Real talk. This week is Deaf Awareness Week - which is one of the reasons the hashtag #hearingprivilege was trending on Monday. So I want to write a little bit about my experience with deafness in theatre… I attended college at Kent State University School of Theatre and Dance - and 99.9% of the professors I had were amazing, supportive, and wonderful people. Hell, all of the theatre professors I didn't have were incredibly supportive too. I greatly enjoyed my time there and look back on it fondly; but there was this one professor who I used to respect (who, thankfully, is no longer at Kent) with whom I have a bone to pick. One day I went to his office for advice as I was close to graduating. And I will never ever forget the exact words he said to me: "I think maybe you should look at other careers because theatre isn't accepting of people with 'unique characteristics',” he said making exaggerated air quotes with his hands. I don't remember ever feeling so low and disheartened by the fact that someonethat I respected was telling me I would never succeed because of something I could not change. And I never felt as offended as I did in that moment. I’ve been called “deaf and dumb” or any number of things by people who didn’t know better and yet – a professor that I respected implying that my deafness a bad thing was worse than all of that. But I am me - and there is nothing that motivates me more than being told that I can't do something. I love proving people wrong. (My mother once told me there was no way I could mow the lawn in under an hour. So I did. Tom Sawyer would have a field day with me.) So I kept working at it. And I can say, with pride, that outside of a deliberate break earlier this year – I’ve been performing consistently in Chicago since the fall of 2014. And today I received confirmation that I am officially booked through February of 2017. But, let’s be real. I can’t take all the credit for it. I am still boggled that after some of the worst auditions of my life I have gotten roles with companies that have been way too good to me. The credit has to go to directors, companies, and people who looked at me and did not say: "Oh he's deaf, this is going to be hard." Some of them saw my deafness and said: "This is fantastic! More diversity! More opportunities! How can we incorporate this?!” And some of them saw my deafness and said: “So what? He’s the best person for the role – we’re casting him!” And both are amazing responses to have. (Although I question the wisdom of any director who sees me and says without a hint of sarcasm: “He’s the best person for the role!” But that’s neither here nor there.) And more than just directors - there hasn't been a single member of the Chicago Theatre Community who I've reached out to that hasn't been willing to sit down and chat with me if I needed advice. From people in big places like Steppenwolf Theatre Company or the Writers Theatre or the Goodman Theatre or Victory Gardens Theater, to storefront theatres I've respected for years like Steep Theatre Company and Oracle Productions, to small theatres I haven’t heard of with directors and administrators who have reached out and asked me: "How can we be more accessible?" Or even actors, playwrights, and directors who have said: “Richard, you should talk to this person!” or said to other people: “You should talk to Richard!” There are so many – and I can’t possibly hope to name them all.
Those are the people deserve thanks and gratitude for opening the doors - not just to me but for other members of the d/Deaf community. Accessibility and diversity can’t be one sided – those in positions of privilege and power have to be willing to take the hands of underprivileged communities. This happened in Youngstown, where I lived for several years, and aside for one newspaper critic who said he couldn’t buy me in a role knowing that I was deaf; my deafness was largely seen as a non-issue onstage. But, more than any place else, this has happened in Chicago, the city I am proud to call home. And Chicago has shown that they have been willing to do better with every decision they’ve made. So it was those people who opened the doors and proved that professor wrong. Not only has the community been accepting of my “unique characteristics” they’ve embraced it and raised it up as something to be proud of. And now I get to see other Deaf actors being raised up as well – not just here (as in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s ART this past month, or upcoming productions of THE LITTLE FLOWER OF EAST ORANGE at Eclipse Theatre Company and American Theater Company’s workshop production of BATTLEAXE BETTY both of which are happening this year) but everywhere in the country. I get to see actors like John McGinty, Michelle Schaefer, Russell Harvard, Joe Caverly and many, many, many other amazing examples of #deaftalent being successful on a much larger scale than me - and being given a place underneath the spotlights. So, shout out to those directors, company managers, artistic directors, companies, production teams, and everyone who has said: “Let’s take a risk. Let’s open the door.” Please keep opening them – because I don’t want to prove just that one professor wrong – because my story is not unique. There are others who have heard the same thing and they deserve to prove their detractors wrong too. So, a shout out to those people on Deaf Awareness week for being amazing allies. I wish I had the time to name you all. But know when I walk past your storefront advertisement I think: "This is a theatre I am proud to support." Thank you for using your #hearingprivilege the way it is should be used – as a means to help those communities who often find themselves marginalized and underserved. Thank you for bring awareness and accessibility to your organizations. Thank you for making an effort. Thank you for being aware. Thank you, thank you, thank you.