Thursday, July 18, 2013
Published June 22, 2013 UT-San Diego
When Nina Raine’s 2010 drama “Tribes” opens at La Jolla Playhouse this week, it will feature the same director and cast from its off-Broadway premiere last year. n Leading the cast is Russell Harvard, a Texas-bred actor who stars as Billy, a deaf son in an intellectual British family who battle for attention over the dinner table. Billy does his best to keep up with his family’s verbal sparring by lip-reading, but he’s isolated from the world until he finds a home in a new tribe — the deaf community.
Harvard, 32, won a 2012 Theatre World Award for his performance as Billy in New York, and he recently reprised the role at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. His film credits include playing the adult deaf son of Daniel Day-Lewis’ character in 2007’s “There Will Be Blood” and deaf mixed martial arts fighter Matt Hamill in 2010s “The Hammer.”
Harvard is one of two deaf sons born to deaf parents. He communicates by sign language, but with hearing aids he can hear music and stage commands. In a recent email interview from his home in New York, Harvard talked about his life, his career and “Tribes.”
Q: The play “Tribes” relates to the different societal groupings that occur between the hearing and deaf worlds. But are there different tribes within the deaf community, and do you belong to a specific tribe?
A: Yes I do. In my experience, there are two main tribes. My family comes from a “D” or Deaf family. We’re like an everyday family with just the language of American Sign Language, culture and arts. There’s the “d” deaf that consists of deaf and hard-of-hearing people that does or doesn’t use the language and isn’t just involved in the (deaf) community.
Q: Tell me about your childhood.
A: I was born in Pasadena, Texas, in the backyard of my grandmother’s guesthouse. I come from a third-generation Deaf family. We moved to Austin when I was about a year old. During my childhood, my parents, brother and I communicated in American Sign Language. Difficulty only existed when my brother and I fought, almost about everything.
Q: Did you ever feel the sense of isolation like Billy does in the play?
A: I have, at times. Not all my hearing friends know ASL. There was a time when my hearing friend who knows how to sign would forget to interpret for me when we were in a big group of friends just chatting the night away. Then I’m lost in translation, which sometimes leads to paranoia. Then I think I shouldn’t even be here. It gets frustrating and hurtful when some friends don’t realize they aren’t accommodating me in the conversation. At the same time, I understand that there’s a learning curve and try to see it from their perspective. I have family members and friends who feel the same way being isolated. I’ve also heard that CODAs (children of deaf adults), who are born to deaf parents and have deaf brothers or sisters, sometimes feel left out because no one voices in the family and they get left out.
Q: How accurately does the play reflect real life for the deaf or hearing-impaired?
A: It’s accurate, yes. Billy was well portrayed as a deaf character, and the information about the deaf community was precise. My brother in the show, “Daniel,” and his psychological issues were honest because the family in “Tribes” captures the essence of Nina Raine’s family.
Q: Some of the roles you’ve played in films focus on your isolation from the hearing world. Do you think this is reflective of the reality of being deaf in a hearing world, or is this the perceived reality that hearing playwrights and screenwriters write for deaf characters?
A: I think screenwriters who write characters in fictional screenplays … portray a perceived reality with knowledge they received or researched about being deaf. They could be close to the reflective reality. However, nonfictional movies such as “Dummy Hoy” or “The Hammer,” for instance, are more reflective of the reality.
Q: Tell me about the experience with “Tribes” and working with director David Cromer.
A: It’s a wild ride I’ve been on, I have to say. I am fortunate to be working with a talented and incredible team of actors, directors and crews of “Tribes.” I am humbly blessed and proud of how far we’ve come. David is and always will be brilliant. He has these tremendous values and beliefs for the art of theater. He finds the truth in this production. I am very lucky to be working with him at La Jolla Playhouse, and I would work for him again in a heartbeat.
Q: What have your audiences been like for “Tribes”?
A: Not once have I heard bad things about this play. Occasionally someone from the deaf audience said they wish the whole play was subtitled on stage and not captioned offstage. They loved the idea of seeing the texts in the show so they don’t lose focus by looking at the caption and not at the actors. A hearing woman in New York City came to me after the matinee show and said, “I felt like I was in the show, like I was a part of the family. The mom and dad — how dare they neglect their children.”
Q: Tell me about the hurdles you’ve faced as a deaf actor.
A: I hate to say deafness is a factor. I really hope it isn’t. It shouldn’t be. I’ve said this before, but we do need fearless writers to write more roles for actors who happened to be deaf. Another factor would be my height. I’ve been told I’m too tall for roles I’ve auditioned for. I scored one on Fox Television’s “Fringe,” but the other one I didn’t. This (one) artistic director told me I should chop off parts of my legs for the role of Pippin.
Q: What are some dream roles on your bucket list?
A: I’ve got some crazy ideas, like competing on “Wipeout” or having a deaf tribe in “The Walking Dead.” I would love to play a creature on one of Syfy network’s television shows — “American Horror Story” and “Being Human” among my favorite television shows. A main or recurring role would be exciting. I hope to take motorcycle lessons after this show, and I am considering attending a school of bartending. I’ve been researching about a well-known deaf man who has saved more than 930 lives. I hope to make a movie about his life.
Monday, July 15, 2013
The magnificent Vi Hart — mathemusician extraordinaire, who has previously stop-motion-doodled our way to understanding such mysteries as space-time, Möbius strips, Fibonacci numbers, and the science of sound, frequency, and pitch — is back with another gem, this time illuminating Stravinsky’s atonal composition for Edward Lear’s classic nonsense poem, “The Owl and the Pussycat.” Stravinsky actually borrowed the basis for his composition from the 12-tone technique Arnold Schoenberg invented, which Hart explains as well. Enjoy, and keep an eye open for Hart’s delightful sideways sleight against the brokenness of copyright law, one that would’ve actually left Stravinsky particularly miffed.