Heard Through the Heart

by Kim R. Burningham

Print Share

    It seemed perfectly normal when Karen Monahan grabbed the hero’s arm. Then, right on cue, he began his solo performance. But instead of singing the words, he was signing them, telling his part of the story through deaf sign language. No one in the audience knew that Karen had squeezed firmly on Scott’s arm to let him know when to begin. No one needed to know. He performed his actions smoothly, as the other actors had throughout the show, without saying a word.

    Then the curtains rushed together, but no one on stage spoke. When the curtains opened again, the cast bowed politely. Although the audience thundered its applause, 30 of the 45 performers couldn’t hear it because they are deaf. But they had communicated so effectively with the audience that nearly everyone watching cheered when the awards were announced. The Los Angeles Ward for the Deaf had won the Los Angeles California Stake roadshow competition, with awards for best acting, best costumes and set, best script, and of course, outstanding roadshow of the year.

    It was the culmination of months of effort that had begun when the stake president, Rodney H. Brady, sent a letter inviting the ward to participate in the annual contest for the first time. Initially, the challenge seemed insurmountable. “I had my doubts about how good it would be,” Wayne Bennett, a counselor in the bishopric said, speaking in Ameslan (American Sign Language, a means of communication employed by many deaf people). “But a few months of practice made of lot of difference. When I saw the roadshow in performance, I said, ‘Hey, that’s no roadshow; that’s a miracle!’”

    The audience seemed to agree. Carol Mears, a professional comedy sketch writer, said she was “thrilled. I honestly forgot it was being done by the deaf.” Other performers, sometimes from other ward’s roadshows, sometimes children of ward members, provided voices to narrate the story. They spoke through microphones in the orchestra pit and were unseen by the audience. But their narration helped those who could hear to follow the actions of the deaf actors and actresses on stage.

    The show, entitled “Under the Apple Tree,” adhered closely to the stake theme, “Once upon an Apple Tree,” and followed the trials of Red Delicious, an apple tree torn from his home by a tornado. He was soon joined by Yellow Delicious, another uproot in search of a place she could call her own. The two castaways discovered a new orchard presided over by Mother Apple, and finally felt confident to sink their roots into the community. Red Delicious eventually saved his fellow trees from a nefarious attack by bugs and aphids (including two members of the bishopric), and the apple trees lived happily ever after.

    One of the highlights of the production was the “ABC Song,” during which the Apple Cuties taught audience members the manual alphabet. Another well-remembered scene found Mother Apple unable to get the attention of Red and Yellow Delicious, so she threw an apple at them and complained, “They must be deaf.” The joke appeared to put the audience at ease as they realized the deaf knew how to laugh at themselves.

    Making the roadshow a success was not an easy task. There were many unusual problems. For example, when 23-year-old director Dave McKay began thinking about writing a script, he encountered the difficulty of writing one that would never be spoken. “We wrote it with our hands,” he said. Once a skeletal plot outline was chosen, directors and cast members worked together from improvised possibilities to a finalized sequence of actions. Long after rehearsals had begun, voice director Kareena Heath decided on words to be read by the unseen voices in the orchestra pit.

    Another difficulty was synchronization of music and action. The entr’acte, for example, was an interpretive dance, and the dancers were required to perform to music they could not hear. Brother McKay solved the problem by casting one hearing dancer, who was responsible to keep the others in time with the beat. Once again, this was accomplished by means of hidden signals undetectable to the audience. Scott Duge (Red Delicious) and Birdie Herrick (Mother Apple) were kept on cue by Karen, a hearing interpreter for the deaf who took the role of Yellow Delicious. In other sections, actors and dancers maintained correct timing by memorizing counts and order of appearance.

    Staging had to be carefully arranged so that actors could not only be seen, but also so that their hand signals were clearly visible at all times.

    And, of course, butterflies in the stomach aren’t limited only to those who hear. Bill Andrews, who played Washington, the oldest of Mother Apple’s children, explained that stage fright manifested itself in an unusual way. “You could literally say we had a case of arthritis,” he said. “Our fingers were frozen. When hearing people get scared, their voices shake, but in our case, it’s our hands. They stiffen up and we can’t make the signs.”

    Birdie was supposed to keep everyone backstage quiet. “But the deaf signed to each other anyway,” she remembered, smiling. “I told them to cut it out, because their hands would crack and make noise.”

    The Los Angeles Ward for the Deaf is a unique organization. Those in the ward are either deaf themselves or members of a family in which someone is deaf. Although it is under jurisdiction of the Los Angeles California Stake, its members come from a broad geographical area. But the roadshow brought them all together.

    Homer Thexton explained how participation in the event strengthened family unity. He is deaf, his wife is hard of hearing, and his children hear normally, yet all participated. “It helped our family,” he explained. “There was more cooperation and communication at home. We really taught and helped each other in our parts.”

    That type of reaction extended throughout the stake. For example, members of the University of Southern California Branch roadshow cast (which, incidentally, placed second in the competition) stayed behind after their own performance long enough to provide the voices for the deaf show. Noting that support, President Brady said he felt the roadshow experience had unified the entire stake. Since the performance, a variety of activities have helped to bring members of the ward for the deaf and other wards in the stake into closer contact on a more regular basis. (See FYI for Feb. 1978 and May 1978.)

    The roadshow is over. But excitement and pride remain. Already ward members are talking about future productions and looking forward to another roadshow next year.

    Editor’s Note: The Los Angeles Ward for the Deaf was recently divided to form two new wards, the San Fernando Valley Ward for the Deaf in the Los Angeles California Chatsworth Stake, and the Torrance North Ward for the Deaf, located in the Torrance California North Stake. The Fullerton Branch for the Deaf of the Fullerton California Stake was created in 1971, and continues to serve the needs of the deaf in that area.

    Photos by Kent Miles

    The Apple Cuties taught the audience the manual alphabet in the “ABC Song”

    Mother Apple (Birdie Herrick) hit Red Delicious (Scott Duge) on the head with an apple to get his attention. “They must be deaf,” she said

    “I’ll be with you in Apple Blossom Time” sang Scott Duge and Karen Monahan