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"Working in the Theatre" Seminars
Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
by Nancy Rosati


Every fall and spring for the past 30 years, the American Theatre Wing has held its "Working in the Theatre" production seminars. Most notable as the producers of the Tony Awards, this organization works primarily to bring theatre and the community together. "Working in the Theatre" seminars assemble a panel of theatrical professionals before an audience of students, actors, and other members of theatrical unions and guilds. Taped at the City University of New York studios, these shows are broadcast six times a week on CUNY-TV (Time Warner channel 75 and RCN channel 106), and are shown on Channel 36 in Los Angeles and other PBS, Metro TV Channel and cable outlets in the country.

Roundabout's Broadway production of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the subject of this month's seminar. Chairman Isabelle Stevenson created the series and is the customary host; however, she was unable to attend Thursday's taping. Ted Chapin moderated a panel that included director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun, cast members Phyllis Frelich, Tyrone Giordano and Dan Jenkins, Roundabout's artistic director Todd Haimes, and Bill O'Brien, producing director of Deaf West Theatre. Because this production of Big River is presented to audiences in English and American Sign Language (ASL) simultaneously, this ATW seminar was also signed, and the audience consisted primarily of students from the Lexington School for the Deaf.

The seminar afforded a unique opportunity for the creative team to discuss all aspects of the production. Video clips were shown and then discussed by panel members. This revival was originally produced by Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles in their 99-seat theatre. They moved to the Mark Taper Forum and then opened on Broadway as a Roundabout production in July. Half of the cast is deaf or hard of hearing. Todd Haimes began the discussion, saying that he was skeptical at first, but was persuaded by Rocco Landesman's (producer of the original Broadway production) enthusiasm for the show as it was presented in L.A.

Bill O'Brien stated that Deaf West Theatre was founded 13 years ago. By combining ASL with English seamlessly, they make sign language part of the theatricality of the piece. He said their goal was not to show audiences the "happy handicaps," but to produce a more moving experience for all audience members, deaf and hearing alike.

Dan Jenkins played Huck Finn in the original Broadway production of Big River. He now plays Mark Twain, the narrator of the piece, and voices Huck for deaf actor Tyrone Giordano. Dan calls the experience one of the most generous processes he's ever been a part of. Both he and fellow actor Michael McElroy (Jim) learned ASL specifically for this production.

Both Dan and Jeff spoke about the high level of expressiveness that the deaf actors put forth. Jeff said it was quite an achievement for the hearing actors to come up to their level. Phyllis commended those who are speaking and signing at the same time, stating that in fact they are speaking two languages simultaneously, something she doesn't believe she'd be able to do.

Everyone was in agreement about the invaluable contribution of the four "ASL Masters." Because ASL does not translate literally from English, it was their job to convert every line and lyric into a sign. The songs were especially challenging because they had to work within the structure of the music's rhythm patterns. A four syllable line could not be converted into a lengthy signing process - it had to fit within those four beats. In addition, signs could not be too modern for the time period, and they had to match the character's personality. This was a painstaking process, occasionally taking two to three hours for one line.

According to Todd Haimes, the production was not advertised to subscribers as "deaf theatre," so they were a little nervous in advance about how audiences would react. He said the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and the letters he has received have been most encouraging. He would be interested in producing another revival with Deaf West Theatre, and the title Oliver was mentioned several times as a possibility.

There will be a national tour of Big River beginning some time next year and extending into 2005.

For more information about "Working in the Theatre" seminars, contact the American Theatre Wing at (212) 765-0606 or email mailbox@americantheatrewing.org or visit americantheatrewing.org

More information about Big River and the Roundabout Theatre Company can be found at www.roundabouttheatre.org


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