fosse’s musical “Chicago” independently at the Merriam Theater, and have never looked back as they teamed up to create a high-quality business for the deaf deduction.

“Surprisingly, when we first started, there wasn’t much work for deaf actors or interpreters, so we decided to try it together,” said Morrison, who formed Hands-UP. Likewise, Ellis added, there was a lack of accessibility before they started. “People want to make that happen, there’s a conversation around it — it’s just that no one can deliver,” she said. “So we did it and built what we do as a one-stop shop for all your ASL needs.”

Since their beginnings as Hands-UP, Ellis and Morrison have grown from zero to a hundred while working with the many theaters and performance venues in the area. “We had three or four theaters that had employed us before the pandemic, and since it closed, there’s been more space to use our services,” Morrison said. “There’s more interest and more theatres reaching out to us…so much so that now we have a team of highly skilled ASL interpreters in these additional spaces.”

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Photo credit: Juliette Cervantes

Ellis believes that what influenced this jump was the interest and need for a well-rounded representation of black, brown, nonbinary, transgender, queer and deaf performers and audiences. “The call for diversity in all settings has done just that. One of the reflections of that is that more theaters are reaching out to us,” Ellis said. “Not just for accessibility, but for access to what the actors look like on stage. More diverse interpreters, expanding who signs and who we sign.”

Knowing that Ellis and Morrison are actors whose theatrical prowess is as strong and powerful as their ASL skills, Hands-UP typically hires for two months from a set of shows as the team has to work out everything from sight lines to logistical issues to doing Things “language work” and determine the vibe of the acting roles assigned to them, figure out interpretive performances, and hire an ASL coach/director to break down the text, idioms and their language. “We look for ‘problems,’ which can mean everything, from language work on the meaning of things, the language of playwrights, like Shakespeare, idioms, puns, nonsense language, lines where actors talk to each other, music — anything — —We have to plan for all of that,” Ellis said.

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Photo credit: Juliette Cervantes

If it’s a musical, like Hands-UP’s next show, Dear Evan Hansen at the Forrest Theatre in August, the team will have to study not only the CD version presented to them, but the new Vocals and musicians who are part of every fresh Philly show. “We actually got Dear Evan Hansen before the pandemic, so we spent about 3 years working on the musical every nuance,” Morrison said. “We really understand music and performance.”

Breaking beats and stylized language change the game with bite-sized rhyming dramatic poets like Aaron Sorkin and To Kill a Mockingbird. “The challenge here is musicality and rhythm,” Ellis said. “Trouble? It’s one. Sorkin is fast paced. But we have deaf coaches and interpreters who break down all the meaning and rhythm of the play in rehearsal and get the proper feedback to follow Aaron Sorkin’s Intent to tell stories. Storytelling is our main job.”

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