Deaf News: Controversy in America as the play Tribes is cast with hearing actors

Posted on September 9, 2016

The play Tribes, about a Deaf boy who is left out in his hearing family, gained rave reviews a few years ago when it was performed at the Royal Court in London, going on to be performed around the world (read our Editor Charlie Swinbourne’s Guardian article about it here).

Central to the play is the Deaf character of Billy, who was memorably played by British Deaf actor Jacob Casselden (seen in the photo above in the performance in that first production. When the play has been performed around the world, the actor cast to play Billy has always been Deaf.

But now controversy has hit the play with the news that a performance of the play in Iowa, America, has been cast with hearing actors, with the artistic director of the theatre concerned saying “no deaf actors showed up to the auditions.”

It should be noted that the theatre is not a commercial one, it is a community theatre that does not pay the actors for their performances. However, Howard Sherman, who is the interim director of America’s Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts has written a blog post arguing against the casting, which says:

“Unfortunately, no deaf actors showed up to the auditions.”

The statement above was made yesterday in a public statement to the Deaf and hard of hearing community by Leslie Charipar, artistic director of Theatre Cedar Rapids in Iowa. It was issued in response to complaints that Charipar has received from the Deaf community at large about the theatre’s upcoming production of Nina Raine’s Tribes, which TCR has cast with hearing actors in the roles of Billy, who is deaf, and Sylvia, a young woman raised by Deaf parents who is now going deaf. The statement is in response to what Charipar calls “questions, complaints, rants, and vitriol against our production.”

The statement about “showing up” is not a unique one, as it has been used by various theatres in a variety of circumstances, when they say they are unable to cast roles authentically for race, ethnicity and disability, but forge ahead with a show regardless.

It places the onus on people whose lived experience mirrors or approximates that of the role in question, blaming them for not “showing up” and, ostensibly, then absolves the producer for proceeding with casting solely from the pool of those who did, regardless of the specific requirements of the role.

Sherman also asks a series of questions of the theatre concerned, including about access to auditions.

With thanks to Lindsey Dryden for alerting us to this story via Facebook.

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