James Caverly and Andrew Morrill’s play Trash is a case of kitchen-sink realism in more ways than one. In addition to following two men who find themselves locked in the grind of city life, scraping to make ends meet, Trash—having a free workshop staging this weekend at New York City’s IRT Theater, and a run at Brooklyn’s JACK April 28-30—also literally takes place in a kitchen, as the roommates argue over whose turn it is to take out the trash. The quarrel over this mundane task, a source of friction and comedy for many a sitcom and real-life couple, plays out not in rising voices, but in American Sign Language, the primary language not only of Deaf protagonists Jake and Tim, but also of Caverly, Morrill, and director Michelle Banks.
When the team was thinking how to create the most accessible theatre environment in the wake of continued COVID complications, Caverly (he/him) weighed both in-person and digital options for the show. What would make the most sense for all audiences? “We thought about, what if that perspective shifted, where a hearing audience is struggling to understand a story based on visual cues, which is kind of the contrast of a Deaf audience trying to understand hearing things,” he said of the show’s development through an ASL interpreter before the team’s first in-person rehearsal. For part of Trash, he and Morrill play with the idea that “the hearing audience would have to work twice as hard to follow the storyline.”
Trash is hardly the first instance of IRT working with Deaf artists and creators to tell authentic stories for and by the Deaf community. Though the company does not define itself as a disability theatre, it reserves space in its residency programs for Deaf and hard-of-hearing artists and runs ASL Creative, a production program with an educational arm. Producing artistic director Kori Rushton (she/her) first came to IRT in 2006, in part because of her familial connections to the D/deaf community and her desire to keep growing IRT’s Deaf theatre programs.
“I try to find this balance of being an ally to support the work, but not step in and put myself into the expansion of the work,” Rushton said. With a robust system of residency programs and new-work development labs, Rushton is pleased to see Deaf artists approach IRT with ideas for new projects for Deaf performers. “It shows me that we are doing the work, like really doing the work, when artists come to you and you’re not going to them.”
Caverly and Morrill approached Rushton about Trash, in which they also appear, while working on another project at IRT. Banks (she/her), a multi-hyphenate artist and artistic director of Visionaries of the Creative Arts (VOCA), was a natural fit for the collaboration. Though based in Washington, D.C., Banks noted that the field’s pivot to digital theatre, especially through platforms like Zoom, have further allowed her to work with other Deaf artists outside her home base. Video rehearsals and performances not only allow for Deaf creatives to communicate via ASL, but for audiences to observe and to follow with auto-generated closed captions in English, a service Zoom previously required users to pay for before receiving pushback from disabled users and advocates. Morrill (he/him) pointed out that such accommodations have long been a standard part of film and television, to the point where we may not think of them as accessibility accommodations, but have only caught on outside of disability theatre spaces with the COVID-induced reliance on Zoom and related platforms.
In general, Morrill said, accessibility for Deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences is “something we only talk about at the very end, and then everybody’s scrambling” to accommodate lest they be called out for a lack of options. In the last two years, disabled artists have shone a light on both their work and the field’s reluctance to integrate it into mainstream practices. Even as theatres have claimed to adopt frameworks of disability justice alongside other changes artists have called for, including commitments to anti-racism, a gap has remained between performative change and tangible forward action. How can mainstream institutions embrace authentic engagement beyond mere tokenization?
Banks said of Deaf and disabled theatre artists igniting such conversations, “We’re trying to go out there and show institutions we’re here, and we’ve been here. See us, see our work. We’ve had this body of work—what are you going to do about it?” She founded VOCA to create a space for Deaf people of color in particular to create new works and develop their craft; empowering the next generation of Deaf artists, she saidm, gives her hope for future partnerships among mainstream theatre institutions, Deaf artists, and anyone writing roles of Deaf characters. “When I hear that there’s not enough Deaf and disability representation, there aren’t enough Deaf and disabled roles—yes, that’s true,” she said. “But we exist and we have been here.”
Rushton echoed Banks’s call for further collaboration between mainstream theatres and disability theatres, not for the sake of virtue-signalling gestures but to reaffirm institutional values of inclusivity and accessibility than can hopefully be mirrored at a societal level. “It’s not just checking off a box, it’s truly making the work a reality,” Rushton said, though she likened the work of such collaborations to “pushing a big boulder up a mountain.” (The ASL sign for this Sisyphean comparison is more or less exactly what a hearing person might imagine.)
Such collaboration is also increasing in film and television, Caverly and Morrill noted, citing CODA, a story about a child of Deaf adults that was just nominated for Best Picture and two other Academy Awards, as a recent example. Many of these more prominent stories, however, rely on tropes of both pain and triumph, showing people struggling to overcome challenges presented by a world designed only for abled people, or leading extraordinary lives to inspire abled audiences. “We really want to pull back the curtains of that limited view and just say, hey, we’re beyond that,” Morrill said. With Trash, the team hopes to present an ordinary story of everyday people—with the twist of an immersive experience that allows the audience to give their opinions on which roommate should finally take out the trash.
The team’s goal is for Trash and other stories, including new works, to show audiences of all stripes that disability can be considered theatrically outside of medical or inspirational contexts.
“It’s not a focus on a physical problem,” Banks said of the character’s lives and conflicts in Trash, which hinges on a task so common as to be forgettable outside the walls of a theatre. “It’s a focus on a human problem.”
Amelia Merrill (she/her) is a contributing editor at American Theatre. @ameliamerr_
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