Ciaran Alexander Stewart is playing the main part of Billy in Tribes at Sheffield Theatres from 29th June – 22nd July. The play was first performed in London in 2010 (read our editor Charlie Swinbourne’s article for the Guardian here) and has since been performed around the world. Here he tells us about getting into character and working with actress Emily Howlett (who is also a regular writer for this site!).
Hi Ciaran, congratulations on getting the part of Billy in Tribes! Tell us about the play and your character?
Thank you! I’m very excited about doing the play.
The play is about a young man who is born deaf into a hearing family. His family is super loud and he sometimes struggles to follow the conversations. When he meets Sylvia and learns to sign, everything changes for him and his family.
It’s a play about identity, communication, family, deafness and most important of all, love. I don’t want to spoil too much about the play so that you can come and see it for yourselves!
Billy is a young man who is deaf, intelligent, strong and what’s fascinating about Billy is that even though he is frustrated with his family, there is elements of the family in him. For example, his father is always quoting stuff from a book to prove his point and Billy does that at one point in the play.
His family is filled with egotistical characters and interestingly enough, he becomes egotistical too. It’s a brilliant character and it’s always great to be able to play characters like him.
How much do Billy’s experiences match your own? Have you taken inspiration from your own life?
My family is super loud funnily enough so sometimes, I often find myself looking at the other actors playing those characters, thinking oh my god. It’s them.
The frustration that Billy has about his deafness and how isolating that can be, I can relate with that personally but luckily, I’ve got a wonderful mother and father who were so accepting of my disability and embraced my disability which is totally different from Billy’s, so I’m having to imagine what it might have been like to have my parents totally unaccepting of my disability and use that frustration in the play.
What’s the biggest challenge of acting in the play?
It’s emotional. There is a massive journey for Billy in this play and mentally, it’s challenging. We did our first proper run through this week and by the end, I was in tears. I was connecting with the text emotionally which is something challenging for me as I’ve never done anything as intense as this.
I always loved the first week where you sit down at the table and dissect the script. It’s always important when you do something like this and Kate Hewitt, our director, had us literally look at details of our characters and figure out their backstories.
What was so challenging about it was it got you to think a lot more than you usually do. You can’t just decide on where Billy would go to University because there’s clues in the text that indicates he didn’t go to Oxford as his grades weren’t that great. You had to go back home and do your research on several topics and share with your colleagues but it fleshes out the play and make your characters interesting.
You’re acting with another Deaf actress, Emily Howlett. Tell me what it’s like to work with her?
Joking obviously! Love her. I’ve seen her work before when she was in Edinburgh doing ‘People of the Eye’ and thought she was talented. I met her properly during the audition for this play and I thought we clicked from the first moment we met.
I love her and her hearing dog, George who brightens up our rehearsals space every day. What’s wonderful about working with her is that she shares a lot of the same opinions as me. We both didn’t want to portray Billy and Sylvia as these “poor me I’m deaf” characters which is bland and boring. We’ve seen that before. We want them to be sexy, interesting, strong and flawed. She’s wonderful to work with.
Tell us about your training and your future aspirations?
So, I’m currently a student on the BA Performance in BSL/English, at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, which is a degree designed specifically for deaf students who are interested in acting, theatre making and film making. It’s a wonderful course with amazing lecturers.
We’ve just completed our second year and I’ve been so lucky with them allowing me to do professional work and making that a part of my coursework. This is my third professional work this year and they’ve given me a lot of time off to do the performances and I get graded as part of my degree.
They’re holding auditions next year for the next batch of students for year 2018/2019 and anyone who is deaf, seriously consider doing acting or theatre making, apply ASAP. It’s a truly wonderful course. Doing jobs like this, I’ve learned so much from it and you never stop learning as an actor.
In terms of my future aspirations, I would love to be able to perform with a lot of mainstream theatre companies. I would love to see disabled led companies becoming a part of the mainstream world of theatre and allowing us actors to be able to perform with a wide range of actors, directors and makers.
Whilst it’s wonderful to see more writing for deaf characters, I would love to be able to perform in roles that weren’t necessary written as “deaf” characters and take ownership. Why should I not be MacBeth? Why should I not be John Procter in The Crucible? Why should I not be Harry Potter in Cursed Child?
Yes, I know those roles are too old for me but you get the gist…
To book tickets for Tribes, go online at https://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/whats-on/tribes/dates or call the Box Office on 0114 249 6000.
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