When Open Circle Theatre announced it was staging The Who’s Tommy, OCT’s artistic director Suzanne Richard also announced she had cast Broadway actor Russell Harvard in the title role of the infamous “deaf, dumb, blind kid who sure plays a mean pinball.”
Unlike past productions of the show, in OCT’s version when Tommy turns around to speak for the first time, it’s in American Sign Language.
“Adding ASL to the production adds a new depth, in a visual form. By combining ASL with choreography, it can further enhance the lyrics,” Harvard says. “It is important because it creates greater accessibility for groups that are often overlooked when it comes to theater. It also gives ASL users an opportunity to see music in a visual form.”
As a youngster, Russell Harvard saw his cousin, Mindy Moore, perform as the Wicked Witch of the West in a production of The Wizard of Oz, and he instantly knew that he wanted to be an actor.
He never let the fact that he was deaf get in his way. He acted throughout middle and high school and after returning to Gallaudet University to complete his degree, he got an audition for There Will Be Blood, in which he got the role of Adult H.W. Plainview opposite Daniel Day Lewis.
From there, Harvard appeared in the 2010 biopic, The Hammer, playing deaf NCAA championship wrestler and UFC mixed martial arts fighter Matt Hamill, then co-starred as a hit man in the TV show, Fargo.
Of course, there were challenges along the way.
The Who’s Tommy
closes November 20, 2016
Details and tickets
“It is somewhat difficult to overcome barriers in an industry that is dominated by people who are able to speak and hear,” he says. “For instance, if I were to audition for a role that was not written specifically for deaf people, I would not likely to be considered for the role, as opposed to auditioning for a signing role. I also would like to challenge the television networks to create a sitcom featuring a cast of deaf actors.”
Harvard eventually turned his attention more to theater. He won a 2012 Theatre World Award for Outstanding Debut Performance in Nina Raine’s Tribes, and made his Broadway debut in the Deaf West’s revival of Spring Awakening.
“I had watched a performance of the production while it was running at the Wallis-Annenberg Center for Performing Arts in Los Angeles, and I was mesmerized,” Harvard says. “I knew right there that I wanted to be part of the production, and sure enough, a few months later I found myself in the production. It felt like my dream had come true. It was a surprise gift from the universe.”
With music and lyrics by Pete Townshend, and a book by Townshend and Des McAnuff, the rock opera about the Pinball Wizard has been a favorite for many since first appearing on Broadway in 1993. Of course, the show is based on the landmark 1969 double album that propelled The Who to stardom.
“I really cannot say why it resonates with many people, however, as a deaf person, I do see parallels between the deaf experience and Tommy’s experience, especially with the moment that Tommy signs ‘I am free,’” Harvard says. “That moment, when a deaf child learns ASL, it frees the child to a whole world of possibilities.”
The character of Tommy uses driving rock rhythms to explore the story of a young boy traumatized by a violent act as he struggles through different stages of his recovery.
Sign language will be seamlessly incorporated in the show with signing ensemble members who will create characters who happen to communicate in sign or likewise singing characters who happen to understand/use sign. At other points in the show, the production will incorporate real time captioning.
“I hope that people will walk away with the knowledge that ASL is just as English is, a natural language and that everyone is a sensation,” Harvard says.
He noted that he’s excited for the opportunity and hopes to see more theaters and people in general give chances like this to deaf actors.
“There are still certain stereotypes associated with the deaf community that are portrayed in the media, such as the notion that Cochlear implants are magical devices that appear to make us hearing,” he says. “I, like my fellow deaf actors in the industry, are fighting to promote the idea that ASL is fine and we want to be portrayed as we are, not what society thinks we should be.”
Looking ahead, Harvard has plans to start the Deaf Austin Theatre, a little project that has been “swirling around in his mind for a while,” which is finally emerging. And of course, he’ll continue to act, looking for new and exciting opportunities.
Russell Harvard performing his translation of Pinball Wizard