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Gifts of Language Continue in ‘Cyrano’

Troy Kotsur as Cyrano.

The forces behind a well-received stage production have worked together for a long time, forever bonding the Fountain and Deaf West theater companies.

by Karen Wada

Nearly a decade ago, an improbable dream came true for Deaf West Theatre and its founder, Ed Waterstreet. The small, L.A.-based company went to Broadway with its signed and spoken version of the musical “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Even as he savored their success, Waterstreet had another dream — creating an original musical inspired by Edmond Rostand‘s “Cyrano de Bergerac.” What better tale for his theater to tell than one that explores the universal desire to express oneself?

This spring, “Cyrano” is making its debut, albeit as a straight play. Stephen Sachs’ modern-day adaptation, which is directed by Simon Levy, opened to acclaim in April at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood and runs until early July. The co-production represents a reunion of old friends — the Fountain gave Deaf West its first home and Sachs, the Fountain’s co-artistic director, is one of its longtime collaborators.

Sachs says the show also has turned out to be “a special farewell to Ed” since the 69-year-old Waterstreet, whom he calls “a delicious mixture of bulldog and teddy bear,” has retired after two decades as his company’s pioneering artistic director.

“Cyrano” marks a beginning as well, as it is Deaf West’s first production under new artistic director D.J. Kurs.

“I want to build on the tradition and passion Ed brought while keeping us moving forward,” says Kurs, 34.

Rostand’s 19th century drama about a 17th century soldier-poet has been reset in a world with Facebook and Starbucks. In the original, Cyrano fears rejection because of his huge nose, so he secretly uses his way with words to help his comrade Christian woo beautiful Roxanne.

In Sachs’ story, a poet believes his deafness will ruin his chances with a hearing woman named Roxy, especially after he learns she’s fallen for his hearing brother, aging rocker Chris. This Cyrano pinch-hits for his less-than-eloquent sibling via text and email.

“Technology has opened up the world” for the deaf community, the playwright says, although it can be a blessing and a curse for someone like Cyrano, “who connects back to a more romantic age.” Sachs’ hero — brash, brilliant and yet plagued by self-doubt — often feels he’s out of place, not fitting in with the hearing and choosing not to fit in with the deaf.

Sachs and Levy have integrated e-language into Deaf West’s trademark blending of signed and spoken language presented by deaf and hearing performers for deaf and hearing audiences. Flat-screen monitors glow with online messages while actors such as Troy Kotsur, who plays Cyrano, express with their hands and faces what Sachs calls the “intimate, visceral, kinetic” beauty of American Sign Language. (The ASL translation was created by two ASL masters working with the actors, director and playwright.)

Sachs discovered the richness of sign language in the late ’80s when he observed the interpreter at a play he was directing. He began holding workshops with deaf actors and writers; when he and Deborah Lawlor founded the 78-seat Fountain in 1990, he hoped to start a deaf theater company as well. Then he heard about Waterstreet, a National Theatre of the Deaf veteran who wanted to establish a company for deaf artists like himself.

The Fountain offered Waterstreet office space, from which he launched Deaf West in 1991. In its first show, “The Gin Game,” actors signed while hearing audience members listened to the dialogue on infrared headphones.

Deaf West ventured out on its own in 1993, eventually settling in North Hollywood. The company has gained a national reputation for expanding opportunities for deaf artists and defying expectations — especially by pursuing what Waterstreet calls “that crazy idea, the deaf musical.”

Just as “wonderfully crazy,” he adds, was the notion that such a musical could reach Broadway. “Big River,” which was directed by Broadway veteran Jeff Calhoun, opened in North Hollywood in 2001, moved to the Mark Taper Forum in 2002 and, in 2003, landed in New York, where it earned two Tony nominations and a Tony honor for excellence in theater.

Deaf West achieved its goal of presenting an original musical in 2007 with “Sleeping Beauty Wakes,” which opened at the Kirk Douglas Theatre with a book by Tony-winner Rachel Sheinkin and a score by Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda of indie pop-rock’s GrooveLily. That Center Theatre Group co-production was followed by another, “Pippin,” in 2009.

Over the years, Sachs has continued to create work related to deaf culture. His “Sweet Nothing in My Ear,” inspired by the debate over cochlear implants, debuted at the Fountain in 1997 and was made into a TV movie. For Deaf West, he has directed two plays and written two others. His drama “Open Window,” in which a deaf young man is accused of killing the father who kept him chained in the basement, premiered in 2005 at the Pasadena Playhouse in a co-production between Deaf West and the playhouse.

When Waterstreet suggested collaborating again, Sachs asked about “Cyrano.” “Ed told me they had kicked it around, but it never got off the ground,” he says. So he proposed his modern-day version.

Kurs hopes the strong response to the show, which has been extended through July 8, will attract donors who can help ease the financial challenges Deaf West has faced after the loss of crucial federal funding, starting with a major cut in 2004. He is seeking additional funding sources for the company, which receives foundation, individual and local and state government support. Meanwhile, Deaf West has reduced its staff and rented out its theater during 2012.

Looking beyond “Cyrano,” Kurs is considering possibilities for the next production, which is scheduled for early 2013.

Waterstreet says he decided to leave at the end of last year but didn’t officially retire until Kurs, a former Deaf West artistic associate, was appointed in January. “The theater is still my baby,” he adds, noting that he plans to help with fundraising.

Returning to the Fountain for “Cyrano” proved to be what he calls “a very nice homecoming. … I had tears in my eyes as I saw the play for the first time in the space where we had so many memories.”

On opening night, Sachs sat behind Waterstreet as they watched the world premiere, deaf and hearing actors and an array of high-tech screens filling the stage where Deaf West got its start two decades earlier.

“At intermission, Ed leaned over to me,” Sachs recalls. “He said, ‘Wow! Look at all this. Look at how far we’ve come.'”

Cyrano Extended to July 8th (323) 663-1525  More Info  Buy Tickets

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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 

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