As a part of Black History Month, I decided to highlight our local, Black DC/Maryland/Virginia talents by introducing "Round 1" of this series. Many of the talents profiled are at different points in his/her careers, but making an impression, nonetheless. Now, I am happy to introduce "Round 2" of the "Making History" series, which will profile many more talents from the area. This time the door is open to ALL who are actively pursuing a career in theatre/film in this area, and even to those--the DC theatre/film alum--who may have moved on to other cities.
-James J. Johnson (July 17, 2010)
Today's profile is on director, scenic designer, and advocate for Deaf theatre, Ethan Sinnott:
1. Real name: Ethan Sinnott
2. Nickname: none
3. Stage name: N/A
4. What is your focus?
Directing, scenic design, and Deaf theatre advocacy. And indulging my inner dramaturg.
5. Where were you born?
Phoenix, Arizona—but I grew up in Rochester, western New York.
6. What did your parent(s) do for a living?
My father—who still lives in Rochester—is a high school social worker, former teachers' union president, and recently stepped down as varsity baseball coach after leading his school to its first championship in 34 years. My mother is a retired nurse who, 3 years ago with her husband, launched a cupcake business in Naples, FL: http://www.simplycupcakes.net
7. When did you decide to get into theatre/film? Why?
My mother's side of the family has always been artistic. My grandfather used to create scary-accurate model ships from scratch—such as Spanish galleons and 19th-century English warships—despite never going to art school. My uncle taught painting at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School for over 3 decades, and he still has his studio near Fenway Park. My mother has been creating quilts in the American folk art style as far back as I can remember, and successful cupcakes depend on no shortage of imagination. On my father's side, there’s Mack Sennett, the silent-film actor, director, and producer during an era before "talkies." Incidentally, that name was a stage name--his real name was Michael Sinnott, my father's name.
I've always had a busy, vivid imagination. It's second nature to me. I do remember very well the first time, as a child, my parents took me to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf to see a play with signing Deaf actors--it was A CHRISTMAS CAROL with Patrick Graybill, one of the original members of the National Theatre of the Deaf, in the role of Scrooge. I thought it nothing short of miraculous--you have to understand, I grew up during a pre-ADA time when almost nothing was widely accessible. I gorged on comic books, watched formulaic TV series based on comic books and cartoons (such as Lou Ferrigno’s HULK and SPIDER-MAN AND HIS AMAZING FRIENDS) where I could follow the basic plot absent dialogue, and my father would take me to the movies in the '80s and interpret for me the best he could--E.T., Harryhausen's CLASH OF THE TITANS, SUPERMAN II, THE NEVER-ENDING STORY, EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, etc. The power of the image to create worlds and narratives resonated with me at an early age and it still does.
Being the only Deaf student at my hearing middle/high school, their annual play would usually be a musical--audition notices would often read COME PREPARED TO SING A SONG (with piano accompaniment). I mean, that was intimidating—that is a sentence wedded to a hearing world which takes for granted the spoken word. At some point I found out about a competition open to high school students sponsored by, ironically, the local chapter of the English-Speaking Union. Basically, we had to perform a soliloquy and sonnet—I saw it as a chance to not only try being an actor on my terms, but also to show the folly of taking for granted the spoken word. I chose for my soliloquy the one by Richard of Gloucester at the end of 3 HENRY VI, right after he's killed Henry VI. I only wanted to make a point, but I ended up being national runner-up at the Lincoln Center in New York City. That was totally unexpected. And cool. Point made.
I acted through my college years, on the same stage where I had seen A CHRISTMAS CAROL a decade earlier as well as in this local community Shakespeare outfit, but ultimately, due to my growing sense that there were more than enough Deaf actors, or Deaf people wanting to be actors, but not enough Deaf people in positions of creative power in theatre and film, my interests transcended being an actor.
I didn't set out to be a scene designer--but to be a director, an artist working in theatre, and in some kind of “producer” role--and scene design was/is a means to that end. I just…fell into it. In many ways, being a scene designer has helped me add a new dimension as a theatre artist. All of it ties in with my childhood love for creating narratives through imagery. I love the cerebral, collaborative aspect of the design process, though—I consider myself lucky enough to have worked with a lot of seriously gifted people, most of all the lighting designers. My experiences as an actor have helped me with my scene designs, too--I try to get inside their heads when it's time to turn the design concept into something more concrete. It's simple psychology--I feel that the quality of the scene design more or less does have an impact on an actor's performance.
8. Were/are your parents supportive of your career decision?
I’m truly blessed in that they’ve always been supportive.
9. What was your first show/film?
My first professional scene design was the Washington Shakespeare Company’s LOVE’S LABOR’S LOST at the Clark Street Playhouse, February, 9 years ago. Getman was TD at the time.
The first film I worked on was THE DEAF FAMILY, a comedy by Mosdeux—a Deaf film production company—which can be best described as what if Deaf versions of MARRIED WITH CHILDREN and MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE mated.
10. Is there a production—of which you’ve been a part—that you would consider your favorite to date? Your least favorite?
I don’t have one singular favorite per se, but I do take much pride in my body of work.
11. Do you work in theatre/film full-time? Or do you have a day job?
I’m an associate professor at Gallaudet University’s bare-bones theatre department—it’s practically my cause. It has an overdue renaissance starting to brew, fortunately enough, during this era of social media. You should have seen the place 5 years ago.
12. What is your educational background?
I went to art school at the Rochester Institute of Technology, got my BFA, and my MFA is in scene design from Boston University.
13. Who inspires you?
I am always inspired by fellow Deaf artists in theatre and film who know how to persevere, who think outside the box, who keep pushing their limits, who have BOTH vision and “voice”—not one or the other. I worked with some of them on this: http://movie.gallaudet.edu
There are many gifted people working in DC theatre today (including JJ himself), and I'll say it again, I consider myself lucky to have worked with some of them--we're always raising each other's bar. It's not by accident that DC has been quietly transforming itself into a world-class theatre hotspot before our eyes.
