Perspectives: 5 things we learned about 'Tribes'

Cast and creatives from ‘Tribes’ at Perspectives. From left: Moderator Doug Langworthy, Dialect Coach Kathy Maes, Director Stephen Weitz, actor Kate Finch and Interpreter Natalie Austin. Not pictured: Actor Andrew Pastides. Photo by John Moore.

Perspectives is a series of free panel conversations moderated by DCPA Theatre Company Literary Manager Douglas Langworthy. They take place from 6 p.m. to 6:45 on the evening of each production’s first preview performance (except A Christmas Carol). The next Perspectives will be held Jan. 22 (The Nest) in the Jones Theatre. No reservations necessary.

Here’s some of what we learned from Langworthy’s conversation with cast and crew of Tribes, the story of bickering British parents who have raised their deaf son as if he is not. Meeting Sylvia, who is losing her hearing, causes Billy to go off in search of a new tribe.

The video above is close-captioned. Please hit the “CC” YouTube option to read them.

1 PerspectivesThe DCPA invited members of the local deaf community to attend a preview performance to test both how much of their story is being understood by the deaf and hard-of-hearing, as well as the effectiveness of a new closed-captioning pilot program.

“We wanted to see from their perspective what is working, and we got great, wonderful feedback,” said Natalie Austin. From the start of rehearsals, Austin has served as an interpreter for cast member Tad Cooley, who is deaf in one ear and losing his hearing in the other. He plays Billy, whose parents have basically ignored their son’s deafness and never learned – or had their son learn – sign language. So when Billy meets Sylvia, he can’t understand her any more than he can his own family.
Natalie AustinThe DCPA has acquired 10 individual closed-captioning devices, each with small video screens about the size of a cell phone. The device clips onto the seat in front of you like a booklight, but with privacy settings that don’t distract surrounding audience members. Throughout the play, a live captioning operator sends the dialogue and other stage activity to these screens in real time. Translations are also liberally projected onto the stage so that hearing audiences can understand what deaf characters are saying when they communicate through sign language.

After the preview performance, the invited audience gave feedback, and many significant changes were adopted within 24 hours. For example, the captions, which had been streaming in all white lettering, were changed to color-coded so that audiences reading along can better distinguish between speakers. And audiences using the new devices will be seated in the center of their row, so they can look up at the stage and down at their screens without also having to move their heads from side to side.

“The DCPA is really recognizing that accessibility for patrons who are deaf and hard-of-hearing needs some improvement,” Austin said. “In the past, a deaf or hard-of-hearing patron’s only option has been to come to the one designated performance when interpreters or open-captions are scheduled in advance. (Open captions are when an entire performance has dialogue projected onto the wall of the theatre.) One of the audience members told us that providing him with these new individual closed-caption devices provides equality. Now a deaf person can wake up and say, ‘Hey, I want to go to the theatre tonight.’ And … they can. They can come to any show they want, on any day they want, and use this new captioning device. That is equal access at its greatest. For the entire run of Tribes, these devices will be available at every performance. The eventual goal is that they will be  available for all performances of every production. But for now, this is a pilot program. The only caveat is that people are asked to call in (303-893-4100) and let the DCPA know you are coming, so they can make sure a live captioning operator is called in for that performance.    

(EDITOR’s NOTE: The DCPA presently asks for 48 hours of advance notice.)
Director Stephen Weitz was happy to make changes based on direct input from the deaf focus group. “It’s great for us as artists to be forced to always re-evaluate the world through someone else’s eyes,” he said. “That is what theatre is all about.”

As for the performance, Austin said the invited guests were blown away. “So many of them were so moved by the story because this is their life being played out on stage,” she said.

(Pictured above right: Rachel Berman Blythe served on the DCPA’s focus group for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences. Photo by John Moore.)  

2 PerspectivesNinety percent of children who are deaf are born to hearing parents and hearing families. So, too, is lead character Billy. “This is a very common experience for someone who is deaf to be raised in a hearing family,” Austin said. “For different reasons, families choose for their child to learn spoken language instead of sign language.” Dialect coach Kathy Maes said only 10 percent of parents who have deaf children ever learn to effectively communicate with them. “And only one-third of those children ever graduate from high school,” she said. “And if they go on to college, only one-fifth of those complete their degrees.”

