Actor Russell Harvard: Aspiring to Conquer Crossover Acting Path

May 1, 2012 in Community Events
Actor Russell Harvard: Aspiring to Conquer Crossover Acting Path

By Kate Taylor, New York Times 4/10/2012

It didn’t take much rehearsing for Russell Harvard, who plays the deaf son of a loquacious and argumentative British family in the Off Broadway play “Tribes,” to get inside his character’s skin.
Like his character Billy, the 30-year-old actor is himself partially deaf. And while, unlike Billy, he grew up in a deaf family, the early rehearsals for “Tribes” gave him a crash course in the isolation that Billy often feels among his cacophonous relatives.
The producers had hired a sign-language interpreter to help ease communication among Mr. Harvard and the other cast members and the director, David Cromer, but in the rehearsal room, where many people were often talking at once, Mr. Harvard said he sometimes felt lost.
“I couldn’t pick up on a lot of the overlapping conversation going on,” Mr. Harvard said in an interview late last month, adding, “I was like, ‘I’m Billy — right there, right now.’ It was funny, and then frustrating.” (Mr. Harvard wears a hearing aid and conducted the interview without an interpreter, occasionally leaning forward to ask that something be repeated.)
“Tribes,” written by Nina Raine, opened in March to glowing reviews, and has since been extended at the Barrow Street Theater until September. The play, in which Mr. Harvard acts opposite stage veterans like Jeff Perry and Mare Winningham, is about, among other things, different kinds of inclusion and exclusion. When Billy brings home a girlfriend whose parents are deaf, and who is teaching him sign language, his father challenges her, suggesting that sign language creates a cultural and linguistic ghetto. (Surprisingly, she agrees.)
But, for regular theatergoers, it may be hard to watch Mr. Harvard’s performance in “Tribes” without becoming more conscious of another, little-noted form of exclusion — namely, how rarely deaf actors, and actors with other disabilities, appear on New York stages.
Only two Broadway productions have featured deaf actors in recent decades: “Children of a Lesser God,” a 1980 drama by Mark Medoff set in a deaf school; and “Big River,” a 2003 adaptation by Deaf West Theater of a musical based on “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that used both deaf and hearing actors.