The funny and charming ‘balcony scene’ from Cyrano was performed by cast members Troy Kotsur, Paul Raci and Erinn Anova. The gala evening also included remarks by actresses Marlee Matlin and Deanne Bray, former Mark Taper Forum Artistic Director Gordon Davidson, Broadway director Jeff Calhoun, and Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs.
The forces behind a well-received stage production have worked together for a long time, forever bonding the Fountain and Deaf West theater companies.
by Karen Wada
Nearly a decade ago, an improbable dream came true for Deaf West Theatre and its founder, Ed Waterstreet. The small, L.A.-based company went to Broadway with its signed and spoken version of the musical “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
Even as he savored their success, Waterstreet had another dream — creating an original musical inspired by Edmond Rostand‘s “Cyrano de Bergerac.” What better tale for his theater to tell than one that explores the universal desire to express oneself?
This spring, “Cyrano” is making its debut, albeit as a straight play. Stephen Sachs’ modern-day adaptation, which is directed by Simon Levy, opened to acclaim in April at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood and runs until early July. The co-production represents a reunion of old friends — the Fountain gave Deaf West its first home and Sachs, the Fountain’s co-artistic director, is one of its longtime collaborators.
Sachs says the show also has turned out to be “a special farewell to Ed” since the 69-year-old Waterstreet, whom he calls “a delicious mixture of bulldog and teddy bear,” has retired after two decades as his company’s pioneering artistic director.
“Cyrano” marks a beginning as well, as it is Deaf West’s first production under new artistic director D.J. Kurs.
“I want to build on the tradition and passion Ed brought while keeping us moving forward,” says Kurs, 34.
Rostand’s 19th century drama about a 17th century soldier-poet has been reset in a world with Facebook and Starbucks. In the original, Cyrano fears rejection because of his huge nose, so he secretly uses his way with words to help his comrade Christian woo beautiful Roxanne.
In Sachs’ story, a poet believes his deafness will ruin his chances with a hearing woman named Roxy, especially after he learns she’s fallen for his hearing brother, aging rocker Chris. This Cyrano pinch-hits for his less-than-eloquent sibling via text and email.
“Technology has opened up the world” for the deaf community, the playwright says, although it can be a blessing and a curse for someone like Cyrano, “who connects back to a more romantic age.” Sachs’ hero — brash, brilliant and yet plagued by self-doubt — often feels he’s out of place, not fitting in with the hearing and choosing not to fit in with the deaf.
Sachs and Levy have integrated e-language into Deaf West’s trademark blending of signed and spoken language presented by deaf and hearing performers for deaf and hearing audiences. Flat-screen monitors glow with online messages while actors such as Troy Kotsur, who plays Cyrano, express with their hands and faces what Sachs calls the “intimate, visceral, kinetic” beauty of American Sign Language. (The ASL translation was created by two ASL masters working with the actors, director and playwright.)
Sachs discovered the richness of sign language in the late ’80s when he observed the interpreter at a play he was directing. He began holding workshops with deaf actors and writers; when he and Deborah Lawlor founded the 78-seat Fountain in 1990, he hoped to start a deaf theater company as well. Then he heard about Waterstreet, a National Theatre of the Deaf veteran who wanted to establish a company for deaf artists like himself.
The Fountain offered Waterstreet office space, from which he launched Deaf West in 1991. In its first show, “The Gin Game,” actors signed while hearing audience members listened to the dialogue on infrared headphones.
Deaf West ventured out on its own in 1993, eventually settling in North Hollywood. The company has gained a national reputation for expanding opportunities for deaf artists and defying expectations — especially by pursuing what Waterstreet calls “that crazy idea, the deaf musical.”
Just as “wonderfully crazy,” he adds, was the notion that such a musical could reach Broadway. “Big River,” which was directed by Broadway veteran Jeff Calhoun, opened in North Hollywood in 2001, moved to the Mark Taper Forum in 2002 and, in 2003, landed in New York, where it earned two Tony nominations and a Tony honor for excellence in theater.
Deaf West achieved its goal of presenting an original musical in 2007 with “Sleeping Beauty Wakes,” which opened at the Kirk Douglas Theatre with a book by Tony-winner Rachel Sheinkin and a score by Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda of indie pop-rock’s GrooveLily. That Center Theatre Group co-production was followed by another, “Pippin,” in 2009.
Over the years, Sachs has continued to create work related to deaf culture. His “Sweet Nothing in My Ear,” inspired by the debate over cochlear implants, debuted at the Fountain in 1997 and was made into a TV movie. For Deaf West, he has directed two plays and written two others. His drama “Open Window,” in which a deaf young man is accused of killing the father who kept him chained in the basement, premiered in 2005 at the Pasadena Playhouse in a co-production between Deaf West and the playhouse.
