Perks - Advertise - Spy - Who Quoted Me  
Go Back > Deaf Community > Current Events > Deaf News
LIKE AllDeaf on Facebook FOLLOW AllDeaf on Twitter
Thread Tools Display Modes
Old 05-16-2004, 05:56 AM   #1
Registered User
Miss-Delectable's Avatar
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 17,168
Blog Entries: 3
Likes: 0
Liked 1 Time in 1 Post
Deaf actress: Phyllis Frelich

There's one line in Mark Medoff's "Prymate" -- a play that opened on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre, Wed., May 5, and closed three days later -- that has special resonance for Phyllis Frelich. She's a deaf actress who played Esther, a deaf linguist-anthropologist who is studying and protecting a gorilla (André De Shields) with whom she communicates via sign language; he responds in kind. The line in question is: "Would we be so quick to experiment with him if he spoke?" Frelich is keenly aware of the second-class status attributed to sign language and she resents it.

However, on the controversial subject of vivisection -- the centerpiece of "Prymate" -- the animated and expressive Frelich admits she is of mixed minds. "I'm just not sure," she signs. Throughout the interview, which takes place in her dressing room before a preview performance, the wiry 60-year-old Frelich signs while her husband, "Prymate" set designer Robert Steinberg, interprets, signing and speaking simultaneously.

Set in New Mexico, "Prymate" recounts what happens when Avrum (James Naughton), a savagely ambitious geneticist, attempts to retrieve Esther's gorilla, her subject and companion. He is determined to bring him back to the laboratory for AIDS research. Indeed, the gorilla has already been infected with the AIDS virus (thanks to Avrum) and Esther finds herself confronting difficult choices.

Politics aside, Esther is the most "emotionally and physically demanding role I've ever played," notes Frelich, a Devil's Lake, N.D. native, best known for her Tony Award-winning performance in Mark Medoff's "Children of a Lesser God." Frelich is very much identified with the work of Medoff, who has written five plays for her.

"'Children of a Lesser God' was the first play to deal with the politics of being deaf and the feelings of deaf people," observes Frelich. "The second play Mark wrote for me, 'The Hands of Its Enemy,' had nothing to do with deafness. I was just a character in it who happened to be deaf. Audiences had trouble with that. They couldn't understand why a deaf actress was cast in the role. With Esther, no one has any issue with her being deaf. She's deaf and signs. So, who better to teach an ape sign language?"

Frelich was last seen in New York in the Roundabout Theatre Company production of Deaf West Theatre's "Big River." Other notable work with Deaf West includes the title role in "The House of Bernarda Alba" and her gender-switching performances in "The Gin Game" (playing Weller Martin) and "Equus" (playing Dr. Dysart). Frelich has also made guest appearances on such TV shows as "Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye," "ER," and "L.A. Law." She received an Emmy nomination for the Hallmark Hall of Fame film "Love Is Never Silent."

Frelich remarks, "There are fewer stereotypes about deaf people than there used to be, but Hollywood still tends to believe that deaf characters are either angry and bitter and/or victims; maybe that's why deaf actresses work more than deaf actors, at least on TV. They're women, they're deaf -- they're victims. What we need are more deaf writers writing about our experiences truthfully."

Audiences need some consciousness-raising as well, Frelich continues. "They seem to think that acting ability is part of signing and therefore part of deaf culture. It's much more complicated than that. Sign language has a physical component by definition. But sign language doesn't make you an actor. And there are deaf actors who sign very boringly. Signing has many different practitioners. Acting is an inner language and it will come out regardless of your voice."

Frelich is serious, but she also boasts a playful side. She and Steinberg, who have been married for 32 years, have two grown sons, a cinematographer and a musician. They have a running joke about the musician: "Phyllis says he must have gotten the musical talent from her," Steinberg quips. "He certainly didn't get it from me."

Asked how being married to a deaf person has informed his approach to set design, Steinberg acknowledges, "When I design a set for the deaf, I'm aware that the sightlines have to be more visible [the deaf can't depend on vocal cues] and theatre in the round is not good for a deaf company. Short of those technical aspects, however, I don't think being married to a deaf person has affected my artistic vision. But I suppose my sensibilities generally have been broadened. But then that must also be true for Phyllis being married to someone who hears."

Almost a Librarian

Frelich was born deaf, the oldest of nine deaf children, all of whom were the offspring of two deaf parents who couldn't be more removed from theatre. Her father worked as a printer for the local newspaper; her mother was a homemaker. Frelich and her siblings attended the one state-supported school for the deaf, based in Devil's Lake. And following graduation, Frelich went on to Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., where she earned a degree in library science.

"The professional options for deaf women in those days were education, home economics, and library science," she explains. "There was no professional theatre for the deaf at that time or, for that matter, a theatre major offered at Gallaudet University. But I appeared in many school productions. I loved it."

The turning point for her occurred in 1967, when set designer David Hays -- who is not deaf and a fascinating figure in his own right -- was in the process of forming the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD) and came to Gallaudet to seek out talent for his fledgling company. Hays was impressed with Frelich and within short order she was a founding member of his company.

