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Gallaudet alumni trio part of dog & pony dc production of “Beertown”

October 31, 2016
By Nathan Ramsier

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In this heated 2016 election cycle, Beertown wants your vote. Beertown, whose residents are disguised as audience members, is hosting its 21st Quinquennial and needs to decide which objects should be included in the time capsule, thus sparking a healthy and heartfelt debate.

Amelia R. Hensley, ’13, James “Joey” Caverly, ’11, and Kala Granger, ’16, are knee-deep in the conversation, and they would love for you to join them.

From October 19 to November 7, dog & pony dc is bringing its critically acclaimed production of Beertown to the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage. Celebrating the fifth year of its creation in its hometown, the show is an interactive experience allowing audience members to guide the dialogue which explores history, identity, and community.

This discussion is shaped by the audience’s effort to capture their communal identity in objects selected for inclusion in Beertown’s time capsule and by interaction with the eight-person cast.

New cast members Hensley and Caverly appear as part of dog & pony dc’s attempt to broaden its collaboration with deaf and hard of hearing artists. This was made possible by the support of the Weissberg Foundation’s Diversity in Theater Fund, and this iteration of Beertown will feature English-ASL interpretation throughout the entire run.

Beyond creating accessible theater, dog & pony dc has embraced the concept of Deaf Gain as it relates to audience integration.

“There are instincts deaf artists have that allow them to connect more intimately with audience members,” said Rachel Grossman, the ensemble director. “We are far from a typical theater company, far from producing typical ‘plays.’ I’d like to think that’s what makes us ‘fertile ground’ for growing new relationships between hearing and deaf artists, and ultimately audiences.”

Hensley and Caverly team up with another alumna on set, Granger. The trio knew each other before Beertown, but this production brings them onto the same stage for the first time.

“We met through the theater program,” said Granger, “but at different times. Amelia and Joey met, and then Joey left and I entered the program, meeting Amelia before she left.”

When Caverly and Granger both ended up at dog & pony dc, they were quick to recommend their mutual friend Hensley to shore up the production’s deaf cast.

Caverly first learned of dog & pony dc through the performances of other deaf actors, notably Tyrone Giordano’s role in Toast. He fell in love with it and struck up a conversation with Grossman. After a few workshops with dog & pony dc, Caverly was cast in their production of Squares as part of Capital Fringe.

The theatre had already been involved in Capital Fringe, a summer festival promoting DC’s independent arts, but as they brought on board deaf actors, they recognized a disconnect between the hearing and deaf communities. As a result, they launched “ASL Pick-Ups,” and that’s when Granger got involved.

“It started in a bar,” said Granger. “People got together and just hung out while I taught some basic signs and fingerspelling; the goal was just to break the ice.” Granger transitioned away from this role but stayed in contact with dog & pony dc and was later asked to get involved with Beertown.

Aside from the recommendations of Caverly and Granger, Hensley also had a brief run-in with Grossman after her performance of I Was Most Alive With You in Boston. 

“When we were performing, Rachel was there, and afterward we were at a bar and she told me that she liked my work and would love to collaborate with me someday,” said Hensley. “And I said, ‘Oh yeah, someday we will,’ and then the next thing you know, she gets a hold of me!”

Collectively, the three bring a wealth of diversity, talent, and experience to Beertown.

A life-long actor, Caverly garnered a number of accolades with last year’s Helen Hayes Award nomination for his role as Billy in Studio Theatre’s production of Tribes.

Growing up, Caverly performed in school plays, church productions, and summer camps. By high school, he had decided to pursue acting professionally. Upon enrolling at Gallaudet, Caverly threw himself into the theatre department, appearing on stage in Agamemnon, Urinetown, and L’Abbe de L’Eppee: A Satire.

Upon graduating, Caverly maintained a connection with the department. In 2012 he directed the production of Noises Off. The play went on as an entry in the prestigious American College Theatre Festival, a regional competition held at Towson University (Maryland). The same year, Caverly performed and co-directed a short independent film, Red Line, that earned him an award at the World Deaf Cinema Festival.

Hensley, too, acknowledged that she was an actress from day one, but she didn’t necessarily plan to pursue it professionally. Growing up, she was always involved with her school’s holiday productions. When she arrived at Gallaudet, she was planning to study teaching or accounting but soon changed her mind.

After graduating, Hensley joined Deaf West Theatre, which catapulted her onto Broadway with their Tony-nominated production of Spring Awakening. She then landed in Boston for I Was Most Alive With You (in which Caverly also performed), and soon after was recruited for Beertown.

Like Hensley, Granger was active in theater in high school but didn’t commit to Gallaudet’s program from the start.  

“I considered different majors but was not really satisfied with them,” she said. “I wanted everything in one place and theater demonstrated that for me. I was able to do some acting, yes, but also stage lighting, costume design, and different aspects that motivated me.”

While at Gallaudet, she was the assistant stage manager for Cloud Nine, the stage manager for Julius Caesar and Broken Spokes, and the costume designer for Krapp’s Last Tape. Granger also appeared on stage as Wagner in Doctor Faustus and Marcellus in Hamlet.

Beyond Gallaudet, Granger has continued to build on her stage managing experience at Capital Fringe for Rapists and Drug Dealers and The Old Man Never Let It Go. This past spring, Granger switched gears and aided the Mosaic Theatre Company of DC in season planning and accessibility. Beertown will be Granger’s first attempt at directing.

Unlike traditional theater, where the audience members are only spectators, interactive theater thrives on audience participation.

“You have to really be on your toes when you’re doing this type of work,” said Caverly. “We really depend on the audience to carry the show forward so oftentimes we show up to a performance with absolutely no idea what to expect from them.”

Hensley has done improvisational theater before but acknowledges that this production is different. “In Beertown, we create the script plus interact with the audience, so it’s another layer of complexity.”

Throughout rehearsals, people have volunteered as audience members. Hensley said it helped the team get comfortable with the concept.

Granger, too, is adjusting to her role as a director, learning the nuances as she goes. Striking the balance between interrupting with feedback and letting the dialogue unfurl naturally is a significant departure from directing traditional theater.

“With other productions, it’s necessary to intimately know the script, but that mindset doesn’t apply to this performance, which is intentionally spontaneous, requiring you to think outside the box,” said Granger. “You just can’t compare the two.”

The interactive nature of the show complicates the interpretation which Granger and Hensley say is the most challenging aspect. The fluid environment of the show means that interpreters are subject to relocate at any given moment. Also, the show has an abundance of overlapping dialogue and quick exchanges.

But if trial runs are any indication, the arrangement has proven to be a success. Granger cunningly suggested that everyone should just come watch for themselves to decide.

“It was a relief that the deaf audiences felt included,” Hensley shared. “I was a little nervous about that and wanted to make sure that it was deaf friendly. Thankfully that has been achieved,which is great.”

Caverly agreed.

Be sure to come see our show! It’ll be fully accessible.”

31 October 2016
By Nathan Ramsier

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Nathan Ramsier

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