When Waterstreet suggested collaborating again, Sachs asked about “Cyrano.” “Ed told me they had kicked it around, but it never got off the ground,” he says. So he proposed his modern-day version.
Kurs hopes the strong response to the show, which has been extended through July 8, will attract donors who can help ease the financial challenges Deaf West has faced after the loss of crucial federal funding, starting with a major cut in 2004. He is seeking additional funding sources for the company, which receives foundation, individual and local and state government support. Meanwhile, Deaf West has reduced its staff and rented out its theater during 2012.
Looking beyond “Cyrano,” Kurs is considering possibilities for the next production, which is scheduled for early 2013.
Waterstreet says he decided to leave at the end of last year but didn’t officially retire until Kurs, a former Deaf West artistic associate, was appointed in January. “The theater is still my baby,” he adds, noting that he plans to help with fundraising.
Returning to the Fountain for “Cyrano” proved to be what he calls “a very nice homecoming. … I had tears in my eyes as I saw the play for the first time in the space where we had so many memories.”
On opening night, Sachs sat behind Waterstreet as they watched the world premiere, deaf and hearing actors and an array of high-tech screens filling the stage where Deaf West got its start two decades earlier.
“At intermission, Ed leaned over to me,” Sachs recalls. “He said, ‘Wow! Look at all this. Look at how far we’ve come.'”
Fountain Theatre’s Stephen Sachs (co-artistic director) and Simon Levy (producing director) are zeroing in on the premiere Saturday of the Fountain’s latest collaboration with Deaf West Theatre — a re-imagined, signed/spoken word adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, scripted by Sachs, helmed by Levy.
The Fountain has a long history with Deaf West, so Sachs and Levy are not exploring totally new territory. But they are quick to make clear that this production is not just a straightforward ASL translation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 rhymed-verse chronicle of the 17th century duelist and poet with an oversized proboscis.
“First of all, Stephen has set this in modern times in LA, where people communicate through all sorts of electronic gadgets, on Facebook and Twitter,” explains Levy. “This production uses spoken word, ASL and e-language. This provides for myriad possibilities but also a whole lot of complications.”
“In the original, Cyrano’s barrier is his enormous nose and his perceived ugliness,” Sachs elaborates. “In this new version, it’s Cyrano’s deafness. He is a brilliant deaf poet, who signs magnificently. But he is not fully able to express his love for a hearing woman because she does not know sign language. So, while Rostand’s Cyrano was a man of his nose, this is a man of his hands.
“This is also the journey of a man who is at once proud of his deafness and of his hands, which is how he speaks; but he is also at war with himself, as any great tragic hero is, in terms of his pride. In this case, one of the major parts of his journey is to find a kind of peace with that, within and outside his deaf community. Like the original Cyrano, who stands alone, distant from his comrades in arms, our Cyrano stands alone within his deaf community and that gets him into trouble.”
“He also is at odds along the way with insensitive hearing people,” adds Levy.
“But at the end, he is able to make peace and find forgiveness within himself, his community and the outer world,” continues Sachs.
The histories of Fountain Theatre and Deaf West have been entwined for 21 years, when Sachs and co-artistic director Deborah Lawlor provided office space to Ed Waterstreet, an actor with National Theatre of the Deaf, who envisioned founding a theater company for deaf actors in LA, which became Deaf West. The Fountain was the site of Deaf West’s first productions The Gin Game (1991), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1991) and Shirley Valentine (1992).
In 1993, Deaf West moved to the first of its own facilities, on Heliotrope Drive (in what is now Sacred Fools Theater). But Sachs, who already had a history of conducting workshops with deaf actors for a number of years, continued his commitment by writing Sweet Nothing in My Ear (1997) for a Fountain production and Open Window (2005) for a Deaf West/Pasadena Playhouse collaboration at the playhouse. Both of these incorporated deaf culture and illuminated the deaf world.
Cyrano is a project that has been percolating in the years since Deaf West settled in its later NoHo home (which recently has been used primarily by Antaeus Company and is currently rented for the production of The Bridge Club).
Sachs recalls, “About nine years ago, Deaf West had the idea of doing a musical version of Cyrano. It was just after they had a huge success adapting the musical, Big River (2001-02). I remember reading about it at the time and thought it was a great idea.
Troy Kotsur and Paul Raci
“Then, just a couple of years ago, Ed called me, wanting me to write a new play for Deaf West. We kicked around some ideas and then I asked about his plans for Cyrano. Ed said it was an idea that never came to fruition. Well, I told him I would love to do that, but I wanted to turn it into a play and have it be about Cyrano’s hands, not his nose, making it about his deafness and language. And that’s how this project came about.”
