Tag Archives: Gallaudet University

The Guy Who Taught Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman Sign Language in McCartney Video

With our upcoming opening of the world premiere of our signed/spoken Cyrano, Sign Language is very much on our minds and in our hands these days. No wonder the new Paul McCartney video, “My Valentine”, caught our eye. It features Natalie Portman and Johnny Depp using Sign Language!

So, who taught them the Sign Language used in the video?

Bill Pugin

Our friend, Bill Pugin. Bill lives in Los Angeles and is a longtime friend of the Fountain and Deaf West. His sister, Mary Anne, is deaf and his great affection toward her inspired him to learn sign language. He attended Gallaudet University, a university for the Deaf in Washington DC, where he completed his formal training in Sign Language Interpreting in 1979. He is now one of the foremost ASL interpreters in the country and has traveled the world providing sign language interpreting services for three U.S. Presidents, His Holiness The Dalai Lama, World Leaders and Entertainment Industry Icons. He launched his own national interpreting service, The Sign Language Company, in 1986.

How did the gig with Paul McCartney come about?

“A mysterious call came from London asking if I could teach two actors to sign a Paul McCartney song for a video to be shot at Paul’s home in Beverly Hills, ” Bill says. “The London office of Paul’s Management company was impressed with my company’s web site and the body of work I had done. I ended up at Natalie Portman’s house teaching her “My Valentine” from Paul’s “Kisses on the Bottom” album. Three days later, the day of the shoot, I’m up at Paul’s place waiting for the second actor to be flown in.”

Johnny Depp and Paul McCartney at Paul's house (Bill Pugin in the background)

“Finally, Johnny Depp arrived and we got to work on the same song. We had about fifteen minutes to work on the song. I signed the song for hours sitting on an apple box under the camera for Johnny to be able to peripherally see me for each take. I was his “human cue card”. Johnny’s signing turned out to be more theatrical and ‘abbreviated’ because of the time issue.”

Why Did Paul Want Sign Language in the Video?

“He said it was his daughter, Stella’s idea. Paul always has an interpreter on a riser with a spot for his concerts and Stella loves sign language, apparently. Paul told me that he also makes sure that the portion of seats in the arenas where he performs that are blocked by equipment – and therefore can’t be sold – are given at no charge to blind audience members. All that AND an animal lover!”

Natalie Portman shooting the McCartney video.

“I spent nine hours with Paul McCartney at his house. When introduced to him, I asked “Is it as big a thrill for you meeting me as it is for me meeting you?” He laughed and said, “Bigger!” I told him how I spent a day with Princess Diana, he told me how he cried when she died (they were friends). I told him how some of my elementary school friends were jealous because their parents didn’t let them stay up to watch The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. He told me stories about Eric Clapton and Elvis. I asked him if he ever received my sister (Evelyn’s) letter that she sent in 1966. He said it was the only one he kept.”

“At the ninth hour, he asked how I was doing and he gave me a neck and shoulder rub. I said, “I can’t believe I’m getting a massage from the ‘cute Beatle’! I woke up the next morning smiling because it wasn’t a dream. It was real. Surreal. Sir Paul!”

BroadwayWorld: Fountain and Deaf West Theaters present Premiere of Signed “Cyrano”

Paul Raci (Chris), Erinn Anova (Roxy), and Troy Kotsur (Cyrano).

The Fountain Theatre and Deaf West Theatre present the world premiere of a modern day classic romance, a re-imagined signed/spoken version of “Cyrano de Bergerac.” CYRANO, written by Fountain Theatre co-artistic director Stephen Sachs (Bakersfield Mist) and directed by Simon Levy, opens at The Fountain Theatre on April 28, with previews beginning April 20.

In Sachs’ new adaptation, Cyrano is a deaf poet hopelessly in love with Roxy, a beautiful hearing woman. But she doesn’t understand sign language and instead loves Chris, his hearing brother. Can Cyrano express his love to Roxy with his hands? Or must he teach Chris to woo her, to “speak his words” for him? ASL (American Sign Language) becomes the language of love in this new spin on a classic love story.

Troy Kotsur (Cyrano).

“In the original classic, Cyrano feels self-conscious and over-glorifies his enormous nose, but in this modern deaf version, it’s his hands that are the focus,” explains Sachs. “Cyrano’s deafness is channeled through his hands, which swirl and soar to express the most complex human concepts, his inner-most thoughts and feelings, through the beauty of sign language.”

“It’s a mythic story about our hunger for love, the pangs for it,” says Levy. “But the deeper theme is how we communicate with one another. Stephen has written a beautiful adaptation that’s contemporary and fresh, set in a modern city where people communicate via text, Facebook and Twitter. It’s a world of iPhones, Blackberries and tablets. The production marries three forms of communication: ASL, English, and e-language.”

American Sign Language is not English, but a unique language unto itself with its own syntax, sentence structure, slang, humor, subtlety and complexity. It’s the job of ASL masters Tyrone Giordano and Shoshannah Stern to work with the deaf actors to translate the script into ASL, and director Simon Levy works with ASL interpreters in rehearsals. Fight choreographers Brian Danner and Abby Walla must not only create a fight scene between actors Troy Kotsur (Cyrano) and James Royce Edwards, but incorporate the simultaneous sign language with the help of Giordano, Stern and Levy.