3 PerspectivesA deaf child who learns to speak will pick up on a regional dialect. “It can be very difficult to really understand a deaf person who has learned how to speak,” Maes said. But in the theatre, we don’t have the luxury of not understanding. The audience has to be be able to understand everything Billy says. So when Tad (the actor) speaks, essentially he is doing the same thing that any actor does when he adopts a dialect. That’s how we had to approach it. The other complication here is that the story is set in Britain, and this family speaks in a British dialect. So when Billy says a word like ‘ask,’ he needs to pronounce it the way they say it in Britain, which is more like ‘ahhhhsk.’ That’s what really puts his character in Britain. But that is also how a deaf person in Britain would say it, Austin added. “A lot of times, when children who are deaf lip-read, they will pick up the dialect of where they are from. They might not be able to hear it like we can, but because of the shape of the mouth and the way sounds are formed differently in different regions, they will pick up a British or, say, Southern accent.” The most important thing for the dialect coach, Maes said, is intelligibility. “The audience has to be right with you every minute and know what Tad is saying,” she said, “unless there are times when you are not supposed to know what Tad is saying.”

4 PerspectivesCODA vs. COSA. The character of Sylvia is a CODA – an acronym for a Child of Deaf Adults. “CODA really has its own very special place in the hierarchy of the Deaf – with a capital D – culture,” said actor Kate Finch, who plays Sylvia in Tribes. Finch is a hearing actor, as are her parents. But she was raised to sign because she grew up around several hard-of-hearing friends and family members, including her godmother. “My friends jokingly call me a COSA – a Child of Signing Adults,” she said. “The way I was raised, it is rude to
leave anyone out. So if someone is over to the house, you were expected to sign and speak at the same time. Not doing so would be considered rude. I remember the first time I met someone who was mainstreamed growing up, like Billy. He was deaf, but he hadn’t been taught sign language. I was floored because my upbringing says if you had an avenue to learn sign language, you did. It’s just another way to communicate. So when I met someone who never learned sign language until he was 24, I sort of gingerly had to pick my jaw up off the floor. It didn’t occur to me that you could be deaf and not naturally be a part of the deaf community.”

(Pictured above right: Director Stephen Weitz and Actor Kate Finch. Photo by John Moore.) 

5 PerspectivesTribes has run into controversy at other theatres around the country when the actress playing Sylvia is not trained in sign language. “To the best of my knowledge, this role has always been played by a hearing actress,” said Finch, “but the vast majority of them don’t sign. As you can imagine, that has offended deaf audiences. You can’t just pick someone and have them flap their hands on the stage. That’s all kinds of wrong. It’s not like learning a dance in a musical. The Denver Center has cast this play appropriately, and thank goodness for that.”

Tribes: Ticket information
Performances  through Nov. 15
Ricketson Theatre
Performance schedule: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday performances at 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday performances at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1:30 p.m. (No Saturday matinees during preview performances)
ASL interpreted & Audio described performance: 1:30 p.m. Nov. 7
Call 303-893-4100 or
TTY: 303-893-9582
Groups of 15 or more: 303-446-4829
Also: Purchase in person at The Denver Center Ticket Office, located at the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex lobby. Buy and print online at

Please be advised that the Denver Center for the Performing Arts  – – is the only authorized online ticket provider for the Denver engagement of ‘Tribes.’

Previous NewsCenter coverage of Tribes:
Go to the official Tribes show page
Video: Your first look at Tribes
Video: A message from Director Stephen Weitz
Tribes and the art of projections in a play about hearing loss
Tribes and the tyranny of language and listening
Tribes: Anytime there is an ‘us,’ there is a ‘them’
Theatre Company giddily going down rabbit hole in 2015-16
Casting announced for Theatre Company’s fall shows
Theatre Company introduces bold new artwork for 2015-16 season

Tribes ‘Meet the Cast’ profiles (more to come):

Kate Finch, Sylvia in Tribes
Isabel Ellison, Ruth in Tribes
Andrew Pastides, Daniel in Tribes

Tribes production photos

Photos from the DCPA Theatre Company’s ‘Tribes,’ featuring Stephen Paul Johnson, Andrew Pastides, Isabel Ellison, Tad Cooley, Kate Finch and Kathleen McCall. Photo credit: Adams Visual Communications.

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