'Tribes' and the art of projections in a play about hearing loss

DCPA Multimedia Specialist Charlie Miller at work on the unusual challenge of creating projections as both utilitarian and living beings in ‘Tribes.’ Photo by John Moore.

Charlie Miller has been passionate about the intersection of disability and theatre since he started volunteering for Denver’s Phamaly Theatre Company, which exclusively features actors with disabilities, when he was just 15 years old.

Now a Harvard graduate who runs the multimedia department for the DCPA Theatre Company, Miller is thrilled to be working on Nina Raine’s Tribes, a smart play about a family struggling to communicate — and not only because youngest son Billy is deaf.

“It’s great to see disability stories being told in authentic ways,” Miller said, “and it’s great to see the casting of actors with disabilities to tell those stories. In order to really engage our full community in the work that we do, we need to be telling diverse stories to attract a diverse audience.”

Charlie quote 4Miller cited a recent survey that says 1 in 5 Americans consider themselves to have a disability of some kind. “So it is a huge population,” he said.

Miller’s role in Tribes is to help audiences understand what the two hard-of-hearing characters are saying. Raine’s script calls for the use of supertitles — projected translations audiences most commonly see at the opera. But it’s a tricky and intentionally unreliable device in the play, Miller says with a grin.

“Not everything that is signed is translated for the audiences, and sometimes the translations take on a life of their own,” Miller said. “So I think it becomes more complex in a really good way.”

Director Stephen Weitz said Miller’s projections are vital to the overall understanding of Raine’s play, and not only for their utilitarian purpose. While the supertitles serve a literal translator function at the beginning of the story, “they start to have their own expressiveness, and they start to bring their own contribution to what is being communicated,” Weitz said. “So we are counting on Charlie to deliver a lot of different things as they grow and morph and change.”

The projections act much like a musical score, Weitz added, “because there is just something musical about it. Like any character, they have their own arc throughout the play.”

Here are excerpts of our conversation with Miller about the technical challenge at hand:

John Moore: How would you describe the video vocabulary for Tribes?

Charlie Miller: Tribes is a really exciting play to work on as a projection designer because the playwright has made the projections such an essential ingredient in the play. Tribes is all about communication. It’s about language barriers between hearing-impaired people and people who are hearing. The projections are established to be supertitles translating for a hearing audience what the deaf and hard-of-hearing characters are saying to each other. And it starts out very straightforwardly in that way.

John Moore: Can you share an example that shows how this is going to work?

Charlie Miller: Sure. In Scene 2, Billy meets Sylvia at a party. He is deaf, and she is losing her hearing. She knows sign language but he doesn’t because his family never taught him. So she starts talking to him quickly, and when we project the supertitles, the audience will understand what she is saying — even though he doesn’t understand what she is saying. Later, once he starts to learn sign language, there will be scenes between the two of them where the other characters can’t know what they are saying to each other — but the audience will.

John Moore: And how does it evolve as the story goes on?

Charlie Miller: The playwright establishes these initial rules for the projections, but by the end of Act I, it explodes out into this much more emotional place so that they are no longer just translating dialogue. As the story unfolds and the relationships develop, the supertitles start saying things that are not even said. And so the projections break their own rules that they have established.

John Moore: You had to be pretty excited when you first saw this script.

Charlie Miller: As I read it and read it again, I realized there is a lot of room within the simple concept of supertitles for creativity in helping to tell the story, and to reinforce the themes and ideas of the play. It is really exciting for me as a designer when the playwright utilizes projections as a storytelling element.

John Moore: Do you anticipate any special technical challenges?

Charlie Miller: In this show, every title is in sync with what the characters are saying in real time, so there are a lot of timing things that we are going to have to work out with the actors to make sure we are able to keep up with them. And at a speed that is realistic for an audience member to read. If they are signing something a lot faster than we can follow, we may need them to slow down. So there is going to be a lot of back and forth in rehearsal to hone how it all plays out, and to make it flow the way we want it to.

John Moore: How might this whole experience have an even more lasting impact on the Theatre Company than just the run of Tribes?

Charlie Miller: I hope it will be transformative for our company in terms of being more inclusive both in the stories that we are telling — and in the people we are hiring.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Tribes: Ticket information
Performances Oct. 9 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 Denvercenter.org.

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

Previous NewsCenter coverage of Tribes:
Tribes and the tyranny of language and listening
Tribes: Anytime there is an ‘us,’ there is a ‘them’
Meet cast member Andrew Pastides
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
Go to the official Tribes show page

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *