“The hour’s now come”: deaf and hearing actors together in The Tempest at the Citadel

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The Tempest, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

“O brave new world, that has such people in’t,” as Miranda, the daughter of a deposed ruler in exile, says in wonder towards the end of one of Shakespeare’s most mysterious and haunting plays.

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In the version of The Tempest opening Thursday at the Citadel, Miranda herself plays a part in defining that brave new world of inclusivity. And so does her father.

For more than four centuries The Tempest’s open-ended magic and mysteries, its strange mélange of dramatic moments and presentational pageantry, have invited every kind of interpretation and director’s concept. In a first for Canadian mainstage theatre, the 15-member acting ensemble of Josette Bushell-Mingo’s innovative bilingual production, an offshoot of the Citadel/Banff Professional Program, is almost equally divided amongst deaf and hearing artists. They perform in American Sign Language and spoken English — in addition to “the language of the body.”

Prospero, a rightful duke exiled to an island by the evil machinations of an usurper brother, is played by the award-winning Canadian Indigenous artist Lorne Cardinal, best known to smiling television audiences in this country as Sgt. Davis Quinton on the comedy series Corner Gas. Prospero’s daughter Miranda, who discovers love in the course of The Tempest, is played by the young deaf Tamil-Canadian theatre artist Thurga Kanagasekarampillai, Toronto-based and making her professional theatre debut across the country from home. The experience, say both of them, has been a life- and career-changer.

“Hi Dad!” says the sociable, puckish 25-year-old Kanagasekarampillai (through an interpreter), over dinner last week, as we’re joined by Cardinal. He’s been touring his dog Jake, a patient attender of rehearsals, through the downtown Edmonton streets.

Thurga Kanagasekarampillai, Braydon Downler-Coltman in The Tempest. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

Cardinal and Kanagasekarampillai have a jocular, easy offstage rapport, communication assisted materially by the latter’s mobile facial expressiveness and galactic smile. Did “Dad” arrive in Banff — from his West Coast home in Squamish two weeks into the four-week training intensive — knowing any sign language? She laughs. “Zero…. He was ‘OK, what am I gonna do?’ It was all over his face. And we were, like ‘it’s OK; it’s gonna be OK!’”

“All of us, hearing and non-hearing actors together, had to tell a fairy tale — without using sign or spoken language,” says Cardinal of the new versions of The Ugly Duckling; it was fun. I was thrown into what they were doing. And I become the lead swan!”

“And you were fabulous!” Kanagasekarampillai teases. “I felt the stress disappear right away; (the deaf actors) were so supportive, so helpful to the hearing actors,” says Cardinal, whom Edmonton audiences know in person from Theatre Network productions of Thunderstick and Where The Blood Mixes. Kanagasekarampillai reports a similar experience. “Our first language is ASL, and English is challenging for us,” she says. “But we’ve had so much support from our fellow actors. We draw so much from their understanding.”  

“It’s very physical; our storytelling based in that, so everything is smooth and flowing, with bigger gestures.”” says Cardinal of the production conceived by Bushell-Mingo, the former artistic director of Tyst Teater, Sweden’s National Deaf Theatre. This suits him fine. “Before I even went to the U of A (Cardinal was the first-ever aboriginal Fine Arts acting grad in 1993) I was in physical comedy, mask, clown. That’s how I got inspired….”

Kanagasekarampillai, who graduated from George Brown College in 2016 with a degree in Acting For Media, concurs. “Your body can say so much without words; you don’t even know how much….”

The fascinating and sometimes fraught father-daughter relationship in The Tempest becomes even more complex, of course, when one hears and the other doesn’t. “I think I draw from my real experience,” says Toronto-born Kanagasekarampillai, whose parents emigrated from Sri Lanka. “My father does not know ASL. But I love him dearly. We have a physical connection; we can communicate. It’s a quiet language between the two of us: eye gazes, body movement … it’s challenging because I want to talk to my dad, and know who he is, and know his family history…. I think I bring that to the (theatrical) experience.”

“I think my character is still learning as we go, trying to figure it out, to find other ways of communication. And (she smiles) that’s the story behind Miranda and Prospero: we still don’t communicate 100 per cent.”

As a deaf artist Kanagasekarampillai is, of course, very tuned to matters of communication, in  theatre and in life. There are four sisters in the family. She and her immediately older sister are deaf, bookended by the oldest and the youngest who aren’t, and are therefore are enlisted for the interpreting. “They sign and they’re fluent, but they’re not interpreters. So there’s always been that communication gap.”

The high-altitude attractions of Banff aren’t inconsiderable: “the mountains! nature! I’m fascinated by nature, why wouldn’t I want to travel there?” But the real draw of the Citadel/Banff program and the Citadel Tempest for Kanagasekarampillai is the fact that deaf actresses, much less deaf actresses of colour, are so rarely seen on the country’s stages and screens. “So this is my shot at making that change,” she smiles. “And when I got to Banff and met the ensemble, it’s been so worth it, 100 per cent-plus, the training, the program, the breadth and depth of it all!”

Lorne Cardinal (top) and Nadien Chu in The Tempest. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

“Prospero is not going to be the traditional old guy with the stick,” says Cardinal of off-the-rack interpretations that have presented the magician in autumnal retirement mode (often linked to Shakespeare’s own career) as he abjures his “rough magic” in favour of forgiveness. The active, compelling need for vengeance is central to Prospero in the production we’ll see, he says. “Bad vengeance really poisons his mind, and poisons his connection with his daughter as well. He’s taken his magic into places he maybe shouldn’t…. So it’s an interesting telling….” 

Cardinal, who was assistant-director (and in the cast) of Peter Hinton’s 2012 all-aboriginal King Lear at the National Arts Centre, feels a kinship with the struggles of his deaf cast-mates. “Every one one of them as been told throughout their lives they can’t do this, be actors. And I’ve faced the same thing as an Indigenous person. We’re told we can’t do Shakespeare because we have lazy tongues. Or we don’t have the emotional depth. Because we’re shy and protective, people mistake that for being not intelligent, not aware…. “

“I’m hoping this doesn’t become a one-off, that it opens up opportunities,” says Cardinal of his first experience in a mixed hearing/deaf cast. “We should be doing a documentary of this production, the way we worked, and rehearsed, together…. ASL actors are fearless and talented, brilliant. And hard-working. Hearing people don’t understand how hard deaf people work, just to survive in this society. It’s inspiring for me to work with them onstage because they give so much. They work so hard; they’re so focused.”

Getting hired was Kanagasekarampillai’s first surprise, she says cheerfully of the process of sending video auditions. “Completely unexpected!” she says. “Finally, there were no barriers for me to cross. And there are more opportunities moving forward. Like Lorne says, there are negative reactions and the expectation we can’t do things. We’re proving that wrong….

As Prospero, the tempest-maker, says at the outset, “the hour’s now come….”


The Tempest

Theatre: Citadel

Directed by: Josette Bushell-Mingo

Starring: Lorne Cardinal, Thurga Kanagasekarampillai, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Nadien Chu, Jarret Cody, Derek Kwan, Ray Strachan, Troy O’Donnell, Elizabeth Morris, Barbara Poggemiller, Denise Read, Hodan Youssouf, Hayley Hudson, Sage Lovell, Suchiththa Wickremesooriya

Running: Thursday through May 12

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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