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Lauren Ridloff shares the show's unprecedented accommodations for people who are deaf
Lauren Ridloff was two years old when the original production of Children of a Lesser God debuted on Broadway in 1980, and eight when her parents brought her to see the movie version starring Marlee Matlin, an actress who is deaf, playing a woman named Sarah. It was the first time Ridloff had ever seen a character who was deaf onscreen, let alone one so assertive and assured. "I was inspired," she says, or rather signs, her two hands traveling up her body until her fingers spread out across her shoulders like ten exclamation points which means "inspired" in American Sign Language (ASL.) (Interpreter Candace Broecker-Penn translates Ridloff's signs into spoken English throughout our interview.)
Now Ridloff, who is deaf, is playing that same character in the first Broadway revival of Children of a Lesser God, a production that originated at the Berkshire Theatre Group last summer. Mark Medoff's play uses both spoken English and sign language to chronicle the volatile relationship between Sarah and James (Joshua Jackson), a teacher who is hearing at the deaf school where she works as a maid. Ridloff's performance not only marks her Broadway debut, it's her first gig as a professional stage actor though she's had small roles in several films. "I've always been a storyteller," she says, noting that in the past she's worked as a dancer, public speaker and teacher. "Theatre is just another form of storytelling."
In the decades since Ridloff was born and the original Broadway production of Children of a Lesser God premiered, much has changed for people who are deaf. "We're more out there in the world: We've had Italian food, we've had sushi -- the world has gotten smaller for us," Ridloff says, referencing some of the things Sarah does for the first time in the show. And, of course, they go to the theatre, too, which has become more accessible to audiences who are deaf or have hearing loss thanks to a variety of programs such as open captioning and sign language interpreting at select performances.
Since Children of a Lesser God explores the divide between the hearing and deaf worlds, it's fitting that the show's producers have made accessibility a priority, both in the house and backstage. Every single performance has supertitles projected onto the set, and a new downloadable app called GalaPro delivers synced-to-the-performance subtitles to theatregoers' smartphones. The pre-performance announcement has even been customized, warning audiences not to shame their neighbors if they're looking at their screens since they may be using the app.
Backstage in her dressing room, Ridloff points out some of the ways this production accommodates performers who are deaf in the cast (five in all, including two understudies). A blue cable strung along the wall lights up when a visitor comes a calling. A green cable illuminates when the stage manager is making an announcement, which is simultaneously delivered as text via on-site computers. "It's awesome," she says.
The production has also hired a "director of artistic sign language," TDF teaching artist Alexandria Wailes, whose efforts are as much for the actors and audiences who hear as for the ones who are deaf. For example, there are several signs that mean "smart;" Wailes chose the one that is more eye-catching. "She found signs that make a sound for dramatic purposes," Ridloff adds, loudly slapping her chest to indicate "my." "She also did research on period-appropriate signs. They had a different sign for Coca-Cola in the 1970s than we have now." (The old sign looks like someone injecting a drug.)
In addition to the show's "deaf politics and sexual politics," which Ridloff admits are rooted in their time 40 years ago, you can tell Children of a Lesser God is a period piece because a lot has changed for the deaf community thanks to technology. Ridloff points out that in the play, James has to interpret for Sarah on the phone. These days there's no need for a middleman. In addition to e-mail and texting, "we have video relay, and we have FaceTime where we can sign to one another," she says.
Also, the hearing world's attitude toward signing has evolved. "When the play first came out, ASL was not recognized as a language," Ridloff says. "Now, ASL is being taught in schools. Hearing babies are being taught in ASL. People are more engaged and attracted to ASL because they perceive the benefits of it."
Ridloff knows this firsthand. For ten years, she was a public school educator, teaching ASL to both students who were deaf and ones who could hear. And her husband, Douglas Ridloff, is the host of ASL Slam, which presents performances of signed poetry and stories in a growing number of cities.
Still, for all the encouraging signs (both literal and metaphorical), Ridloff knows there's still a long way to go in society at large and in the theatre world in particular. "I think this production has set the bar high in terms of accessibility," she says. "Right now, theatre is not all that accessible to deaf or hard of hearing people." She uses supertitles as an example: Children of a Lesser God is the only Broadway show currently featuring them. "I understand why some people think they get in the way," Ridloff says. "But if the creative team incorporates the supertitles as part of the production design when they're still in preproduction, instead of trying to figure it out later, as an afterthought, then they won't feel so intrusive. They can blend seamlessly into the whole experience for the audience."
The Broadway League recently mandated that all Main Stem theatres need to have a closed-captioning system in place at every performance by this summer, so theatre accessibility is certainly more on producers' radar. However, as Ridloff says, "It's something that we need to keep striving for," as she slips her right hand under and through her left hand as if breaking through a barrier -- the sign for "accessible." "The more diverse the audience is, the better we all are."
Top image: Lauren Ridloff and Joshua Jackson in Children of a Lesser God. Photos by Matthew Murphy.