Fountain Co-Production with Deaf West Inaugurates New Artistic Director for Celebrated Deaf Company
by Julio Martinez
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”
Julio Martinez writes for LA Stage Times.