April 15, 2020
I = INCLUSION
David Connolly (D) in conversation with John McGinty (J) for Matinee to Z,
a series of Instagram Live Master Classes developed in response to Covid-19.
D: John McGinty, hi!
J: Before we get started, I just wanna do a quick tech check and make sure you can hear the interpreter’s voice. Is it good? Give me a thumbs up or a nod if it’s OK. Alright! Let’s do this!
D: Amazing. Thank you John. This is John McGinty everyone and his interpreter, Craig.
J: Let me say one thing before we start, because we may have deaf or hard of hearing people here, I’m going to be interpreting the questions as well as the answers, so forgive me as I wear a couple different hats and thank you for your patience. I guess the word of the day is Inclusion so we’re trying our best to be very inclusive.
D: We made it work! Hooray! So we’ll be asking viewer questions but I’ll get it started and ask you first John… you’re making incredible content during this time, wonderful soliloquies and you’re in an all deaf Into The Woods reading coming up… right?
J: Yes, first of all, I have promised myself during this crazy quarantine time, to be productive and be creative and work on one project or a part of a project, each day 'cause I think it's important that I still fulfill my artistic integrity and work on my craft.
And so, I am taking advantage of any opportunity that comes my way with colleagues in film and television to lift us up together and remind us that art is so important at this time. And yes, I had actually worked with The Public Theatre in New York City, which is a phenomenal institution, which does great work in terms of inclusion, and they asked me and two other actors to use different languages: spoken English, spoken Spanish and sign language. They asked us to perform that piece from Romeo and Juliet, so that was really cool. And yes, as you mentioned, Into The Woods is coming up and I’m really excited about that, because this is a really rare opportunity, for so many deaf people to come together, an all deaf cast in an all sign language show. 21 cast members. We just had our first rehearsal, and it was awesome. There were a couple bumps in the road, but we have another rehearsal on Friday and then the show will go on, I think in two weeks. So I'm looking forward to that. I’ll share it on YouTube so you can all see that soon.
D: Who are you playing?
J: Let’s ask the audience - what do you think?
J: No, not the baker.
Audience: A Prince.
J: Which Prince? I’m going to be playing Cinderella’s Prince.
D: Awesome, so everyone follow John on all of his social media because that's where you can track where all of these amazing things are, they're enriching and beautiful. I can’t wait to watch that Into The Woods.
J: Yeah, really excited to do it.
D: So, John, before we continue, let’s talk about language. Let's talk about the vocabulary of this conversation because I realize it's unique to everyone… what are your thoughts are on words like disabled and deaf, and the wonderful phrase you taught me: deaf gain.
J: Yeah, sure, that's a great question to start us off. I think first of all, I met David for the first time at BroadwayCon at a panel about inclusion and different actors of different abilities. It was a conversation about different themes pertaining to inclusion for actors of different levels of abilities in the entertainment industry.
So to answer that question, I guess I would say that often, coming into this industry, I try to remind people that I am an actor who just happens to be deaf. I don’t call myself a deaf actor because I think that’s limiting in some ways but what I think doesn't apply to all actors who are deaf or all deaf actors. Everybody has their way of identifying that’s unique to them.
The term disability is another one I should talk about because I don’t consider myself a person with a disability because deafness means so much in terms of culture that is not exclusively from a medical standpoint of disability. So will I wear the word disabled as a deaf person to help me get into a door in terms of diversity in inclusion? Sure, I will wear it proudly. But I think it’s important that people out there interact with different people and don't make assumptions. Always ask people’s preferred terminology.
It is such a diverse community. I don't want to be segmented and separate, we want to be interwoven and work together. I really like being a part of the community. David, what your perspective on the word disability?
D: I think people should ask. I think what you said about everyone having different words that make them comfortable is so true. Some people I’ve met along this journey hold the word Disabled very proudly because they, as you said, thinks it opens doors and don’t consider it a judgment in any way. But other people think that word disabled is very limiting, that it’s a negative term, and means not being able to do something: dis-abled. I think that everyone should do whatever makes you feel good - as long as you're not afraid to have the conversation. You need to know that things might be crunchy, or bumpy for a minute - but that’s better than not having the conversation at all.
J: I 100% agree. I think there are so many different paths - some people use an interpreter and some people don’t. And like you said, it takes a moment to initially find where you groove together and how you're going to communicate with each other. And it might be awkward for a minute. One thing I should say to people who are watchin, if you interact with a deaf person who is working with an interpreter, speak to the deaf person, don’t tell the interpreter, “Tell them I said…” That's culturally not appropriate.
D: And I guess as a point of clarification for those don’t know me… I wear 2 artificial legs because I'm a double below-knee amputee. So that’s how I enter this conversation so gratefully and willingly.
So, John, on to you, Broadway actor. I’ve read a lot about your journey from the boy who saw Phantom of the Opera, then got a finance degree and then ended up on Broadway. Can you fill us in a little bit on how that came full circle?
J: I’ll try to make a long story short. You’re right, those are the key milestones of my journey. As a kid, I went with my grandmother, my Dad’s Mom, to see Phantom of the Opera in London. We had this wonderful bond through theatre. We would go see plays together, and it just so happened when we saw Phantom of the Opera, there were no interpreters, no access provisions like captions, but the story was so simple and so vivid that through my deaf eyes, it was gorgeous. And it made me feel so engaged and a part of the story, and I remember thinking, I wanna be part of this world, somehow. Maybe I can't be an actor, but maybe there’s some role I can play in this industry, it was really a lightbulb moment for me.
I've carried that memory with me over the course of my entire journey and so along the way, I was cast in shows but I never really thought that I’d be able to make a living doing this. So I went to college and I got my degree in finance believe it or not. Obviously today, I'm not using it sorry to say, but I worked for some time in finance companies and I realized working in finance sitting at a desk with a computer just wasn’t for me. Something was missing. But I always had that memory of Phantom that sparked such joy inside of me.
Then, I was very fortunate, I got an audition with Deaf West back in 2009. It was my first show, where I got my Equity card. Deaf West was doing Pippin, the musical with an integrated deaf and hearing cast. So that was the turning point for me.
Fast forward to graduation from college, and moving to New York City, back in 2009, around this time I was teaching sign language and doing a bunch of different odd jobs to make ends meet. Then I went back to school, I went to grad school at NYU for arts administration and graduated from there in 2013, and then for a little while after that, I did a lot of regional theatre.
And did Hunchback which is what led me to Children of A Lesser God on Broadway, my Broadway debut, with that phenomenal cast. That was in 2015 and then, last year was my second Broadway show, King Lear. I’m really grateful to look back on my journey, honestly. If it wasn't for my grandmother bringing me to see theatre as a kid, I wouldn’t be here today.
D: You mentioned that you didn't think you would become an actor, was that because of the lack of representation of actors who are deaf on stage?
J: Yeah, I think that that's really it. I’m from Ohio where there isn't really a big deaf theatre community. There was a very small deaf theatre company that has since folded and it was the only place to see deaf people performing. There really wasn’t anything to look at to model my career after. I just thought of theatre as a hobby, 'cause I didn’t see any deaf people doing it.
D: And do you consider yourself now, the inspiration for those little boys and girls in Ohio and in Exeter, a small town in Ontario…Do you see yourself as someone who is opening doors, smashing down doors, to allow young deaf people the opportunity to see themselves with a career?
J: I really hope so. There are so many young people up and coming who are the voice of tomorrow and our job is to continue educating people out there who might be new to this topic, so that we can break down barriers for those young people.
And I think collaboration is so key to the continuation of this work, just to be generative and to take old work and revive it and make new work, and allow it to reset again. I think it's so important to create opportunities, not just for us, but for the next generation because honestly without us how will they get a start? So I think we're paving the way and educating people in the industry. So, that they’ll feel more welcome. I’m thinking of Hunchback in particular. There were four or five other actors who could have Quasi Modo and I think that’s even more important than me playing Quasi Modo. I think encouraging the recognition of more deaf talent is so critical and I don’t want young deaf people to give up on their dreams.
D: Can you share the story about how you got to play Quasi Modo.
J: Sure. A couple years ago, I did a musical workshop of a new work and the director of the workshop was Glen Casale and fortunately Glen used to work with a deaf actor named Linda Bove. You know, the librarian from Sesame Street? So he wasn't completely ignorant of how to work with deaf people, but he had never done a musical with deaf people that was a pretty new concept for him.
So after being in that workshop, I didn't feel a seriously deep connection. We worked together well but then I saw online that Glen, who is the artistic director of Sacramento Music Circus was going to be directing Hunchback. And Quasi Modo in the story is deaf. So I thought why wouldn’t a deaf character be played by a deaf actor? So, I was a little aggressive and I shot him an email and my team was like, “but they’re seeing hearing actors because he has to sing.”
