– When we asked Matthew R. Wilson, founder of Faction of Fools how the students at Gallaudet were responding to his company’s presence on campus, his answer was a quick invitation to stop by and found out. Ryan Taylor, Artistic Director of Washington Rogues, did just that. –
Hamlet’s being kind of a jerk. The Prince of Denmark is droning on and he won’t stop trying to cajole poor Guildenstern into playing a tune on a very unwanted pipe. Hamlet grows more insistent and manic. Guildenstern pleads ignorance of musical theory and practice, protests grow more desperate. Offenses are taken. Long standing friendships are at risk. Never mind that troublesome detail that Guildenstern and life-partner Rosencrantz have recently betrayed Hamlet to good King Claudius.
The scene takes on new meaning when you consider that this Guildenstern is very much Deaf and these protestations are delivered via incredibly expressive American Sign Language. Then punctuate all those bad vibes, plots, counter-plots and linguistic misunderstandings with the physical slapstick of Commedia dell’Arte. Bodies move in time to rhythms and techniques developed centuries ago while simultaneously communicating through one of the newest languages on Earth.
It’s complicated. It’s fascinating. It’s working on multiple thematic levels. It’s like 30 seconds of Faction of Fool’s Hamlecchino: The Clown Prince of Denmark.
As part of their partnership with Gallaudet University, the world’s only university focused on serving the Deaf community, Faction of Fools performs at least one show a year that includes Deaf members of the Gallaudet student body. In Hamlecchino, students Amelia Hensley and Mariana Devenow have been cast as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively.
I sat down with several artists involved with the production of Hamlecchino, currently running to critical acclaim at Gallaudet’s Elstad Auditorium, to discuss the burgeoning relationship between the University and the newly Helen Hayes award-winning Fools to learn more about the many techniques utilized during production and how Commedia dell’Arte and American Sign Language (ASL) complement each other.
Gallaudet student Marianna Devenow is the spirited physical force embodying Guildenstern’s frustrations. Our interview took place shortly after a blocking rehearsal for the above-referenced scene with the pipe. As Devenow is deaf, our interaction was interpreted by Krystin Balzarini, who more than capably captured Devenow’s explosive, huge personality.
DCTS: How did you get started with Faction of Fools?
Marianna: Ethan [Sinnot] had been trying to pull me in for Commedia dell’Arte. There was a training. Ethan asked me to come to his class and encouraged me to show up for Matt [Wilson’s] Commedia dell’Arte workshop. I saw him and how he moved and what he was doing with his body with acting and I thought it was really cool. I love that kind of physical acting and body movement.
How long have you been acting?
Really I’ve had the heart of an actor my whole life, but I’ve been kind of retired for the past four years. Now I’m starting to act again. It’s my second time in a mostly hearing production. It’s my first experience with a professional theater group, which is a lot different. Working with hearing actors for fun, in high school, was a different story. This is a serious professional group, so communicating with them has been an amazing experience. It’s been nice. Matt [Wilson] tries really hard to learn sign.”
The hard part is that I have to focus on the lines in my mind and then forget the body movement. Sometimes it’s overwhelming so I forget my placement or I forget a line and having to remember all at the same time has been the biggest challenge. It’s not easy or hard, just a different method of acting and memorizing the lines.
What are the similarities/differences between you and your character, Guildenstern?
We are very opposite. I have a very strong personality, I have strong opinions. I think Guildenstern follows what everyone tells him to do. He follows the King. It’s hard for me to get out of that. I have a very strong personality and I have to sort of give that up for the character. So we’re just very different and I have to think about that when I’m acting.
How does Guildenstern feel about being asked to play a flute?
I have no clue what’s going on. However, I realize that he is pissed off at me for not fluting and I feel that he has insulted me for being Deaf.
How does that color the rest of the play from that point on?
I feel like there’s no choice because he’s a prince. Our friendship is gone after that point.
Were you a Shakespeare fan before Hamlecchino?
I took a course with Ethan Sinnot. We did read a lot of Shakespeare plays, but when Faction of Fools came along, I really understood so much more clearly. Being in the play helped me feel the action. To have a lecture and just sit there in the classroom is one thing but to be involved is a completely different experience and understanding. Being a Deaf person for whom English is a second language, to understand all the metaphors and all of the language play that Shakespeare has. It’s an extra challenge for a primarily Deaf population. I’ve read the plays and thought I understood. I mean the metaphors were there but when I actually became the character, and I was acting the metaphors it was like ‘OH! I got it.’