Levy adds, “Part of the journey in mounting this production has been the marriage of these three languages. This is a new world we live in with e-language and how important that language is to both the hearing and the deaf communities. That has created some interesting dilemmas in the staging. There are a lot of things we haven’t anticipated that we discovered in process of doing it. For instance, how do you relate text messages among the characters to an audience? We had a lot of wonderful ideas that we had to figure out how to actualize, none of which we could anticipate until we got into them.”
At the center of the action is actor Troy Kotsur, whose performance history with Deaf West includes Big River, Pippin, A Streetcar Named Desire and Of Mice and Men. “Troy is a wonderfully gifted and inventive actor who is a joy to watch as he has been creating this role,” affirms Levy. “So much of the creation of the ASL translation is intense, hard work. Part of it is done in advance with script work and an ASL translator. But a majority of it is done in rehearsal with the actor improvising different ways to sign a certain line or phrase. When you have someone as skilled as Troy doing it, it is an amazing experience to watch. And a wonderful actor, Victor Warren, provides Cyrano’s voice when needed.”
Complementing Kotsur in principal roles are Erinn Anova as the much-adored Roxy and Paul Raci as Chris, the handsome signing/speaking brother of Cyrano, with whom Roxy is smitten. Levy admits to being very aware that communicating with this cast has been a whole new learning curve for him.
“This is my first time staging a spoken word/ASL signed production. I’ve produced several speaking/ASL shows here at the Fountain, but this is a new experience. I could not do this at all without the immense contribution of the ASL interpreters [Elizabeth Greene and Jennifer Snipstad Vega]. A director has to be able to communicate with his actors and make sure everything is communicated correctly to the audience. I just can’t get up there and start talking about ‘feeling it’ and the actors’ ‘motivation.’ This has been a whole new adventure in using all the elements of communication possible to make sure everyone and everything involved in this is moving in the same direction.”
Sachs just smiles benignly at his cohort. “You’re doing just fine.”
In 1990, Stephen Sachs and Ed Waterstreet shared a dream. Stephen had just launched the Fountain Theatre with Deborah Lawlor. He had worked sporadically with deaf actors and writers in Los Angeles for five years prior and was now eager to start a deaf theatre company at the newly-formed Fountain. Ed was a respected actor and director trained at the National Theatre for the Deaf. He, too, was yearning to create something new in Los Angeles: a professional deaf theatre company led and run by deaf artists. Someone suggested that Stephen and Ed meet. Upon meeting, it was clear they were both united by the same exhilarating vision. Ed was immediately invited into the Fountain Family. He was given office space and support. And Deaf West was born. The first professional resident Sign Language Theatre west of the Mississippi.
Ed Waterstreet with actors Patrick Graybill and Phyllis Frelich. "The Gin Game" (1991)
By May, 1991, Deaf West opened its first production at the Fountain, The Gin Game, starring Phyllis Frelich and Patrick Graybill. It was followed by Shirley Valentine in 1992, starring Freda Norman and directed by Waterstreet. In 1993, Sachs directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in which the hospital staff was hearing and the patients deaf.
It was always the goal that Deaf West would become autonomous and operate its own venue. In 1993, Deaf West “left home” and leased the Heliotrope Theatre in Hollywood where Sachs directed ‘Night Mother, costarring Freda Norman and Elena Blue in 1994. Under Ed’s leadership, Deaf West blossomed and grew. Back at the Fountain, the development of new plays with deaf themes continued with the world premiere of Sachs’ Sweet Nothing in my Ear in 1997, tackling the controversial issue of cochlear implants. The play was made into a CBS TV movie in 2008 starring Marlee Matlin, Jeff Daniels, and featuring Ed Waterstreet.
Stephen Sachs directs "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1993)
After a brief stay at the Ventura Court theater in North Hollywood, Deaf West acquired its venue on Lankershim Blvd in the NoHo Arts District. Deaf West and Sachs joined forces again in 2005 with the world premiere of Sachs’ play, Open Window, starring Linda Bove and Shoshannah Stern, at the Pasadena Playhouse.
The Fountain Theatre and Deaf West Theatre are now two of the most successful and highly respected intimate theater companies in Los Angeles, both honored with hundreds of awards and earning national recognition for excellence. Twenty-two years after first joining hands, the two companies are together again co-producing the world premiere of their new signed/spoken version of Cyrano, starring Troy Kotsur, at the Fountain Theatre. Back where it all began. Where a dream became reality.
Fountain Co-Production with Deaf West Inaugurates New Artistic Directorfor Celebrated Deaf Company
by Julio Martinez
Director Simon Levy addresses the deaf/hearing cast of "Cyrano", interpreted by Elizabeth Greene.
