It’s opening night. I almost feel ready, which is just right. Our big-hearted cast congregates in the backstage crossover for a pre-show huddle. Before all the raucous hugs and well-wishes, I know to click the levels of my hearing aids down to their lowest setting so that the cheers and hollering won’t hurt my ears.
“We’re going to kill it tonight!”
“My family’s out there!”
“Places” crackles over the backstage monitor. It’s indistinguishable for me, but the change in energy tips me off. It is 8 o’clock.
Top of show: I find my place behind the flat, fiddle in hand. There aren’t cue lights at this particular theatre, so I depend on my ears for my first entrance. I hear the faintness of a guitar, then a voice. I manually click up my hearing aids to 10, the highest volume setting. I strain to listen, close my eyes. I can’t hear the words, but I can hear when the phrase falls.
I open the door, raise my fiddle and bow, sing, and play. At this moment, I have to negotiate. I meet the audience with my gaze and smile, but I’m not able to hear the guitar and the other actor’s voice over my own singing—on my current level 10. So I flit my gaze from the audience to my fellow actor’s hands. The movement of her strum tells me I’m in time. And I know I only have to do this for a few measures. At the end of the phrase, I take advantage of the fiddle tacet and click down the volume on my hearing aids to 4. Now, all the voices and instruments have joined, and the sound is full and warm.
Although it sits right next to my ear, the sound of my sweet, high-frequency fiddle has disappeared into the mix. Luckily, my fiddle feels like another appendage to me. I trust myself to play in tune and imagine what it might sound like.
My name is Jo Brook. I am a New York City-based hard-of-hearing actor and musician. In 2017, I was diagnosed with profound hearing loss. In the years since my diagnosis, I’ve been navigating my new hearing challenges and working to come to terms with who I am as an artist and how my hearing loss fits into that.
I’ve been singing, telling stories, and playing my fiddle since before I can remember. My hearing loss diagnosis resulted in a massive identity crisis and forced me to untangle many complicated unknowns. How do I label myself: deaf? Hard of hearing? How do I communicate my needs to other theatremakers without hurting my hireability? How long will it be until I can’t hear my instruments anymore? And without my music, who will I be as an artist, as a person?
Amid my identity crisis and subsequent search for support and reckoning, I reached out to other hard of hearing (HOH) actors. Some spoke out loud and proud, while others requested anonymity. In these interviews, I learned that while our hearing loss manifests in vastly different ways, there are common threads to how we experience the theatre industry as HOH artists.
My hope is that this article gives you a sneak peek behind the HOH curtain and that it persuades you to continue to make room for us—not just for our needs, but also our unique abilities to contribute to theatre. I approach this article in the spirit of grace, for it wasn’t so long ago that I had my full hearing and had very little awareness of the HOH perspective.
In-Between-ness & Labels
One of the major commonalities that came up during my interviews with HOH artists was the feeling of being an “in-betweener”—stuck in a weird, liminal space between the hearing world and the Deaf community. While I want to respect the Deaf community by not claiming to be part of it, like its members I don’t always feel accepted and cared for by hearing theatremakers.
Let’s clear a few things up from the get-go. As labels go, there are medical definitions and cultural definitions.
“Hard of hearing” can indicate a person with mild to moderate hearing loss. It can also indicate that a person is deaf but doesn’t have an affiliation with Deaf culture. The lowercase “d” deaf is used when referring to an audiological condition of hearing loss, while the capital “D” Deaf refers to a particular group of deaf people who share values, culture, and a language, such as American Sign Language.
The label “hearing-impaired” can be offensive to d/Deaf and HOH people, as it suggests a deficiency on some level. I encourage hearing folks to avoid this usage, and instead let the person with hearing loss tell you their preferred label.
Also: Hearing aids and cochlear implants don’t magically “fix” everything. And being HOH doesn’t necessarily mean that noises are quieter. Sometimes noises are distorted, muffled, amplified in a particular way, or even painful for HOH folks.
Proving an Invisible Disability
I often feel like I have to prove the severity or legitimacy of my hearing loss in order to receive support from other theatremakers. As an independent contractor who hops from job to job, this is exhausting.
In the first few days of rehearsal, I typically field a ton of questions:
How much hearing loss do you have? It seems like you can hear me just fine.
What kinds of things can you hear? You’re understanding me now, right?
Others attempt awkward compliments:
I wouldn’t have even known you were hard of hearing! You sing so beautifully.