The first day of rehearsal, when we were all together, I was signing it and once it was on my hands I could feel it. To listen to a lecture is one thing but to actually be IN it is another. Looking back I remember in high school when I did a read-through, I would be kind of outside of it and then [as a student] at Gallaudet I was signing. We discussed the metaphors and the language play and everything like that but there was still no action, still no feeling, and now that I’ve felt it helps me understand so much more and I feel like that could be integrated into the classroom. It made me love Shakespeare more.
Ethan Sinnott is the Chair of the Department of Theatre Arts at Gallaudet. Sinnott recently directed and designed the set for the University’s April fully ASL production of Hamlet. This same set is now being used by Faction of Fools for Hamlecchino. Sinnott took the time to answer some questions via e-mail about the origins and future of the partnership between his program and Faction of Fools.
DCTS: How did Gallaudet’s relationship with Faction of Fools come to pass?
Ethan: Faction of Fools, as an organization, had been on a quest for a stable venue for quite some time – more specifically, a venue stable enough to host at least 16 performances of their productions throughout the coming season in order to be eligible for Helen Hayes consideration. Faction of Fool productions usually feature a rotating ensemble of local actors who are currently active at some of the other theatres operating in Washington, DC, which made it all the more attractive to me as I had been thinking of ways to create opportunities for Gallaudet theatre students to work and network with professionals before they graduate.
I quickly saw that this had the makings of a win-win situation for the both of us. We began a series of exploratory conversations which quickly turned serious enough, and it did not take us long to realize that this was an auspicious meeting of minds, attitudes, and philosophies. Not long after I became chair of Gallaudet’s theatre department last May, the invitation to Faction of Fools to become a resident company at the Theatre Arts Department was formally extended.
What makes Faction of Fools and Gallaudet a good match?
The nature of the professional theatre circuit is highly competitive and often ruthless, unsentimental even, and d/Deaf people entering this profession are already at an immediate disadvantage as a multi-minority group. We are a linguistic minority, we are a cultural minority, and we are additionally perceived—rightfully or not—as a group associated with disability.
There is no professional Deaf theatre company in Washington, D.C. yet, so a key criterion for Gallaudet’s theatre department prior to entering any sort of partnership with any hearing theatre company was that this theater company’s brand needed to be a logical and relatable fit with young Deaf people who are intuitively visual-spatial and communicate accordingly.
Additionally, this theatre company needed to consist of people willing to commit themselves toward making a positive, sustained effort at cross-cultural communication, which is never simple; after all, this was going to be a situation where hearing actors and theatre professionals—most of who have never met a Deaf person before—interact and collaborate on a regular basis with Deaf actors, students, and professionals at Gallaudet. That was Faction of Fools—Commedia dell’Arte may be over 500 years old, but it is far from tired as it is a highly physical, expressive, and specialized performing art which does not revere the spoken word as sacrosanct, and Faction of Fools has breathed fresh air into it.
Our theatre department’s new partnership with Faction of Fools not only fits within the framework of the philosophy guiding the new direction of our program and coincides with the University’s new emphasis on developing relationships beyond its campus, but it is also a conscious, outside-the-box effort to address the historic, ongoing professional networking difficulties facing Deaf people seeking to work in the mainstream theatre circuit.
What education opportunities or classes are Faction of Fools providing for the students?
The expectation is that Faction of Fools will provide specialized training workshops to Gallaudet theatre majors/minors–as well as recent alumni–in Commedia dell’Arte, breathing techniques, acrobatics, and other skills—a sampling of skills which strengthens the competitiveness of our average student’s theatre resume prior to graduation. That will prove invaluable in such a student seeking professional work in theatre and/or film, or applying to a MFA program anywhere in the United States.
A recurring theme in my discussions with the Hamlecchino artists was the challenge of capturing the metaphor and imagery so common in classical texts with ASL. Sign Master Dr. Lindsey D. Snyder took me through the process of capturing Shakespeare’s subtle rhetoric and dirty jokes with ASL. It was Synder’s connection to the Gallaudet community that led to the initial communications between the University and Faction of Fools. She is Faction of Fools’ Director of Access.
Coming from a theater background, what drew you to ASL?
Lindsey: I’ve always lived a parallel life, with ASL and theater, be it acting, directing or dramaturgy. I’ve been signing since I was quite young. I happened to run into deaf people in my life. I always had an interest in sign language and I slowly realized that with my acting that it was so useful. I was awkward when was I young, but I communicated quite well physically when there was no language. My knowledge and background as a performer could improve my skills as an interpreter. There are many interpreters that have some performance in their background.
What about ASL improved your acting?
