When Thunder River Theatre Co. executive artistic director Corey Simpson selected “Tribes” as their final production for the season, he had no idea how much it would change him.
“I have to admit, I didn’t take all of the intricacies of this piece into account when I selected it,” said Simpson, who is directing the production. “In part, that was based on me not having experience with the deaf or hard-of-hearing community before.”
Written by playwright Nina Raine, “Tribes” tells the story of a Jewish family of five — a mom, dad and three children.
The play follows the family as they assimilate the youngest child Billy, who is deaf, into the hearing culture as much as possible.
When she meets a young love interest who is going deaf with two deaf parents and they proceed to teach Billy to sign, the universe opens up to her.
“I fell in love with the piece. It is a beautiful, funny, incredible and heartfelt piece, with a lot of things about it that I was looking for in filling the season,” Simpson said.
For Simpson, the research for this project was really interesting. He searched for deaf theaters in Colorado and located an artistic director in Denver.
“I picked up my phone, and I was halfway through dialing it when I realized I was calling someone who is deaf, and had no idea how that process would work,” Simpson said.
“It was not even part of my reality until then. That was the first experience I had where I knew all of us working on this piece were about to have a really eye-opening experience.”
One thing Simpson realized quickly was the lack of resources on the Western Slope.
He learned that the Aspen Deaf Camp had recently closed, and many of the employees had moved because of the lack of resources.
Through his research, Simpson was able to make contact with Michelle Mary Schaefer, a deaf actor from Austin, Texas, who is playing Billy.
Simpson said he has been in awe of her ability.
“When I first met her, we had never spoken face to face or even on the phone before,” he said. “It had all been over email and texting. I was really nervous when she showed up, because I had no idea what the process was going to be like directing someone who can’t hear me.
“My universe has been completely blown open by working on this piece, and also by working with one of our actors who is deaf,” Simpson said.
“Michelle has just been amazing to work with. She can speak, is fluent in lip reading and sign language, and at the same time some of us in the cast and crew have really worked to learn as much sign as we can.”
Simpson said it has been a lot of fun and created a lot of hilarious moments between the casts, with a lot of laughter in the process.
“This is an incredibly powerful piece, and we have experienced that every night in rehearsal because the actor playing the main character is deaf. What the audience is going to experience is a situation that most of us don’t experience every day,” Simpson said.
Simpson said seeing someone portray this role who has lived through so much of what this character experiences really takes the play to different level and adds another layer of reality and strength to the message.
The cast of six also includes guest actor and former valley resident Brittany Dye, who now lives in New York City, and talented locals William Bledsoe, Meredith Nelson-Daniel, Suzanne Brady and Dana Gaubatz.
After five weeks of rehearsal, “Tribes” takes the stage tonight at 7:30 at Thunder River Theatre Co. in Carbondale.
Thunder River Theatre Co. will be bringing in two ASL-certified interpreters for the final two shows at 7:30 p.m. June 28 and 29.
“I have been changed by this process, I have learned some sign, I’ve made some lifelong friends that I would have never connected with before, and since I started here at TRTC, I have really aspired along with the board, staff and actors to continue to open our doors more to the community. And this kind of play is really about creating new bridges between people that might not otherwise connect,” Simpson said.
“In some ways this play I think is expressing what we’re passionate about trying to do with theater, and sometimes it’s easy for those of us in the arts to forget that art really does have power and really can impact people in ways that change them and I think this play is going to be a great reminder to us about how much theater can do in the world.”