How deaf are you really? Because you play really well.
While I know some people are genuinely just curious, for me these comments and questions can feel like interrogations. It gives me the sense that the person asking doesn’t believe me—that they think my hearing loss negates my abilities to speak, sing, and play instruments. In one fell swoop, with no malice intended, they are glorifying me and tearing me down.
“Once a theatre producer found out that I wore hearing aids and needed an in-ear monitor,” shared one HOH artist. “Instead of coming to me to answer their questions, they decided to ask another cast member to find out how badly I am hearing impaired.”
Feelings aside, what that employer did was illegal according to Title 1 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits prying into the details of an employee’s disability. We’ll get further into the legal side of things later.
When Accommodations Aren’t Met
Across the board, the HOH artists I interviewed expressed their frustration over accommodations having slipped through the cracks—from cast mates refusing to wear clear masks, to stage management taking days/weeks to meet accessibility requests, to obstinate directors refusing to restage or reimagine in order to accommodate needs.
So how do we deal? Unfortunately, we often have to get creative and forge ahead.
One time while on a contract, the monitor in my dressing room was extraordinarily loud; the sound was so harsh for my ears that it would force my hearing aids to shut down and reboot. It wasn’t just me—everyone in my dressing room felt the monitor was too loud. Harsh, loud sounds also give me headaches, exacerbate my tinnitus, and cause me to lose sleep. This was happening at the top of tech week, so I knew I had to get ahead of it.
The first chance I had, I asked stage management if they could lower the volume of the monitors. They happily agreed. The next tech day, the monitors were at the same harsh volume. On the next break, I asked again. The stage managers said they would try to work on it again. For the rest of the day, no change.
I asked stage management a third time. Then I asked the company manager. And finally after four days of no change and frayed nerves, I decided to take matters into my own hands.
I knew all of the dressing rooms were full, with the exception of one—one woman in the cast, who is transitioning, had been offered a space as her own dressing room. This woman had been one of my closest friends on the contract. I explained the situation with the monitors and asked if she would feel comfortable having me as a dressing room mate.
She was extraordinarily understanding and agreed. I then called the artistic director, who is a good friend, and explained my problem. He was massively apologetic and on board with the new solution. That evening at final dress I had fully moved in with my new dressing room mate.
I feel compelled to tell this story because the particular theatre where it happened is a very good one. They work hard to follow through on their intentions to care for their employees, even if in that moment, my accommodation slipped through the cracks. This is what too often happens, even at the good theatres.
(Looking back, there’s a kind of poetic justice that I was able to find solace and understanding with another person who spends too much time and energy having to fight for those very things.)
Every time we are forced to pick our battles, we are having to negotiate and give up a little bit of what used to be enjoyable about our jobs. These asks, no matter the size, make a big difference in our work. And when our needs slip through the cracks, it takes a toll: mentally, emotionally, physically.
MacGyvers Without Credit
Disabled and HOH artists have been picking their battles long before I joined their ranks. For years, they have been MacGyvering their way through jobs without the support and credit they deserve and the legal rights to which they are entitled. Here are some creative things HOH actors do behind the scenes, on their own time and dime, to negotiate needs, succeed on the job, and safeguard their health and wellness.
Sound Cues: We are constantly finding creative solutions to getting sound cues—onstage, over the god mic in tech, and through backstage monitors.
Hearing Aid-Ography: I spend a lot of time managing the settings of my hearing aids and taking them in and out. My hearing aid-ography is my own sound design, and it doesn’t get credit in the playbill. Hearing aid users also have to negotiate wigs, hats, earrings, etc. It’s a whole process.
Disclosing Disability: I spend a large amount of time telling people about my hearing loss and what I need in order to do my best work. I write emails to the artistic team. I have numerous conversations with stage management. I ask my fellow actors for help. It takes a lot out of me.
Housing Accommodations: When doing regional contracts, disabled artists have to think ahead about accommodations needed at the theatre, in housing, and during travel.
Hearing My Fellow Actors: Even though I likely have the worst set of ears onstage, I often feel that I am the best listener. If the speaking/singing actor is turned away or downstage of me, I memorize their lines, how they say them, the rhythm, and where the pitches rise and fall.
Detective Work: Behind masks, I spend time piecing together information—jokes, names, and preferred pronouns. I ask for repeats and often just opt out of full conversations.
