For its next production, Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” the NextStop Theatre Company of Herndon will venture into a unique collaboration with three deaf actors.
“Richard III” is running from Thursday to Feb. 23 at the Industrial Strength Theater in Herndon.
Playing the lead in Shakespeare’s tale of the grasping Richard III is deaf actor and director Ethan Sinnott, an associate professor and program director of the theater department at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
Sinnott also teaches directing and scenic design and has designed for several Washington-area theaters, including Faction of Fools, Imagination Stage and Signature Theatre.
Sinnott uses American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate and also reads lips. There are also two other deaf actors in the production.
“No one else has done this to our knowledge,” said Evan Hoffman, producing artistic director for NextStop.
Designed for a hearing audience, the production will also include four performances that will be entirely sign- interpreted for a deaf audience, Hoffmann said.
Formerly the Elden Street Players community theater, NextStop is enjoying its first season as professional company with a mission to present plays in the Herndon area.
“It’s an interesting idea and the kind of a challenge we want to see NextStop Theatre build its name on,” Hoffman said.
Hoffmann said the idea to cast the play with a mix of deaf and hearing actors originated with Lindsey Snyder, who also directs.
Snyder, an American Sign Language interpreter, is an adjunct professor at Gallaudet.
“It’s a fascinating concept that she’s been ruminating about for years,” Hoffman said.
Shakespeare’s play is based on the real Richard III, king of England from 1483 to 1485.
Actors have typically played the king as a bitter and angry man with a hunchback, possibly caused by a form of scoliosis.
Richard is envious of his older brother, Edward IV, who won the throne in a civil war between the victorious Yorks and the defeated Lancasters.
At a disadvantage because of his physical disability, and because he is relatively powerless politically, Richard schemes and plots to eliminate both his brothers, Edward and Clarence, and his two nephews, as well as their supporters, in order to clear a path for himself to the throne.
“With Richard as a deaf man in a hearing world, the same [Machiavellian] rules apply,” Hoffmann said.
To accommodate a hearing audience, the director and actors have worked out various ways to communicate in spoken English what Sinnott says in ASL.
“You always know what [Richard] is saying,” Hoffman said.
In his asides to the audience as Richard III, for example, Sinnott will be signing ASL, which will be verbalized by an interpreter sitting on stage, Hoffmann said.
In those asides, Richard is truthful about his motives, whereas in his interactions with other characters, he is duplicitous about his intentions.
“There’s such high emotion and incredible intellect and aggression,” said Hoffman about Richard.
“Using ASL only helps further the character already called for,” he said.
During Richard’s scenes with other actors, the meaning of Sinnott’s signing is communicated to the hearing audience by actors who know ASL and verbalize what he is saying.
There are also parts of the show when Sinnott is off stage, and all the dialogue is verbalized.
“There are portions where there is no sign language,” Hoffman said.
“I don’t know ASL at all, and I was fascinated,” he said. “I think it’s a beautiful language. It’s such an expressive language.”
“It’s not something you regularly see anywhere,” he said.