A new project such as this has attracted deaf actors from all over the world. Six of the 13-member ensemble are deaf, and many of them have traveled great distances to make their Los Angeles debuts in Cyrano. Auditions were completed using Skype and video submissions.

“Deaf West is the only established theater company in the U.S. that regularly stages new works featuring deaf actors,” notes newly appointed Deaf West Theatre artistic director David Kurs. “Deaf actors from all over the country and the world were anxious to participate.”

Troy Kotsur is Cyrano.

Troy Kotsur (Cyrano), a veteran of Deaf West Theatre (Big River, Pippin, A Streetcar Named Desire, Of Mice and Men), traveled to Los Angeles from his current home in Arizona; Daniel Durant majored in theater at Gallaudet University and comes to L.A. from Maryland; Eddie Buck, who has acted in productions ranging from A Christmas Carol to Romeo and Juliet to Hamlet, joins the cast from Pennsylvania; Maleni Chaitoo (Switched at Birth) recently arrived from New York; and stage, film and TV actress Ipek D. Mehlum comes all the way from Oslo, Norway. Completing the deaf cast is Los Angeles-based actor Bob Hiltermann, who appeared in the Academy Award winning film version of Children of a Lesser God and recurred on All My Children. The cast also includes hearing actors Erinn Anova (Blues For An Alabama Sky, For Colored Girls…, Doubt) as Roxy and Paul Raci (Joseph Jefferson “Best Actor” nomination for Children of a Lesser God in Chicago) as Cyrano’s brother Chris. Hearing ensemble members Al Bernstein, James Babbin, James Royce Edwards, Victor Warren, and Martica De Cardenas also “voice” for the deaf actors.

The set designer for Cyrano is Jeff McLaughlin; lighting designer is Jeremy Pivnick; sound designer is Peter Bayne; video designer is Jeff Teeter; multimedia tech is by Media Fabricators, Inc.; costume designer is Naila Aladdin Sanders; prop designer is Misty Carlisle; fight choreographers are Brian Danner and Abby Walla; production stage manager is Sue Karutz; assistant stage manager is Terri RobertsLaura Hill and Deborah Lawlor produce for The Fountain Theatre, and David Kurs produces for Deaf West Theatre. Cyrano is funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Paul Raci (Chris) and Troy Kotsur (Cyrano).

The relationship between The Fountain Theatre and Deaf West Theatre dates back 21 years to the early beginnings of both companies. Excited by the visual theatricality of ASL, Stephen Sachs had already been conducting workshops with deaf actors for a number of years. He and Fountain co-artistic director Deborah Lawlor offered office space in their newly founded theater facility to Ed Waterstreet, an actor with National Theatre of the Deaf who envisioned starting a theater company for deaf actors in Los Angeles. Deaf West Theatre produced its first two productions, The Gin Game and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (the latter directed by Sachs) in the Fountain space. Deaf West Theatre went on to produce 40 plays and four musicals in their own venue and around the country, including the Tony-nominated Big River on Broadway, and to win more than 80 theater awards. The Fountain Theatre is one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles with over 200 awards for all areas of production, performance, and design. Fountain projects have been seen in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Florida, New Jersey, Minneapolis and Edinburgh.

Cyrano marks Stephen Sachs’ ninth new play, his third incorporating deaf culture and illuminating the deaf world. His play Sweet Nothing in my Ear (1997, PEN USA Literary Award finalist, Media Access Award winner for Theater Excellence) has been produced in theaters around the country and in 2008 was made into a TV movie for CBS starring Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin and Jeff DanielsOpen Window (2005, Media Access Award winner for Theater Excellence) had its world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, directed by Eric Simonson. His other plays include Bakersfield Mist (recently optioned for London’s West End and New York), Miss Julie: Freedom Summer (Fountain Theatre, Vancouver Playhouse,Canadian Stage Company, LA Drama Critics Circle award and LA Weekly award nominations for Best Adaptation), Gilgamesh (Theatre @ Boston Court), Central Avenue (PEN USA Literary Award finalist, Back Stage Garland award, Best Play), Mother’s Day, The Golden Gate (Best Play, Drama-Logue), and The Baron in the Trees. Sachs co-founded The Fountain Theatre with Deborah Lawlor in 1990.

Simon Levy was honored with the 2011 Milton Katselas Award for Lifetime Achievement in Directing by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. Directing credits at the Fountain include A House Not Meant to Stand; Opus; Photograph 51;The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore; The Gimmick with Dael Orlandersmith (Ovation Award-Solo Performance); Master Class (Ovation Award-Best Production); Daisy in the Dreamtime; Going to St. Ives; The Night of the Iguana; Summer & Smoke (Ovation Award-Best Production); The Last Tycoon, which he wrote and directed, (5 Back Stage West awards, including Best Adaptation and Direction); and Orpheus Descending (6 Drama-Logue awards, including Best Production and Direction). What I Heard About Iraq, which he wrote and directed, was produced worldwide including the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (Fringe First Award) and the Adelaide Fringe Festival (Fringe Award), was produced by BBC Radio, and received a 30-city UK tour culminating in London.

Troy Kotsur (Cyrano) and Erinn Anova (Roxy).

Cyrano opens on Saturday, April 28, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays @ 8 pm and Sundays @ 2 pm through June 10. Preview performances take place April 20-27 on the same schedule with an additional preview performance on Wednesday, April 25 @ 8 pm. Tickets are $30 on Thursdays and Fridays and $34 on Saturdays and Sundays, except previews which are $15. On Thursdays and Fridays only, students with ID are $20 and seniors are $25. The Fountain Theatre is located at 5060 Fountain Avenue (at Normandie) in Los Angeles. Secure, on-site parking is available for $5. The Fountain Theatre is air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible. For reservations and information, call 323 663-1525 or go to www.FountainTheatre.com.

Photo Credit: Ed Kreiger 

David Kurs: A New Leader for Deaf West

Fountain Co-Production with Deaf West Inaugurates  New Artistic Director for 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.

David Kurs

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.”

Julio Martinez writes for LA Stage Times.

Cyrano April 20 – June 10 (323) 663-1525   More Info   Get Tickets

Deaf Actors from Around the World Join Cast for New Deaf/Hearing Version of “Cyrano”

Fountain/Deaf West Co-Production Draws Actors World Wide

Maleni Chaitoo from New York is ready to get to work at the Fountain.

Rehearsals start tomorrow at the Fountain for the world premiere of the thrilling new deaf/hearing version of Cyrano set in a modern city.  In this re-imagined new adaptation of the classic “Cyrano de Bergerac” Cyrano is a brilliant deaf poet hopelessly in love with a beautiful hearing woman, Roxy. But she doesn’t understand sign language and instead loves his hearing brother, Chris. Can Cyrano express his love for Roxy with his hands – the source of such deaf pride and shame? Or must he teach Chris to “speak his words” for him, to woo her? ASL becomes the language of love in this modern sign language spin on a classic love story.

Troy Kotsur

Supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Cyrano is written by Stephen Sachs, directed by Simon Levy, in a co-production between the Fountain Theatre and Deaf West Theatre.   It stars Troy Kotsur as Cyrano, Paul Raci as his brother Chris, and Erinn Anova as Roxy. Previews start April 20. It opens April 28 and runs to June 10.

This unique new project has already created a stream of excited buzz — and attracted deaf actors from all over the world. Half of the 12-member Cyrano cast are deaf. Almost all of them are coming to Los Angeles from other cities worldwide — one from as far away as Oslo, Norway. All to be part of this electrifying new production.

Troy Kotsur

Troy Kotsur is arriving from Arizona to tackle the lead role of Cyrano. No stranger to LA audiences, Troy is a veteran Deaf West actor, seen in such award-winning productions as Big River, Pippin, A Streetcar Named Desire and Of Mice and Men.  Troy is also seen on TV and is married to actress Deanne Bray (TV’s “Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye“). Later this year, Troy will direct and act in the independent feature film, Deaf Ghost.

Daniel Durant

Actor Daniel Durant comes to LA from Maryland. Daniel has been deaf since birth. Born in Detroit, Michigan, he grew up in Minnesota. He attended Gallaudet University, majoring in theater. While appearing in Cyrano, Daniel and his girlfriend found an apartment in the San Fernando Valley, near Studio City.

Eddie Buck

Eddie Buck joins the cast from Pennsylvania. A talented performer who hails from Skippack, PA, Eddie has acted with such schools and theatre companies as National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble and The Growing Stage in New Jersey, in productions ranging from Jack and the Beanstalk to Romeo and Juliet to Hamlet.

Ipek D. Mehlum

The farthest traveler is actress Ipek D. Mehlum, who lives in Oslo, Norway.  Born in Istanbul, Turkey, Ipek moved to the United States at twenty-two to attend Gallaudet University and study acting. Now living and working in Oslo, she is a stage, film and TV actress who also leads workshops in theatre, TV and yoga and has led a theatre project in Uganda and India.

Maleni Chaitoo

Completing the deaf cast are Bob Hiltermann and Maleni Chaitoo, both local and now living in the LA area. Maleni Chaitoo was a longtime resident of New York where her parents emigrated from Trinidad and Tobago, West Indies. Bob is a popular Los Angeles TV and stage actor, musician, and featured in the film documentary, See What I’m Saying.

Bob Hiltermann

Hearing Ensemble cast members who also “voice” for the deaf actors include James Babbin, John Bingham, James Royce Edwards, Victor Warren, and Martica De Cardenas.
Welcome to all our eager and talented travelers! We’re thrilled to have all of you with us in Los Angeles and at the Fountain Theatre with Deaf West, as we voyage forward on this exciting new journey together.
Cyrano April 20 – June 10 (323) 663-1525