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

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.”


Teri Brown relishes roles of author, mentor, tutor

27 02 2009

Tigard, Oregon—“I’m one of those really weird people,” Teri Brown explains. “In order to throw myself 100 percent into something, I have to believe in it, too. My husband calls this ‘impractical.’”

Impractical or not, Brown is dedicated to her beliefs. Among them: She is a strong believer in the powers of self-education and literacy.

“I basically have no education, at all,” Brown says.

Nevertheless, she taught herself enough to climb the ranks of the freelance writing and advertising world, where she has devoted years to interviewing some of the nation’s foremost parenting experts, writing articles for a variety of publications (including Community Newspapers) and publishing both nonfiction and fictional books.

“I truly believe that even if you can’t afford college or can’t afford higher education, you can still become self-educated. It may not matter as much when you go to apply for a job, but it sure matters for the quality of your life,” says Brown.

In September, Brown took a position at Community Partners for Affordable Housing, a nonprofit organization that provides safe, healthy and affordable housing, as well as support and skill building activities, for those with the greatest need in the Tigard-Tualatin area and Southwest Portland.

At Greenburg Oaks, the CPAH property where Brown works as the after-school program associate, or as she calls it, a “glorified tutor,” Brown combines her passions for literacy and self-education by helping kindergartners through junior high students with their homework and reading. Character building, crafts, making connections: All are included in a day’s tutoring.

“A lot of parents are really happy to have their kids go to a place where they have to do their homework,” Brown says.

Many of these parents, she says, are transitioning out of homelessness and see the after-school program as an invaluable resource.

Teri Brown recently started a book club for teens at Greenburg Oaks, an affordable housing property owned by Community Partners for Affordable Housing. An author herself, Brown is a literacy advocate who believes a limited income should never limit one’s ability to become self-educated.

Teri Brown recently started a book club for teens at Greenburg Oaks, an affordable housing property owned by Community Partners for Affordable Housing. An author herself, Brown is a literacy advocate who believes a limited income should never limit one’s ability to become self-educated.

Once a month, the group goes on a field trip to take in a cultural event. The community has donated tickets for everything from the ballet to the Blazers for the after-school program.

“We can take the kids out to things they might never do on their own,” Brown says.

Brown, who home-schooled her own two children up until high school, sees value in presenting kids with opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to. This partly explains why, in addition to the tutoring she does for her job, she took on additional volunteer work at CPAH, forming and running a youth book club.

Brown knows a thing or two about young adult literature – in June, her debut novel “Read My Lips” was published. The book is about a young oral-deaf girl who uses her lip reading skills to get in with the popular crowd. Once she’s accepted there, the popular kids try to use her lip reading abilities to their advantage.

Brown’s mother-in-law was a deaf advocate on the board for the Alexander Graham Bell Association, and her husband’s niece uses hearing aids and lip reading to communicate. Although this inspired the story, Brown insists it’s a lighter read.

“It’s a fluffy, beach read type book,” she says. “I didn’t want it to be a deaf issues book because I’m not deaf. I can’t really get my arms around what it would be like. I just wanted to have a story that starred a deaf girl.”

For the book club, Brown has been leaning on her writer friends to get books donated. She follows an every-other-month schedule: One month features a local author who is able to attend the meeting and answer questions, and the next month features an out-of-state author who participates in the meetings from afar. Their last guest author answered questions via Podcast.

Brown’s goal is to obtain funding to buy books for the club, rather than always relying on donations. She often dips into her own pocket to make the meetings special: She likes to serve the students foods they may not normally be exposed to, like crackers with Brie cheese or fondue.

Brown, a native Oregonian who has lived in Tigard for the past 19 years, says her hobbies never stray far from her work: She loves to read, write and teach others, so that’s what she does with her time. She also mentors a young writer who is working on a senior project in Yamhill.

In addition to her novel, Brown has two works of nonfiction published: “Christian Unschooling: Growing Your Children in the Freedom of Christ” and “Day Tripping.” Her Web site is

On March 10, the book club will hold its next meeting, where author Heather Vogel Frederick will be on hand to visit and sign her book “The Mother-Daughter Book Club.”

“I’ve been able to do this, mostly because of the generosity of my writer friends from around the country,” Brown says of keeping the book club going.

She hopes the generosity will expand to the community and others will share her vision for passing the value of reading onto the youth of Greenburg Oaks.

ASL Tales: Telling Old Stories In A New Way

11 02 2009


Salem, OR  —New children’s books come out everyday, but it’s rare that someone creates an entirely new way of storytelling.

But the creator of a new version of The Princess and the Pea has come up with  a book for the hearing-impaired that’s written in both English and American Sign Language. Allison Frost reports.


Creator Laurie Meyer is a long time American Sign Language interpreter.

When she couldn’t find any books in ASL, she decided to create her own — if you can call it a book. It’s really something new.

