A Deaf Actor Finds a Rich Role Off-Broadway


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Apr 18, 2004
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Russell Harvard in Tribes: A Deaf Actor Finds a Rich Role Off-Broadway - Speakeasy - WSJ

The role of Billy in the new off-Broadway play “Tribes” presents a rich vein for an actor: a deaf adult child confronts hearing parents who have shunned sign language and most of deaf culture, insisting instead that their son rely on lip-reading and at times fragmented speech.

Russell Harvard plays the part in the bitterly comic British family drama by playwright Nina Raine starting previews this week at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York.

Harvard, a 30-year-old Texas native who is deaf, grew up with sign language and uses it in the play. Harvard also speaks in the role—though he has learned a British accent for the part.

The actor, who played Daniel Day-Lewis’s grown son in the 2007 film “There Will Be Blood,” mostly has portrayed deaf characters on screen. In the 2010 independent movie “The Hammer,” he played the lead role of a deaf wrestler. “Tribes,” which received a 2011 Olivier Award nomination for best play in London, is his third professional stage role.

During rehearsals, the sandy-haired actor communicated with director David Cromer and the cast—which includes Mare Winningham as his mother and Jeff Perry as his father—with a mix of methods. A sign-language translator was always on hand, or he would lip-read and talk, repeating words when he needed to, or use text messages. Harvard, who wears a hearing aid, recently spoke with The Wall Street Journal at the theater, signing through an interpreter.

What’s the biggest challenge in playing this role?

Harvard: My friends told me that I seem to have a Texas accent, so I really have to try and practice this British accent. They have a dialect coach that works with the cast and works with me. Speaking is not my first language, right? So I hope it goes well. I think it will.

Does it get confusing to speak with a British accent while signing with American Sign Language?

It’s like if you were trying to speak English and Spanish at the very same time. There are not so many times that I actually have to speak and sign at the very same time in this show, and that’s good. There are a few places where I have to do it. To me, that’s a big challenge.

Are you good at lip-reading, like your character?

Growing up I’ve been lip-reading, yes. I’ve done it all my life. I think I’m a master at it.

In the play, a family is reluctant to embrace deaf culture. Did that resonate with you personally?

My mother was born deaf and did not learn sign until she was six. She was sent to a deaf school. Her family was hearing. So when she got to the school, she picked up signing very fast. My mother has told me her stories and I’ve been able to bring that experience into the show.

The playwright is not deaf. Will her work seem authentic to deaf theatergoers?

Absolutely. She did her homework.

Does David Cromer, the director, ever tell you that you’re not saying a line clearly enough?

Oh yes, he does. He’s very straight. We’re very honest with each other. We change whatever needs to be changed. I absorb it. My first job, I had a hard time doing that. Back at my very first theater experience, it was hard to adapt and change. That’s a long time ago and I’ve learned now. I always say to myself, “Be an amoeba—don’t be concrete.” As an actor, you want to be flexible. You want to accept the director’s feedback. It’s not criticism.

In the play, a character asks, “Which is better, sign or speech?” How would you answer that question?

I’m comfortable, of course, with signing. It’s my native language. But I also want to speak fluently, so actually my experience in the play has been very helpful for me. In the end, maybe I will become more fluent in my speech, and then maybe that will give me, I don’t know, more opportunities in the film and television industry. But definitely, I won’t be singing.