“Once upon a time there was a piece of wood.”
That is a modest start forÂ the classic tale of the world’s most famousÂ fabricating puppet, first serialized in a magazine from 1880-1883 in Tuscany. Now Deaf West Theatre kicks off its 20th anniversary season with an adaptationÂ by Lee Hall (the book writer and lyricist of Broadway’s hit musical Billy Elliot) of The Adventures of Pinocchio.
Deaf West’s work ranges fromÂ school performances in its intimate NoHo theaterÂ to a run onÂ Broadway with itsÂ hit adaptation of Big River. But its origins, like Pinocchio‘s, were modest, explains artistic director Ed Waterstreet, writing on the company’s website: “Beginning with only one chair, one desk and a typewriter in an office space shared with and donated by the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood, the growing deaf artistic talent pool came together and Deaf West Theatre was born.”
One keyÂ to Deaf West’s success is its continual re-invention of ways to integrate American Sign Language (ASL) Â into the storylines, so all performances are equally accessible to deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing audience members.Â Sometimes using subtitles, often using hearing actors as the “voice” of hard-of-hearing/deaf actors, shows are not so much translated as they are re-imagined to combine different storytelling techniques.
Director Stephen Rothman is thrilled to return to Deaf West for Pinocchio, after previous experiencesÂ directing Orphans, Of Mice and Men and What Are You…Deaf ? for the company. “If you’ve seen Deaf West’s work,” Rothman says, “you know there are a lot of phenomenal performers here in Los Angeles that most people aren’t aware of. Take [the Russell Crowe movie] The NextÂ Three Days ““ I mean, Ty [Giordano, who played Huck Finn through Deaf West's Big River phenomenon] had an amazing wonderful series of scenes in that with Russell Crowe. Your average theatergoer, filmgoer sees this deaf role, where the guy says “˜I knew you were looking for this certain thing because I read lips’ ““ which opens up the whole orals vs. manuals [dispute about whetherÂ focusing onÂ lips or hands is a better form of communication for the deaf]. But that’s all they know about Ty. They don’t know how brilliant he was in Big River; they didn’t see him in Big River.
“They don’t know about Amber [Zion, playing Pinocchio]‘s work, and Amber is one of the most astonishing actresses I’ve worked with in a long time.”
Deaf West oftenÂ relies on the strengths and partnerships of deaf and hearing actors who share a role. In this case,Â Zion plays Pinocchio while Darrin Revitz is the Voice of Pinocchio. Although both Pinocchios, plus their fellow ensemble member Lindsay W. Evans [Harlequin, Voice of Cat, Voice of Cricket, Voice of Lampwick, Ensemble] were in last year’s production of My Sister in This House [an adaptation of Jean Genet's The Maids], Zion and Revitz were not a pair in that production as they are in Pinocchio.
Revitz explains the difference between the two show’s approaches: “I find working with Deaf West, [it's]Â almost easier to access my emotions rather than when I’m taking a role on by myself. I think in every play Deaf West does, they try to find a different way to marry the voice with the sign language. In the last production [My Sister in This House], the two voice actors were up on a platform, sort of watching if you will, although I felt very in sync with my counterpart. This one, it’s [more] physical given the nature [of the material] and so I feel a lot more integrated. With the staging Stephen’s done, we’ve tried to really keep those two mirrors, if you will, of the character together.”
Working as a duo makes the job easier, Revitz says.Â ”I find it so easy to sync up withÂ [Zion] because everything she’s feeling is just there on her face. In darker parts of the show, I find ““ I tear up ““ because she is just so alive and so active and so engaging it’s impossible not to respond truthfully with that.”
Zion relates her experience through ASL interpreter Cass Kroenel: “This play Pinocchio is fun, the improv that’s involved is a lot of fun. The ability of discovering the commedia in the play is completely differentÂ from the play we did before ““ [which was] very dark, very sad…the emotions were completely different in the two plays.”
While RevitzÂ proudly proclaims: “I am not on a shelf,” referring to the upper platform where she voiced her counterpart in My Sister in This House, Zion is just as proud that “there are no strings involved” in her portrayal of Pinocchio.
Revitz continues, explaining how Zion is “so committed. It really makes my job very easy, because I’m just vocalizing whatever I’m seeing and she’ll play around with her tactics and how she delivers her lines. I’m just responding to whatever I see and she responds to a character differently on any given night.”
Originally Zion didn’t audition for the part of Pinocchio. She aimed forÂ a female role. She recalls her surprise when the casting director called her back for the lead role of the marionette: “I asked Ed, ‘Are you sure you sent me for the right person, I mean, I’m just checking.’ And he said “Yeah, you got a callback for Pinocchio!’ I thought this is awesome! So I went right away to the script and went right away to the book. I definitely embraced the role. I studied the book and just showed up ready with my pigtails. I was ready to go to that first day. Seven times. I read the book seven times over the holidays. I just wanted to be sure I was ready.”
Director Rothman says every actor should take a class in auditioning from Zion. After her initial audition, when she was called back for the title role, she dressed like Pinocchio, put her hair in pigtails and walked into the room acting like a boy. “She read the first scene and I knew absolutely we had our Pinocchio. We let her leave the room for a second. It was high fives and fist bumps, there wasn’t even a discussion. So I just called her back in and said, ‘Ok, you’re Pinocchio. And now I’d like you to read with every Gepetto for the next hour.’ And she just started jumping on them, reacting to whatever a potential Gepetto gave her.”