Over the years Frelich has toured with NTD and performed with Deaf West, a Los Angeles-based resident theatre company. Both NTD and Deaf West produce standard fare that is, in turn, signed by the deaf actors. To date, there are no significant plays written for the deaf, short of those penned by Medoff.

Acting is not a full-time job for Frelich. She also teaches acting, as many deaf (and hearing) actors do. "There are lots of deaf actors out there, but almost no one can make a living at it," she contends, "and few are union members. When 'Children of a Lesser God' was a hot property, enjoying productions and tours, there may have been 50 deaf actors who were union members."

Frelich says that she doesn't think too much about "dream roles," but admits that she'd love to have a shot at Mother Courage.

When I talked with Frelich, she was still optimistic about "Prymate," convinced that audiences were engrossed. "This is a thought-provoking play. I can't hear what's happening, but I can feel the silence in the theatre and the fact that throughout the play nobody moves. There seems to be a uniform level of attentiveness that I've rarely experienced in the theatre. It's remarkable."

Clearly the powers that be didn't agree.
"Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light."
- Helen Keller
Miss-Delectable is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 05-16-2004, 03:35 PM   #2
Registered User
Liza's Avatar
Join Date: Apr 2003
Location: Jacksonville
Posts: 4,356
Blog Entries: 2
Likes: 0
Liked 0 Times in 0 Posts
Miss Delectable, thanks for posting and I definitely agree that there needs to be "real" roles for the deaf in movies and tv shows. I'm tired of deaf people having roles that seem to be angry and self defensive, too. It would be wonderful to explore in something new - where everyone else is "weak" in their perception of another culture, or even each other's culture. I have plenty of gags for a sitcom

I can see a TV show about a culturally deaf graphic designer married to a hearing technican (wink wink) with annoying Norwegian family in law and an islander mother. I hope somebody out there explores that theme for a "Everybody Loves Raymond" show. LOL

I've always liked Phyllis Frelich since Love is Never Silent. It's really wonderful to know she is a systembuster.
Liza is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 06-28-2004, 01:57 AM   #3
Registered User
CatoCooper13's Avatar
Join Date: Jun 2003
Location: Sonoma County, California
Posts: 6,441
Likes: 0
Liked 3 Times in 3 Posts
Send a message via AIM to CatoCooper13 Send a message via MSN to CatoCooper13 Send a message via Yahoo to CatoCooper13
Phyllis Frelich is a real nice person -- she seemed a bit reserved, but of course, I had to understand because when I met her at CSUN (California State University Nortridge) during the DeafExpo in 1991 -- she was quite well known by the time I met her. But Ed Waterstreet was such a jovial bloke! Very friendly and down to earth!
CatoCooper13 is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 06-28-2004, 09:52 AM   #4
Nesmuth's Avatar
Join Date: Jun 2004
Location: The Southland of California
Posts: 3,196
Likes: 0
Liked 0 Times in 0 Posts
Send a message via AIM to Nesmuth
Originally Posted by WaterRats13
I had to understand because when I met her at CSUN (California State University Nortridge) during the DeafExpo in 1991
Nesmuth is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 06-28-2004, 11:34 AM   #5
Registered User
Mizzou's Avatar
Join Date: Apr 2003
Location: somewhere in Missouri
Posts: 2,685
Likes: 0
Liked 0 Times in 0 Posts
I know her somewhere and many stories about her.. She is true role model.
Mizzou is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 06-28-2004, 12:26 PM   #6
Premium Member
Kalista's Avatar
Join Date: May 2003
Posts: 7,927
Likes: 0
Liked 0 Times in 0 Posts
She was my former Drama Teacher at my school. She is awesome !
Kalista is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 06-28-2004, 12:31 PM   #7
Registered User
Tousi's Avatar
Join Date: Apr 2003
Posts: 17,973
Likes: 664
Liked 459 Times in 297 Posts
She was my classmate at Gallaudet and I know some of her siblings as well. We were pretty good friends then; I see her once in a blue moon....she's doing really well and has come complete circle as to fulfilling life-long dreams.
Tousi is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 06-28-2004, 12:55 PM   #8
Registered User
javapride's Avatar
Join Date: Apr 2003
Location: hawaii
Posts: 6,512
Likes: 0
Liked 0 Times in 0 Posts
I met her when she was doing the gin game in CSDF it was an extrodinary performance and i had a blast coming there got her autograph and its now in my CSDF scrap book
javapride is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 06-28-2004, 02:00 PM   #9
Posts: n/a
Who is she? She is an actress of what show or movie? Got a picture of her?

  Reply With Quote

Thread Tools
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is On
HTML code is Off

Forum Jump

All times are GMT -5. The time now is 07:58 PM.

Join AllDeaf on Facebook!    Follow us on Twitter!

AllDeaf proudly supports St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

Copyright © 2002-2015, All Rights Reserved.