Since its birth in 1991, Deaf West Theatre (DWT) has known one leader — Ed Waterstreet, the first deaf artistic director of an American theater company. During his tenure, DWT established itself as a vital, contributing member of the stage community both locally and nationally, producing 40 plays and four musicals, including the 2001 staging of Big River, which went on to the Mark Taper Forum and then to Broadway, receiving a Tony nomination for best musical.
On March 2, DWT board president Mark Freund simultaneously announced the retirement of Waterstreet and the appointment of David J. Kurs as the new artistic director, just in time to oversee the company’s collaboration with Hollywood’s Fountain Theatre in the premiere of Cyrano, written by Stephen Sachs. It’s a modern, re-imagined staging of Cyrano de Bergerac, performed in a synergistic intermingling of spoken word and ASL signing.
“This is a perfect partnership for us, ” Kurs affirms. “Stephen Sachs [as co-artistic director of the Fountain] was a key player in the early days of Deaf West Theatre. The theater gave Ed [Waterstreet] his first office space. Stephen directed a couple of our productions; and Stephen, Fountain producing director Simon Levy, and Fountain co-artistic director Deborah [Lawlor] have been very supportive of the mission of Deaf West over the years. Stephen also wrote Open Window, which was a Deaf West co-production at the Pasadena Playhouse, and he has remained good friends with Ed throughout the years. So it was natural for Ed to reach out to him about adapting Cyrano.”
Troy Kotsur plays the title role in "Cyrano".
Cyrano, helmed by Levy, is scheduled to open at the Fountain on April 28, with Kurs serving as co-producer, along with the Fountain’s Laura Hill. “This production model seems to work well for us,” says Kurs. “We maintain good relationships with many theater companies. We’ve done three co-productions with CTG (Center Theatre Group). Of course, we plan to return to our home base eventually.” Home base is Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood (NoHo), which is currently being leased by Antaeus Theatre Company.
Previously, Kurs served as Deaf West’s artistic associate. He was an associate producer and ASL master on Deaf West productions of Pinocchio (2011), My Sister in This House (2010) and Children of a Lesser God (2009), and he wrote and produced the multimedia young audience show, Aesop Who? (2008). A graduate of Gallaudet University, Kurs has worked as a freelance writer, producer and filmmaker. He has also been active in the local and national deaf community, serving as the president of the board of directors at GLAD (the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness).
A strong advocate for arts education, Kurs believes that the deaf children of today don’t enjoy the same cultural opportunities that he enjoyed as a child. “I grew up in Riverside. My parents are deaf. They would take me to social and cultural events in the deaf community all the time, including the theater. When CTG started offering interpreted performances at the Mark Taper Forum, my parents took me to those performances regularly as well. These opportunities are not as prevalent today.
Although Kurs enjoyed a culturally rich childhood, he was not so sure it would offer him a livelihood as an adult. “I had a passion for the arts for many years, but I didn’t think there would be too many job possibilities for a deaf person like myself in the arts. So at Gallaudet I majored in marketing. One year after graduation, I moved to LA and decided to find a job in the creative industry. I ended up as a script reader. This job was a gateway for me, and it was at this time that I became passionate about the power of the arts and the media in changing the public perception of the deaf community.
"Big River" (2001)
“I saw what Deaf West Theatre had achieved with Big River – not only artistic success, but they had also shown audiences that deaf people were part of a colorful, vivid culture and their language was something that they took pride in.”
As Kurs moves into his new position at Deaf West, Kurs understands his administrative duties will equal if not surpass his creative responsibilities. And high on his list of priorities is underwriting. “I have two specific agenda items for 2012: to explore and obtain new sources of funding while continuing to retain our existing funding sources, and to plan our development slate so that we may focus on relevant, engaging work. Ultimately, we’d love to be where art and commerce meet — stretching the boundaries of sign language theater while also achieving success that will sustain our future.”
As for the future, Kurs’ wish list could possibly utilize his filmmaking skills. “Deaf West is a local theater for a good reason — LA is a great home base for many of our actors. We have a wonderful community of deaf actors, writers, and artists. But at the same time, I’d love to serve the nationwide deaf community. Many of our theater fans are unable to travel to LA for every production.
"Cyrano" ASL Masters. Ty Giordano and Shoshannah Stern.
“I want to find ways to bring theater into their homes, to expose deaf children to the potential of the stage so that they may begin to explore it on their own. It’s a very accessible art with deep roots in our community, and it saddens me that sign language theater is not nearly as prevalent as it once was. I was so fortunate to be exposed to so much sign language theater while growing up: community and high school productions, international deaf culture festivals, touring productions of the National Theatre of the Deaf, and most of all, Deaf West’s many productions. And video is one possibility of achieving that exposure.
“Deaf West has had a great impact on me in my artistic development, and I can only hope to spread this passion on to others and to create opportunities for them so that we all can achieve a shared goal of artistic growth.”