RevitzÂ remembers very physical times in rehearsal. Zion, she says, has “100% commitment, she is willing to try anything. She’s turned herself into a human wheelbarrow, she’s climbing people’s backs, ducking under furniture, you’ve never seen somebody so inventive and thinking outside the box. She’s forced herself into boxes, literally.”
With such an archetypal character, now set in 1880 Tuscany as part of a commedia troupe, how did Zion prepare? “I did some research to find different kinds of Pinocchios. I had the Disney version, the darker version, they have a sci-fi version which is really odd. I studied some of those. I tried to get an idea of what people’s perceptions would be about Pinocchio, about that character. I studied the history of Italy. I also had to research and visualize what a puppet’s movements would be like and also how a puppet would act like a kid, a young kid and how I would exaggerate my facial expressions. I went to a summer camp as an art director and I worked with kids from 5-7 who were just so expressive in their ASL and you could tell, you know, they were nervous when they were lying and so I would take some of that and incorporate it in the role of Pinocchio.”
Most people know the Disney animated movie; although very faithful to the spirit of the source, key elements were approached differently. Everyone has likely heard “When You Wish Upon a Star,” now a Disney staple and originally sung by that deputy of a good conscience, Jiminy Cricket. Yet in the original story, the marionette and cricket’s introduction ends much differently, actually in a violent death: “Pinocchio jumped up in a fury, took a hammer from the bench, and threw it with all his strength at the Talking Cricket.” The Talking Cricket does return later as a ghost whose advice Pinocchio occasionally heeds.
The Adventures of Pinocchio became so popular that C. Collodi (pen name for Italian author and journalist Carlo Lorenzini) blended his stories into the book, translated here by Carol Della Chiesa. Rothman remembers when Ed Waterstreet suggested the Lee Hall adaptation, he went to Samuel French and read the published version, where Hall describes how the original English troupe discovered the tone of the piece through improv. As the adaptor/playwright, Hall encourages other theaters to do the same and really make the story their own.
Rothman quickly made the decision to set their version in 1883 Italy, when the book was published, because the themes in Pinocchio were “of its time.” If you go back to the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales, they were all cautionary tales, he notes. “Don’t go into the stranger’s house, in Hansel and Gretel, or you’re going to get cooked,” and other strict philosophies on life.
The publication year of Pinocchio also followedÂ Â “a very infamous moment in deaf culture,” Rothman continues, referring to a conference in Milan that brought the dispute between reading lips and sign language to the forefront.
Jamie Berke, a journalist born profoundly deaf, describes thisÂ momentÂ as almost destroying sign language. From her article on About.com: “In 1880, there was an international conference of deaf educators, the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf. At this conference…a declaration was made that oral education was better than manual (sign) education. A resolution was passed banning sign language. The only countries opposed to the ban were the United States (represented by Edward Miner Gallaudet, Rev. Thomas Gallaudet, Issac Peet, James Denison, and Charles Stoddard) and Britain.” Berke credits theÂ decision of Â Gallaudet College (now University) to retain the use of signingÂ as “largely responsible for sign language’s survival.”
Rothman believes this time inÂ deaf history is important to explore and could easily be layered into the Geppeto/Pinocchio relationship: “It’s a family company, the father’s hearing and he doesn’t want to sign. He forces his daughter to speak, tries to force her to read lips, and she wants to sign, and they aren’t doing well with this mixed attempt. I have a 16-year-old son, and when he was seven or eight I would lay that whole thing, don’t talk to strangers ““ I was doing that when he was three or four actually. It’s got all of that in it, but Pinocchio‘s also a fun story ““ this puppet that ultimately finds his humanity and becomes a person by making a lot of mistakes, by growing up.Â Some of the mistakes are heavier than what happens in real life, but then again in real life you don’t go from being a wooden puppet to a human being.”
Commedia was already “built into Hall’s script all the way through, so that in that way, the British company already found how to take the darker images of Pinocchio and lighten them up; we are just adding our own twist on to it,” Rothman elaborates. The rehearsal process ““ and even the casting of some of the many roles among the ensemble ““ was very organic, with the actors often finding stock rehearsal props that fit their needs.Â Zion recalls a frightening moment when she “was running along with the donkey and one moment the whip came up and came within just a hair of my nose.”
Revitz clearly enjoys her collaboration with Zion, Rothman and the rest of the team,Â describing the evolution of the rehearsal process as “sort of magical — seeing the ASL take its own journey, Â from literally signing what’s on the written page to then working with Linda [Bove, ASL Master on the show] for countless hours on finding this translation that is visually so stunning. The relationship to spoken English that we get from signing is ““ it’s just beautiful. Truthfully you don’t even need to hear our words, and you still understand exactly what we are saying.”
Production photos and Stephen Rothman head shot by Ed Krieger.
The Adventures of Pinocchio, presented by Deaf West Theatre,Â opens Feb. 25; plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sat. and Sun., 2 pm; through March 27. Tickets: $25. Children 12 and under: $15. Student rush: $15 Thurs., March 3, 10, 17 (30 minutes prior to curtain with valid ID, subject to availability). Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; 818.762.2773 (voice) or 866.954.2986 (video phone); deafwest.org
Thur. and Fri., March 3-4 are ASL Nights: arrive at 7:30 pm for aÂ half-hour ASL workshop that teaches signs used in the play. Audience Talk Backs following the matinees on Sat., March 5 and Sun., March 13.Print