CVU Senior Stages Musical With Actors From Across The Hearing Spectrum

May 19, 2017

When Julia Kitonis chose a final project for the NEXUS program at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, the senior knew she wanted to focus on accessibility to the arts. And coupled with her own theater background and a revival of her favorite musical, Spring Awakening that included both hearing and non-hearing actors, the seed of an immense idea was born.

Next weekend at FlynnSpace in Burlington, Kitonis — along with cast, crew and the backing of her CVU teachers behind her — will stage the musical, Songs For A New World, as it's never been staged before - with a cast of Vermont actors from both the hearing and non-hearing world.

Kitonis recently spoke to VPR about her project, its challenges and her plans.

Songs For A New World: A Theatrical Collaboration of Deaf and Hearing Talent in Vermont is onstage Sunday, May 28 at FlynnSpace in Burlington.

The following is a transcript of the recorded conversation between VPR's Mary Williams and Julia Kitonis, a senior at CVU in Hinesburg who is undertaking an ambitious capstone project to produce a musical for both hearing and non-hearing actors and audiences.

Mary Williams: Knowing she wanted to focus on accessibility to the arts for her senior project, CVU student Julia Kitonis decided to do something that's never been done before: Stage a production of the musical, Songs For A New World, using both hearing and non-hearing Vermont actors.

Her inspirations came from a few different places. One was a fellow student she met at CVU when they both had parts in a different school play. Julia said after a couple of weeks of rehearsals she realized the other student was deaf. And here's where the seed of the idea began. For Julia's capstone project she says she's setting out to integrate both Vermont’s theater community and deaf community.

Julia, first welcome to the studio and let you pick it up from there. 

Julia Kitonis: So she was sort of the start for me of this look at theater for different audiences because for me I started thinking like, theater had been a huge part of my life and it was all of a sudden this thing that wasn't as easily accessible for her as it was for me. Last season on Broadway there was a revival of my favorite favorite musical, Spring Awakening, and it was done in an American Sign Language version, so it was with both hearing and deaf actors so that they're accessible to both groups. It's a very touching show but it was made so much more powerful with the integration of these artists of all different sort of cultures, different abilities different languages working together on the stage often to portray the same character which just fascinated me. So I started looking specifically at deaf theater and of art. 

Mary: So you present this idea to do this really ambitious theater project. What did your teachers at CVU you have to say?

Julia: They said, “Yeah, great! I think you should do that. Let's see how we can do that!” And I don't know how many schools you could say, “I want to produce and direct a musical in two different languages one of which I'm not completely fluent in yet and I think it's going to cost you know, thousands of dollars,” and they say, “Great, what can we do?”

Mary: So pre-production began last November. So you've got your crew, you've got your space, you've got your cast. And what show did you end up choosing to perform?

Julia: We are doing Jason Robert Brown's, Songs For A New World. It has never been done in ASL before, so you know, sign language is such a beautifully expressive language. It's really good for art in many forms because it expresses a lot of things that you really can't say in English and they're really not super compatible languages so the art of interpreting song lyrics from English into American Sign Language is is probably the hardest part of the whole thing. We have some rehearsals where we will just sit on the stage for two to three hours and go through the script and say what about this way or what about this way or you know is this the right length or is this. Does this convey the right thing that we're trying to convey. And in the way that music has a certain feeling you know to our ear and music has a certain pleasure or ability for us. It has to be the same and as I said.

So the signs that you're choosing have to have the same visual feeling that you would get from listening to it. Really how you're moving and how you're transitioning your hands has a lot to do with the feeling that you're conveying to the audience. So in Songs For A New World, it's not really one cohesive plot and there aren't really any cohesive characters. It's more of a song-cycle that has a lot of different vignettes scenes.

So all the performers are, “Man 1,” “Woman 1,” and specifically for this show we have two people playing each role. So we have a singing performer and a signing performer. We have a man who is deaf. Sign language is his first language and we have a hearing performer who you know, has never worked with the deaf community, knows no sign language, you know is purely a singer. 

And these two are working you know very intimately together on one single character. Having two people trying to portray one character that don't even really properly speak each other's languages, can't always properly communicate in the way that they would like to has really been fascinating to see sort of how we as humans use art as a form of communication in a way that they can through the scene really work together and become this harmonious character even though they don't speak each other's languages and the ways they find to communicate with each other anyway on stage without ever having to speak one cohesive language is really really fascinating to watch.

For me sort of as a director and see how they interpret together without just having a conversation like we normally would. The whole show will be performed in ASL. For me, as a director thinking about blocking it. I'm always thinking about how do I make sure that the people that are signing in this number are most visible. Because at any point, you have to be able to see enough you know basically their torso up and their hands because any audience members that are deaf are going to need to see it have a constant view of them which you don't always have when you think about theater so that's something you have to consciously make a choice of.

There are few parts of the show where we were hoping to have sort of some projections of important lines or areas that are just signed and not spoken by the speaking or singing performer counterpart are lighting designers working specifically on using lights to convey beat or timing of music for performers that can't hear it or feel it.

We have a huge age diversity our cast ranges from 15 years old to 55 or something. And on the spectrum, too. We have a girl who is both singing and signing in the production who is completely deaf but has cochlear implants, speaks completely fine and hears completely fine. It still presents its own challenges and she still sort of in this community and we have one of the signers and the production is a CODA, which is a child of a deaf adult. Her first language was American Sign Language not English because she grew up with two deaf parents.

There's just such this like breadth of people that we get to work with every night when we're rehearsing. It's what I want theater to be. You know I think our huge goal for this project was Vermont has such a powerful arts community but there's not a whole lot of sort of newer theater, integrated theater. I want the production to be more than just accessible I really want it to be representative, to actually have the people in the show and have these characters represented as someone who is more like you is a much more powerful experience. And it's a lot more empathetic. You know when you can see yourself reflected in art it's a lot more powerful. 

Mary: That’s CVU senior Julia Kitonis, talking about her capstone project. The musical, Songs For A New World, is onstage next weekend at Flynnspace for both hearing and non-hearing actors and audiences.