Beyond Words

9 03 2009

Saturday, March 7, 2009

OSF Seattle actor Howie Seago employs sign language to find the rhythm of ‘The Music Man’

Michael Elich, as Harold Hill, left and Howie Seago as Marcellus Washburn in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "The Music Man". OSF photo by Jennifer Reiley

Michael Elich, as Harold Hill, left and Howie Seago as Marcellus Washburn in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "The Music Man". OSF photo by Jennifer Reiley

Professor Harold Hill, the con man In Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man,” has no sooner hit River City than he runs into his old pal and accomplice Marcellus Washburn. Marcellus says he heard Harold was into a steam car racket.

Harold: I was.

Marcellus: What happened?

Harold: Somebody actually invented one.

Dialog like that has to snap. And in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s new production of the beloved musical comedy, Marcellus is played by Howie Seago, who hears nothing Harold says. Seago is that rarity, a deaf actor.

Seago uses American Sign Language to “speak” his lines to actor Michael Elich, who plays Harold. Elich repeats Seago’s lines aloud, then responds by speaking and signing back.

“Marcellus just can’t resist Harold’s charm and powers of persuasion to assist him in his mission,” Seago says in an e-mail. “Fortunately, Michael and I have the same sense of what works and are open to each other’s suggestions and feedback.”

Seago credits OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch with using his deafness and sign language to highlight the relationship between Marcellus and the Professor, which Seago builds on with extensive use of facial expressions and body language. Harold’s familiarity with ASL, for example, suggests a long-term bond with Marcellus. Plus it hints that somewhere beneath his outer grifter, Harold has a heart.

In a press conference for OSF’s opening weekend, Rauch said that Seago is not merely a great deaf actor.

“He’s a great actor,” Rauch said.

Seago, a Seattle native, is new to the festival this year. His resume includes lots of television and film work, but he prefers the stage.

“In theatre, it is fairly well acceptable to … allow a deaf actor to portray normally hearing characters,” Seago says via e-mail. “Whereas in film and TV, it is rare to do so.”

Seago says the stage allows an actor more time to explore a character, offers more intense collaboration and presents the challenge of working without a net in that missteps cannot be edited out of a live show.

In rehearsals for “The Music Man,” Seago read lips, kept an eye on an ASL interpreter who was present and asked others to follow the script with a pencil.

“The interpreter gets worn out quickly,” he says.

Seago and Elich also worked out some cues between them to keep Harold and Marcellus on track, but he doesn’t want to reveal them lest audiences start looking for them.

“Don’t want to give away too much theater magic,” he says, adding a smile.

Seago, 55, was born deaf. His father was deaf, too. He attended an oral school for the deaf where speech and lip reading were encouraged. His mother helped him develop mimic abilities.

He was mainstreamed in high school and acted for the first time in college. As a student at California State University at Northridge, he majored in psychology and theater arts and learned American Sign Language.

He has worked as an actor, director and producer for more than 20 years, appearing at the Intiman Theatre, the Kennedy Center, the La Jolla Playhouse and elsewhere. He toured with the National Theatre of the Deaf in the early 1980s and founded Happy Handfuls, a touring troupe based in Los Angeles.

He helped create the television show “Rainbow’s End” for deaf children and appeared in TV shows such as “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and in the 1997 movie “Beyond Silence.” His breakthrough came in Peter Sellars’ production of “Ajax.” Talking Heads frontman David Byrne was so taken with his performance that he cast him as the king is his 1989 German production of “The Forest.”

Seago says one of his pet peeves is when “hearing” actors to portray deaf characters, especially if the roles involve American Sign Language or other elements of deaf culture.

“We cringe when hearing actors botch the signing of lines,” he says. “It’s like a person having taken only one lesson in speaking French and then having the gall to sing the French anthem in French at a public event.”

He says ASL is a beautiful language with its own syntax and grammar. He says hearing actors should no more play deaf people than white actors using makeup should portray African-Americans or American Indians.

“Acting roles for the deaf are rare,” he says, “so naturally we want all the opportunities for ourselves.”

Actor Patrick Stewart (Capt. Picard on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) once said that using deaf actors brings a natural dramatic tension to the situation.

For signed performances for the deaf (something the OSF has done for years), Seago would like to see deaf patrons seated in the middle of the theatre and interpreters seated in front of and below the center of the stage. He says this would eliminate the need to look constantly back and forth between signs and stage action.

David Seago, deaf since birth, plays the part of Marcellus in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "The Music Man" and plays the part using American Sign Language. Jim Craven

David Seago, deaf since birth, plays the part of Marcellus in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "The Music Man" and plays the part using American Sign Language. Jim Craven

Seago can find humor in deaf culture. He once had a comedy routine in which he recruited deaf men from the audience to sing and sign a verse from “O Sole Mio,” a la Pavarotti, and have the audience vote on the best performance. The bit killed. It’s in a blog with photos at http://putzworld.blogspot.com/2007/03/howie-seago-teaches-deaf-people-to-sing.html.

An avid outdoorsman, Seago has hiked and gone cross-country skiing, and he plans to bring several kayaks down from Seattle, where his wife teaches deaf children in grade school.

He says he’d never experienced having to hold for applause at the end of songs, as he does in “Music Man.”

“That takes some getting used to,” he says.

He says it would be nice if hearing people would learn the manual alphabet to spell out words for deaf people, and to try to mime concepts that the deaf might not understand at first.

He says every parent of a deaf child should learn sign language. He was not allowed to use it as a child.

“I definitely would not be acting in OSF without this skill,” he says.

Deaf people are just like everybody else, he says. They want to be respected and to live a meaningful life.

“This is illustrated in Bill’s vision of ‘Music Man,’ ” he says, “as an example of how the lives of a community can be transformed and enhanced by the unique talents of each individual and the acceptance of others who may be different than us.”

Later in the season, Seago will be seen as Griffith and in the ensemble in the OSF production of “Henry VIII,” and as Barber and in the ensemble in “Don Quixote.”

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