There’s something about actor training that requires us to separate voice and movement. They even separate what you’d call a “voice” class from a singing class. I would take a musical theater class to focus on songs. I would take a voice class to work on breathing. I would take a movement class to work on my body. I would take a fight class to work on my body doing a specific thing. And then I would go into an acting class and I was supposed to magically put all of these separate classes together to create whatever character I was working on that day. I think that’s more of a challenge than we realize. For me, sign language was movement and text simultaneously. So it allowed me and my sort of nerdlet tendencies to be in my head and out of my head at the same time
It takes a certain amount of process to have the text be put into ASL and then back out in ASL or gesture or a combination of the two, but the actual doing of it is a release from what actors call “Being in your head”. Some of my dissertation work and research was focused on one specific aspect where gesture and ASL cross over. The term that I coined for it was “Rhetorical Gesture”.
Rhetorical Gesture, from my perspective, is where the circles of text and the physical movement overlap. So the gesture has meaning beyond “I need to do something with my hands in this moment” and it is attached to the text. It has the same rhetorical resonance that the text does. So when you work with Rhetorical Gesture you’re working with the same rhetoric as the text. Which is why when I talk about I’m generally talking about it with classic text like Shakespeare which is so thick with the rhetoric that are actually parallels the linguistics of sign language.
Take me through a challenging section of the text, and how you were physicalize the metaphor into ASL.
When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come in the first time and it’s “my lord Hamlet what’s up my excellent good friend!” The sense of the scene is these boys coming together and joking around and making dirty jokes and talking about “lady fortune” and her whorishness. In [Hamlecchino] it’s a really interesting mix of sign language and Commedia and movement and gesture. Because there was no perfect way to translate we spent a lot time talking about what it meant and how dirty the joke should be. Because in ASL blue is blue. You cannot talk about a body part without showing a body part. It can get quite graphic if you want it to. So sometimes it’s a fun game to figure out how you can be clever in the same way that Shakespeare is being clever.
It’s not an exact science so what we did was sit down and make sure that we understood character. We could make decisions about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. We made one a clear leader and one a clear follower. So now there’s character stuff that affects your translation as well. We started with an absolutely filthy translation. With “Lady Fortune” we went as dirty as possible; we focused on the sign language and we made a lot physical jokes about what a whorish woman would look like, and the privates were very obviously in the private area.
The more we worked on it, the more we realized it wasn’t in the spirit we wanted to convey. So we shifted it and by making it a little less dirty, we made it a lot more funny, which is really the goal with Commedia, and we added a little bit of acro[batics]. Instead of a big joke about Lady Fortune’s privates we make a joke flipping one of the actors over so we had the combination of sign language, gesture and physicality, which is the ultimate goal when working with Commedia.
Faction of Fools Artistic Director Matthew R. Wilson is one of the country’s leading experts on the classic techniques of Commedia dell’Arte, which dates back to the 16th Century and is recognizable for its exaggerated masks denoting various broad character types and it’s highly physical, choreographed slapstick comedy. We sat down to discuss his innovative take on a classic text, bringing Hamlet down to Earth, and difficulties and joys of working in a multi-lingual company.
Matt: I’ve wanted to do a commedia version of Hamlet for about ten years. It grew out of a silly thought experiment that a friend and I had in college. Wouldn’t it be funny if….? I think we’re finding out that yes it is funny!
Hamlet, like most classical tragedies, is a story of important people. Kings and Queens and Princes and lofty ideals. And in the 20th century people like Arthur Miller started saying that we could have tragedies about regular folks. They don’t have to be kings and queens and princes. I think its part of the experiment to say “what if this were a lofty play that’s not about lofty people.” What if it’s about base people, regular people who are stuck in an extraordinary moment? Ours are commedia grotesques, so they’re low status characters with earthy mentalities.
How does that play into setting Hamlecchino in the early 20th century?
The time period came out because that whole turn of the 20th century is such an interesting period. There’s so much optimism. This sense that anything is possible with the way that technology is going. Then World War I comes along and everybody saying how did this happen. Things were supposed to be so good! It’s just this sort of quaint and quirky and, in some ways, silly time period. The clothing is just a little …off. It’s dated in a really lovely way. And you get this sensibility that’s fun and naive with destruction looming over it. It’s a period where you find people who look, by our perspective, kind of laughably naive who then find themselves in a horrible tragedy. That’s what happening in the 19-teens.
How does that relate to your decision to cast R&G as Deaf characters portrayed by Deaf performers?
I think a lot of Hamlet is about mistrust and miscommunication. The opening line of the play: “Who’s there?” The fact that just a few minutes in we see people on the same team threatening each other because they don’t know who to trust. The time is out of joint. Something is rotten in Denmark. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get caught up in this because they speak a different language than the rest of the court. They get sucked into the rottenness that is the court of Demmark never realizing why or what is going on. Nobody knows who to trust or what counts as evidence or where allegiances are divided.
How does that alter the relationship between R&G and Hamlet?