0211_aslpageASL Tales: “Once upon a time, there was a prince who lived in a lovely castle.”

The text of the book is in English, and it comes with a companion DVD.

ASL Tales: “But the prince was lonely. . . So he set out on a journey to find a princess.”

What you see on the DVD are rich, colorful illustrations and an expressive ASL signer telling the story visually, while you hear the English narration.

ASL Tales: The prince heard someone knocking at the door. (knocking)  When he opened it, he found a princess who was all wet.”

What makes Princess and the Pea so new is the fact that the ASL story is told by a native speaker and not translated.

Laurie Meyer is energetic and passionate about ASL. And she’s completely convinced her books, in the right hands, will make a difference.

Laurie Meyer:  “Deaf children are denied this amazing language all the time. 80 percent of deaf kids don’t get access to ASL. AND — huge numbers of hearing children are learning what they think is ASL that isn’t that doesn’t create them being able to talk to deaf people.”

<<Bus sound. . . honk honk. . . >>

Hearing-impaired kids come from all over the state to attend the Oregon School for the Deaf. The K-12 public school in north Salem sprawls across 52 acres. Patti Togioka heads the school.

<<fade bus sound down and out>>

Patti Togioka: “Young deaf children are not getting ASL.”

<<fade in sound of kids from Oregon School for the deaf>>

Togioka says that’s because most deaf kids have hearing parents — many who may have never even met a deaf person before. Some parents are told their kids won’t ever learn to speak if they learn ASL first. Totally untrue, Togioka says.

Patti Togioka: “When they have something they can count on, they feel freer to explore in a second language.”

No one says learning German will make you less able to speak English, Togioka says, and it’s the same with ASL.

Patti Togioka: “Having access to a full complete language gives you the confidence and the linguistic skill to manipulate your second language. We find that with bilingual education; it’s no different with deaf children.”

0211_aslvideoStory creator Laurie Meyer says what most hearing people don’t understand is that ASL is not English in sign form. It is truly a language all its own, and like any language has its own vocabulary and grammar.

You can’t learn Spanish by memorizing some Spanish words or phrases. And just because you learn a few signs — or even a lot of signs — doesn’t mean you know ASL.

ASL Tales: “The princess asked to come in, and promptly made friends with the dog.”

Try describing a painting using only facial expressions. You can’t do it.

Just like hearing people use facial expressions AND spoken words, Meyer says, deaf people need a third dimension — space.

She says signing isn’t just about the shape you make with your fingers and hands — it’s also the position of your hands and how they move through space that’s crucial.

Meyer says most sign language books get it wrong.

Laurie Meyer: “(The) palm orientation is always wrong, the movement’s always wrong, that’s how I learned it first and then I had to spend a lot of time unlearning everything I learned.”

Since deaf people rely on sight to communicate, instead of hearing — that third dimension of space makes all the difference.

Laurie Meyer: “You cannot learn sign language at all from a two dimensional thing. Try it.”

Susan Mather: “My mother didn’t sign to me but she gave me books. You know, for me, that was key in my educational development, that’s how I acquired English as a second language.”

Susan Mather is a linguistics professor at Gallaudet. It’s the world’s only university devoted completely to hearing-impaired students, and one that’s fully bilingual in both English and ASL.

Mather spoke to us through an ASL interpreter.

 Calypso Tucker and Isolde Strandberg

Susan Mather:  “I think that ASL Tales, with the DVD, is a critical component, both of them together are just a beautiful  tool, that families can actually learn together with and enjoy.”

<sound of Calyso Tucker and sister Isolde playing>

6-year-old Calypso Tucker is a student at the Oregon School for the Deaf. Her mom Haley says she loves her bilingual school. She had a visceral response to the Princess and the Pea.

Haley Tucker: “She said, that lady’s deaf, she’s deaf. You know, right away it was, a connection of, a natural language use and she really connected, so it was great. And this one loved it too. . . ”

Isolde: “I do. I like stories.”

Haley Tucker: “Yeah, you like stories.”

Calypo’s  3-year-old sister Isolde can hear. She’s grown up with ASL, so she’s bilingual.

Allison: “And do you sign to talk to your sister?”

Isolde: “Yeah, I do.”

Haley Tucker: (to Isolde): “What else do you say to sister?”

Haley Tucker: “How do you say that”

(Calypso vocalizing) (fade down conversation)

Having a book that reaches both her children would be good enough for parent Haley Tucker. But she also appreciates that Laurie Meyer has updated the fairy tale.

ASL Tales Sound: “It seems you like this Princess,” said the Queen. “I do,” said the Prince. “And she can read the biggest, heaviest books,” said the Prince.

In addition to American Sign Language and English, Princess and the Pea is recorded in ASL and French, Spanish, Mandarin, Thai and Vietnamese.

Creator Laurie Meyer will soon have an entire series of books coming out which she calls ASL Tales.