Negotiating Socializing: It’s understood that most artistic opportunities blossom from the relationships we build with other theatremakers. But I’m often unable to participate in cast parties and hangouts because of the multiple conversations and the loud music playing. I often depart earlier than I would like to. I sometimes take time to explain to my castmates that while I would love to hang out with them, my ears need a rest.
One of the more challenging aspects of my hearing loss has been the isolation; having to constantly advocate and being left out of things I used to enjoy. It truly is disheartening to be part of an industry so outwardly focused on community, storytelling, and empathy, and yet to feel alone in this way.
Get Over It?
If you’ve read this far, you might respond with this advice: “Get over your fear and ask for what you need.” I have heard that comment from many, many people over the years.
I call bull. I call entitlement.
Actors with disabilities are constantly adapting and fighting for equity. And it takes massive amounts of time and energy that a person without a disability doesn’t have to expend on a daily basis.
We aren’t skittish or hesitant or weak. Our fears and anxieties about doing this extra work stem from firsthand experiences of being denied access and being punished for even asking in the first place.
Sometimes I do simply choose not to ask for what I need and instead deal with it on my own, because my own exertions are so much more bearable than the stress and pain that comes with the potential of being denied, ignored, or punished by the people who are supposed to support me.
The Hireability of Disabled Artists in Theatre
The harsh reality is that there are career consequences for openly having a disability in our industry. According to Actors’ Equity’s 2020 Hiring Bias Report, disabled artists are underrepresented and underpaid. One in four Americans have some type of disability, and yet only 13.3 percent, or 6,876, of AEA members even responded to the question about whether they have a disability, and of those just 529 reported having a disability. The Hiring Bias and Wage Gaps in Theatre Report for 2021 indicates that only 1.5 percent of Equity contracts (91 out of 6,116) went to workers who self-identified as having a disability, and 70 percent of the total contracts in 2021 went to workers who did not share whether they have a disability or not. That’s pretty disproportionate and plenty concerning.
The report concludes: “These numbers point to the essential work that needs to be done to ensure safety and representation for the potentially one in four workers who have a disability, and either aren’t receiving equitable employment or don’t feel that they can share that part of themselves with their union or their workplace.”
In my interviews, one of the most common topics of conversation concerned these very things: hireability and disclosure.
“People with disabilities are often left out,” said performer TJ Newton. “There might be some prejudice there, even if it’s not malicious. Especially as a musical theatre performer, going into a room, even if everyone is excited that I’m able to sing with the hearing aid, there might be some questions internally. I know that the world can be a cruel place—especially toward people who look different.”
Another HOH actor, who requires in-ear monitors in order to perform, expressed fear that an employer might not hire them because it poses an extra expense.
“If I say upfront in my audition video or in the room, ‘Hey, by the way, I have a hearing impairment and I’m probably going to need an in-ear monitor to perform,’ they’re probably already going to start to think, ‘Do we have the capacity to help this person? Do we have the technology?’” said the actor. Their solution: “I resort to booking the job first. Once I book the job, once I’m in the town and have signed the contract, then I go through the next mind-breaking task of crafting an email to the creative team to let them know what my hearing situation is, and then inform them that I will need an in-ear monitor to do my job.”
Others expressed not wanting to seem high maintenance during auditions, when time is of the essence.
“What happens when I walk into the audition room and the piano is on my right side?” asked Niko Charney. “I can’t hear on my right side. So what do I do? There’s this weird pressure when you want to speak up and advocate for yourself, but realize there are 500 people in line behind you.”
Another HOH actor expressed their fear of discrimination happening on more levels than one.
“When I walk into an audition room, I’m already trying to fight the notion that the people behind the table will immediately peg me as a Latin-presenting woman, which I very proudly am,” she explained. “I’m going on 20 years of pursuing this career and, of the contracts I’ve had, all are for roles that need or require a Latin or Spanish-speaking person. And my thought process right now, with having a hearing impairment, is that I don’t want that to be yet another obstacle that I have to fight. I don’t want to give them one more reason not to hire me.”
When I have met with potential agents, I myself have felt wary about sharing my hearing loss. It seems that agents don’t know what to do with me, an actor, musician, and singer who is also HOH. In one particular meeting, an agent asked me how much hearing loss I had. He said, “I have to know how to submit you.” In this five-minute pay-to-play, this agent was asking me to explain the nature of my disability. His approach showed me that he wasn’t interested in seeing me as a whole artist, only as a product with limited marketability. What a shame.
