“Here’s a representation of a culture that doesn’t get a lot of stage time. We had an audience last week that included 51 deaf community members. That was about three-quarters of the theater. Which I think is really important. We have a huge deaf community here that doesn’t always have the ability to see themselves and their culture represented in many forms of media.”
Lindsey D. Snyder was talking to me about her production of Richard III, currently on stage through this weekend at NextStop Theatre Company, the new professional theatre in Herndon, VA. What makes this production stand out from other takes on this frequently produced Shakespeare history play (including the one currently on Broadway from the Globe Theatre of London, and the production at The Folger, which has just extended its run) is that the title role, and other roles, are played by a deaf actors.
“The concept itself started as a part of my dissertation research,” Snyder told me. The focus of her study was “rhetorical gesture,” which, she explained, involved not only the movement and gesture system of the Elizabethan period, but also how to translate Shakespeare into American Sign Language (ASL). While doing this work, “I began looking at different plays through that specific lens, and with an academic curiosity.”
“Cut to Evan Hoffmann [Artistic Director of NextStop], who contacted me. He was interested in having a play about deaf culture in their season.” The two considered some of the “more standard representations of deaf culture” such as Children of a Lesser God. Deeming that script, important as it (and the film version) was in introducing deaf issues and performers to a mainstream audience, as “dated,” they branched out to consider “other representations of deafness.” Snyder mentioned her interest in Shakespeare in general and Richard III in particular. To her surprise, Hoffmann said, “Let’s do that,” and Snyder thought, “He’s crazy, but I’ll say ‘yes.’”
“I knew Richard was deaf, but I wanted at least one, possibly more, deaf actors in the cast.” Snyder, an Adjunct Professor at Gallaudet University, spoke to Ethan Sinnott, who is head of Gallaudet’s Theatre Department. “I initially mentioned it to Ethan out of excitement.” Sinnott is perhaps best known in the DC community as a set designer, and that’s how Snyder thought Sinnott might be involved in her production. Sinnott surprised her when he asked about auditions for the show and said he’d been thinking about acting again. And that’s how Sinnott came to the title role.
Sinnott is joined in the cast by two other deaf actors. Sandra Mae Frank plays one of the murderers Richard employs to dispatch his brother, a soldier in Richmond’s army, and young Elizabeth (the daughter of Queen Elizabeth, whose hand in marriage becomes an important point in Richard’s machinations). Charles Ainsworth has the roles of Sir Richard Radcliffe and Sir James Tyrrell.
Snyder said that the production was already in the works when they learned that the play would also be part of the Folger season. She hasn’t seen it yet, but has heard about it and is “very curious.” There are a lot of “small world kind of” connections between the two productions, including the sharing of Casey Kaleba, who staged the violence for both. She’ll see it, she told me. The Folger “concept is so interesting and I kind of want to see the Folger in the square,” she said, referring to the set design that reimagines the space from a fixed seating model of Shakespeare’s Globe into an immersive, audience-on-all-sides configuration.
Speaking of The Globe, its production in New York is a “whole other phenomenon,” since the Globe works with an “original practices” approach, men in all the roles, for instance, and candles as part of the lighting design. She’s seen the companion piece in the rep, Twelfth Night, and said she would watch Mark Rylance “read the phone book.” Earlier in her career, she had a fellowship at the Globe and she reported that to “watch him step in and out of character is mind-blowing.”
I mentioned that the Globe production has cut out the character of Mad Queen Margaret. Snyder said that, as a woman, she feels that the strong female characters are central to the play, are a “subtle but really important part of Richard.” She admitted to doing “a lot of cutting” to get the run-time down to two hours, twenty minutes including “interval,” using the British phrase for intermission, and perhaps providing a glimpse of her days at the Globe. Having “a healthy chunk of the text in ASL makes the timing different” from the way a more traditional production would be cut, she added.
Snyder is unaware of any other production of this play that has featured a deaf Richard. She mentioned that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has a deaf actor in the company and that they are “very good about having a character in the play who happens to be deaf.” Of course, with more than four hundred years of past productions, it’s hard to be sure that you are the first to, say, have a deaf Richard…or a naked Macbeth…
“I will say that the transition from an academic idea to a practical approach was challenging,” Snyder admitted, before pronouncing the concept itself as successful and herself as happy about it. “Anytime you put a strong concept onto a play,” a practice that she says is “not my thing” generally, you invite “misunderstandings,” places where “the concept doesn’t work in this moment. What I was really delighted to find is that, while the premise seemed to be really out there and conceptual, it is supported by the text.” Richard does, she pointed out, describe himself as “rudely stamped…unfinish’d, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up.”
My brother Anthony always uses the film Edward Scissorhands as an example of the phenomenon in our culture to have gorgeous movie stars play parts that might be an opportunity for a good actor who isn’t going to be chosen for a romantic lead to have a chance. Richard has been played by his share of matinee idols, including Lord Olivier and Kevin Kline — and Kevin Spacey and Mark Rylance, let’s be real, are not so badly formed that dogs bark at them as they limp by. I think it’s cool, even if the text doesn’t explicitly include hearing among Richard’s challenges, that the part has been opened up, in this instance, to someone who isn’t going to bounce from this to playing Heathcliff.
And Snyder points out that “there are so many references to the tongue, to speaking, hearing, listening, to defining oneself by what you look like and how others look at you. What I actually found is that in some ways it made a lot of sense. It’s a common theme in deaf culture,” trying to express oneself and to be heard.
“The greatest challenge is the language,” Snyder continued. She was “very lucky” to have Sinnott in the lead, “someone who has as many years of experience as I do” working with Shakespeare and ASL. “He came in with lots of ideas. I could rely on those translations [from Shakespeare’s written text to ASL]. All I had to do was tweak.”
Snyder described audience reaction as quite positive. She told me about teachers seeing the piece: “I always appreciate it when teachers ‘get it,’ because they are thinkers.” Fascinatingly, she spoke about how seeing some of the famous soliloquies in a three-dimensional language (ASL) makes them really clear. As opposed to only reading the words, the audience “is actually seeing the words themselves.”
Snyder came to the area to get her PhD from University of Maryland in 2003. She is married to Paul Reisman, who is Associate Artistic Director of Faction of Fools Theatre Company, where Snyder also serves as Director of Access & Inclusion. FoF has partnered with Gallaudet, where it performs frequently in residence, and its next production will be Pinocchio!, which, rounding out the circle, will be a co-production with NextStop.
Meanwhile, there are only a few more chances to see a unique Richard III: it runs through Sunday at NextStop Theatre Company. Details and tickets.