14. What are some of your accomplishments/awards/ nominations/honors, theatre and non-theatre related?
Imagination Stage's ZOMO THE RABBIT: A HIP-HOP CREATION MYTH recently was nominated for a Helen Hayes in Outstanding Production for Young Audiences. I appreciate it even more for the fact this was a GROUP nomination. To riff off my old wrestling coach, there’s no “I” in “theatre.”
American Deaf theatre is currently an endangered species today—the number of Deaf theatre companies you can count only on one hand as opposed to over 30 in 1997—and it has always been my belief that Gallaudet needs to be THE hub of Deaf theatre artists of the future (or theatre artists who happen to be Deaf, for that matter). That is a major reason why I would love to see the establishment of more “pipeline” partnerships between ourselves and some of the 50+ theatre companies in DC—actors, interns, etc. Gallaudet students who aspire to be theatre artists are in the ideal city, but consistent accessibility remains a problematic issue. As a Deaf theatre artist, I hope to see more DC-area theatres commit to some sort of concrete, sustained action in terms of reaching out to Deaf talent. Theatre is a "cell-phone" business defined by “who do you know,” which obviously puts Deaf theatre people—already underrepresented in the field to begin with—at an immediate disadvantage in a field where time and money are king, but that does not necessarily mean we’re not active.
Not only do I want to eventually walk away at some point knowing that Gallaudet's theatre department—and indirectly American Deaf theatre—has a rock-solid foundation for the future, I would like to see Gallaudet become a serious theatre destination in DC—where the name “Gallaudet” evokes expectation of professional-caliber quality regardless of the fact our actors happen to be Deaf. We're not the Valley of the Lepers. We would love to have some of you at Gallaudet as guest artists and/or master class teachers.
For myself, personally, I want to direct more Deaf takes on the Shakespearean canon, particularly the histories. I've been quietly obsessing over it for some time now. At Gallaudet and/or elsewhere.
16. What are you up to now?
I’m currently doing pre-prep for the American premiere of L’ABBE DE L’EPEE at Gallaudet next spring, which I’m directing and scene-designing. This melodrama hasn’t been produced since the 19th century in Paris, and it’s a patently bad play on its face—but that’s why it works as 21st-century Deaf political satire, as historically paternalistic perceptions of Deaf people are ripe for the skewering.
17. What’s next for you?
The scene designs for JUNIE B.: JINGLE BELLS, BATMAN SMELLS! and THE WIND AND THE WILLOWS at Imagination Stage this coming season. Kate Bryer's directing JUNIE and Janet Stanford's directing WILLOWS. I’m looking forward to it—I have a great relationship with ISI.
I’m gearing up to direct HAMLET at Gallaudet in the spring of 2012—the last one was over a half-century ago, in 1958—and I’ve started to make edits to the play. I’ve been jonesing to direct Shakespeare since I moved to DC 5 years ago--it's a lifelong love, more so the plays than the sonnets.
I’m also looking to restart a project called SPOON RIVER 2.0, the website—a continuation of Edgar Lee Masters' SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY, which I directed as a multimedia production last fall with 92 actors shot on film—an experiment in the cinematic qualities of individualized ASL. A complete ANTHOLOGY is the ultimate goal: 164 characters remain, all to be played by Deaf actors too, not necessarily only Gallaudet students.
18. Personal website/URL?
http://sinnott.smugmug.com (the galleries still need to be updated and organized)
"The Making of Agamemnon" - a mini-documentary by Jose Saldana
Facebook: Gallaudet University Theatre
19. Any last words/comments:
David Hays, founder of the National Theatre of the Deaf (and himself a hearing man), once said:
"To me, there is something inexpressive, stilted and almost boring about the hearing actor opening and closing a little hole in the lower middle of his face. Wonderful, meaningful noise emerges, but if only he could do that with his arms, his knees, his shoulders, his fingers–and have his full face not just ‘in support’ but as something read. And with signing, every part of the body works to inflect color, to tilt the word toward full emotional meaning."
I just snicker every time at "wonderful, meaningful noise emerges."
20. Shout outs???
Off the top of my head: to Jerome Cushman, Mike Lamitola, Michael Thomas, Jim Noone, Roger Meeker, Kate Bryer, Janet Stanford, Elana Nightingale Dawson, Sara Bubenik, Lisa Agogliati, Jason Arnold, Meaghan Toohey, Steve Hambrick, George DeShetler, Dustin Held, Tim Getman, Eric Grims, Lindsey Snyder, Casey Kaleba, Colin Bills, Cory Frank, Patrick Crowley, Psalm 24, PJ Paparelli, Willy Conley, Gerard Williams, Jacob Fisher, Jose Saldana, all my actors, Gallaudet University, and NTID Performing Arts. and to my amazing future wife, Amy.
Mr. Sinnott's next set design is for Faction of Fools' A Commedia Christmas Carol, which runs November 29-December 23.
Hamlecchino, also by Faction of Fools, and with the set design by Sinnott, was Helen Hayes Awards Recommended.
P.NOKIO, a hip-hop adaptation of PINNOCHIO, another production for which he designed the set last season, has a three-week revival at Imagination Stage from September 29-October 18. P.NOKIO is a Helen Hayes Awards Recommended production and was a 2012 DC Theatre Scene Audience Choice Awards finalist in the Favorite Family Show category.
The 2009 Imagination Stage production of ZOMO THE RABBIT: A HIP-HOP CREATION MYTH, for which he designed the set for, was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award in the Outstanding Production for Young Audiences category.