Legal and Physical Consequences
I attribute a large amount of my hearing loss and tinnitus to one particular performance job I had when I was right out of college. It was a situation where all the performers wore in-ear monitors. The sound design included a live band with an electric guitar, fiddle, full kit, and four vocalists, plus a country/rock click track.
Unfortunately, the venue never hired an engineer to design the sound or properly program the in-ears. Instead, they had one stage manager in the booth running all aspects of tech. During the run of the show, the levels were never consistent. Several times our in-earbuds blew out our ears and we couldn’t wear them for the entire performance. As a youngster in the business, the only thing I knew to do was ask for what I needed from the stage manager, again and again, and to continue muscling through the job. I remember being plagued with sleepless nights that entire summer due to the massive ringing in my ears, without realizing that it would change my life down the road.
The theatre that hired me had clearly cut corners and, in turn, had sacrificed the health of their employees. The field as a whole has been too lax about the health and safety of artists, and I’m hoping that this recollection calls on employers to prioritize precautions and encourages artists to stand up for themselves in these moments.
Now let’s talk about the legal side of things. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that “requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for applicants or employees with disabilities, should they be qualified to perform the job expectations with them.”
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance on Job Applicants and the ADA, an employer cannot refuse to consider someone because they require a reasonable accommodation to compete for or perform a job. An employer does not have to provide a specific accommodation if it would cause an “undue hardship” requiring significant difficulty or expense. In that case, an employer would still be required to provide an alternative accommodation that meets the same needs. Employers are not allowed to ask questions that are likely to reveal the existence of a disability before making a job offer. However, such questions are permitted after extending a job offer.
Beyond the ADA law, artists are also further protected by Actors’ Equity Association in these ways: The AEA may intervene on the member’s behalf regarding accessibility issues and reasonable accommodations, per contract parameters. AEA offers training for audition monitors around disability related concerns, and assist members who require an ASL interpreter.
Get On Board
It’s not enough for theatres to tout diversity and inclusivity. It’s not just about asking peoples’ accessibility needs; it’s about following through and meeting those needs.
I believe that the general lack of support from hearing artists doesn’t stem from ego or malice, but rather from a lack of education and a fear of missteps. Here are some things you can (and should) say and do.
Are your accessibility needs being met?
If you feel like you need an extra advocate in this room, I’m here.
You need help with that cue? Great! Let’s get creative.
You’re a talented human and I appreciate you.
In supporting your artistic peers with hearing loss, the most important thing to remember is that accommodations are going to differ from person to person and from job to job. There is so much variety in our abilities.
“It’s always a different ask for each job,” said performer Johnny Link. “A lot of people don’t understand. They assume, ‘Oh, we’re talking face to face. You should be fine.’ But face to face in a room with just two people is different from a set of 100 people running around in front of you, with noise everywhere. You know—inside, outside, all kinds of variables—it’s honestly case by case.”
Hopes and Dreams
I asked each of the HOH actors what their hopes and dreams would be for the future of the theatre industry. Here’s what they said.
“To be embraced as a whole person,” said Link. “I want to spend more time talking about the other sides of me. I have this hard of hearing experience, but that’s not my whole story.”
TJ Newton added, “I hope one day, while performing with my hearing aid, there’s a little kid out in the audience that sees me onstage who also wears one, and maybe that encourages them to want to be onstage too. I hope that one day I can inspire.”
“My dream is that theatres and production companies will be forward-thinking in coming to their company members to address any needs first,” said another artist, “without making company members be the first ones to speak up. There should be a willingness to troubleshoot and search for the answers and solutions.”
“My goal, as a musician and performer that uses a hearing aid,” said Niko Charney, “is to help spread awareness throughout the industry as to what we need in order to be the best storytellers we can be. Furthermore, I yearn to be a form of support for other creators, performers, and musicians navigating a field that relies so heavily on something we don’t completely have—‘perfect’ hearing. Exploring life in general with hearing aids has its barriers and difficulties, but even more challenging is exploring an industry and art form that truly tests the limits of our ears. You are heard and I am here for you!”
My biggest hope is that we continue building an industry where artists, regardless of any kind of difference, can show more of themselves. And therefore, we can know each other more fully. It will only strengthen us and move us forward.
Jo Brook is a Montana native and NYC-based, HOH actor, musician, writer, and director. She is a founding member of the Snowy Mountain Sisters, an all-female bluegrass and folk collective.
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