The interesting thing about Hamlecchino is he’s got these two friends who are Deaf so he communicates with them through sign language. Which is something that nobody else in the court does. So the king and queen are frustrated by being unable to have their plan be enacted. Like all powerful people they don’t understand why Rosencrantz and Guildenstern don’t understand their will and aren’t able to execute their will.
Did they become friends because he spoke ASL or vice versa?
I think that he learned ASL from them. That he entered their world and learned how to speak their language.
How does that sort of mutability affect his larger character arch?
We meet them [Rosencrantz and Guildenstern] and they’re having a conversation that is just in sign language. Their secret language that is unknown by most of the court and a large portion of the audience. As Hamlet realizes he can’t trust them, he starts to put up barriers between them, until we get to the scene where we see him yelling at Guildenstern saying “here play this flute!” Which becomes all the more violent. Guildenstern doesn’t know what the music sounds like. He doesn’t have a concept of how to play this instrument at all. And that should be clear to Hamlet. It IS clear to Hamlet. So by saying “hey why don’t you play this music?” it’s like Hamlet is trying to suck Guildenstern into the Hearing world. As Hamlet begins to realize he can’t trust them, he starts reverting more towards English.
Is there a difference between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being Deaf and Fortinbras and the Norwegian Army speaking ASL?
I would not say all of the Norwegians are Deaf. Not sure if we ever know. It’s just their language. They are people who communicate in ASL. So Hamlet sees this army and he can talk to them. Because he has deaf friends. Part of the tragedy at the end of the play is that now the Norwegians have come in to take over Denmark and the guy who could bridge those two worlds has been killed. So now the Norwegians move in and the Danes, the very few who are not dead yet can’t speak their language. An ASL army comes in and now the hearing actors are on the outside.
What attracts you to ASL as an artistic medium?
When I started doing Commedia dell’Arte, I was doing it in Italy with people from all over the world. And so from my earliest days of really working in this art form as a performer or as a teacher, it was cross-cultural and it was multilingual and I was collaborating with people whose language I did not know. We were refusing to let that be an obstacle and we were making art and becoming friends. That’s how I know Italian and Spanish and French, from having met people whom I liked and who spoke those languages. Coming here the same thing happened. I met a new culture of people with a new language I didn’t know, but I knew I liked them and the work they wanted to make.
How does ASL compliment Commedia dell’Arte?
Commedia is inherently gestural. From its origins it was designed to be enjoyed by people who didn’t necessarily understand the language of the performers. They were touring all over Europe so they had to figure out how to make an art form that could be viable, that could be marketable cross-culturally and in a multilingual setting and part of what they did was embrace the confusion of having multiple languages in play and what they did was develop a storytelling style that involves a lot of gesture and movement. ASL is a really obvious complement to that. The biggest obstacle the deaf actors face or anyone who is performing with ASL as their character’s language is that ASL relies a lot on facial communication. A lot of the grammar and syntax in the language is done through the face.
If can imagine having English being your second language and then having to do Shakespeare you have a glimpse at how daunting that process is for the actors here who are working with Shakespeare. And that’s part of what makes what Ethan is doing here so ambitious and exciting.
I got to see [Gallaudet’s] Hamlet. Anytime you translate something you have to make a choice about what it means in a certain context. So you get to see it from a different perspective. The way the poetry can become visualized and how within the semantics of ASL you are dealing with wordplay or extended metaphors. There is a great moment where the Ghost is projected and its two big hands projected on the wall and he’s telling the story about how “the serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown.” He made the sign for “serpent” and acted out the serpent stinging the King and the crown being placed on top of the serpents head. It was an incredibly striking bit of visual poetry.
How do Commedia masks affect the ASL performances?
You take these actors who are really expressive have wonderful faces and speak a language that requires the use of their faces and you say “well, now put this mask on”. In a sense it’s just a heightened version of the same problem that any naturalistic actor faces when you give them a mask. They realize “oh, what I used to do with my face I can’t do any more. So I have to take those things and put them in my hips, put them in my shoulders and put them in my knees so that my whole body is partaking in that expression and not just my eyebrows, for example.”
Did you produce Hamlecchino specifically to pair Gallaudet’s Hamlet?
This was not a show I envisioned us able to do. It’s a huge show. And it was a somewhere- down-the-pipe project until we ended up in residence here and I knew they were doing Hamlet this spring and I said “okay you’re doing an ASL Hamlet. We’ll do a Commedia Hamlet!” I think it will be that much more fun for the students here who have been working with this text for so long. They can approach it with a lot more ownership then they could maybe some play they were less familiar with.
What’s next for Faction of Fools?
We’ll be here next year. And as a three year old company we are definitely happy to have a plan for Year Four.
DCTS reviews Hemlecchino