The fact that they told me I couldn’t, really inspired me to say, but yes I can. So I reached out to Glen and said, “OK, here’s the sitch… and suggested that maybe gargoyles could be the singing voice and he was like, "You know what? Why do they come in then.” And so I did, I did. I came in with my iPhone and asked the accompanist to hold my phone so I could see it and pressed play and signed as the character and did the song. Two weeks later, I got a callback.
Something for the audience out there, it’s not really about getting the job. It’s about making those connections and collaborations. Because if you're open to sharing in the room, that’s such a good thing for people to able to see because they need you. We're all making something together.
So went in for the call back, I got some notes, I did the notes and I got the job - the rest of history.
D: What I love about that story is that you made the opportunity, you didn't wait for someone post a casting saying, “We're thinking of doing this out-of-the-box idea”… you saw the opportunity and you created your own path, you hacked your way through what would possibly be negative self-talk of limitations. From the clips I’ve seen of your performance, doing that role, I think of musical theatre in a completely different way now.
J: Thank you. David, I have a question for you. I know now is not the best time economically, but when things get back together, would you be open to producing shows with deaf talent?
D: My hope is that we are coming out of this time so much better, so much more open-minded and open-hearted so, absolutely yes. My hope is that all theatre-makers, actors, directors, producers, writers, and theatre-goers are going to want to see themselves on stage in a much greater way than they have so far.
I feel that empathy and resilience are what we're learning during this time and that we're all connected. This virus is affecting everyone and it's connecting us I think in ways that need to be reflected on the stage when we're done. Which means no matter how you navigate your world, it needs to be up there.
J: I think that’s really well put.
D: Viewer question: If we want to create inclusive live-streams that include music, would an interpreter, be best? Want to know what is going to be most helpful during this new age of digital entertainment. How do we include everyone? Thanks, red headed coffee shop girl.
J: David, you wanna take that one?
D: It might be a you question, just because people are putting out a lot of digital content... and of course we want to be as accessible as possible. So I make transcripts available of these chats to anyone who is deaf or hard of hearing. I will send them to you, just shoot me an email and I’ll happily share them
But what's best for you, John? As far as being able to enjoy all this digital entertainment that's coming out.
J: That’s a great question, I think this is something that audiences need to be mindful of and people making content. It is an issue, it’s a problem. Livestreams tend not to be accessible and I know people are trying their best and it takes time to make that shift. The problem is that live-streaming events are not captioned. So there are many things you can do, for example:
One is to use Zoom, because then an interpreter or team of interpreters can be in one of the Brady Bunch boxes.
Also, Google Hangouts, has a live auto-captioning feature. So when a person starts to talk, you can turn captions on. And it will caption what they’re saying. They’re not 100% accurate but anything you can do to provide would be wonderful. Just be mindful.
I want to learn about everyone’s backgrounds and your work and your artistry so please let me in and the deaf community will do the same for you.
D: So we agree that it's time for change, that we've made some strides in inclusivity in other areas, but that we're on the very, very horizon of this conversation. disability inclusion, if that's a comfortable term for you. So where do you think, John, onus of change lies?
J: I think the onus is on everyone. I think we're all responsible. There's no one person you can point to and wave a magic wand and make it happen. It's up to you and up to me and it's up to everyone else because I don’t have the answers for everything, and my answer might be different than yours but we're all learning from each other, and that's how we create change.
I think, in this world, everybody has their strengths and weaknesses and we can all help each other in different ways, and everybody can contribute different ideas and everyone needs to be allowed to mistakes along away. I make mistakes all the time, but I learn from them and that's how you grow. And so the process of change will take some growing pains, but it's worth it.
D: What do you need to further your craft that you find challenging?
J: There’s a lack of resources out there, which means that people are still very slow in terms of opening their minds. For example, as an actor who happens to be deaf, I don’t only have to play deaf roles. I think we have to think out the box more. Sometimes, that means making our work and showing it as examples so that people see what's possible.
And I think it's also very important for people who are new to the deaf community to have an understanding that deaf people are diverse and you will meet so many different kinds of people, so many different wonderful deaf talented actors out there. Young and old, people who sign, people who speak, people who do both.
Also, to the casting directors out there, now I totally get it… that people feel like it could be a burden to incur the cost of hiring interpreters for the audition process say, but if you think about it, if you think of it as a burden, you're not gonna get anywhere. If you think about the interpreter being there to enable you to make new connections, that’s a better.
In musicals for example, you hire an accompanist for auditions right? You need someone to play the piano and you do that any time you have a musical addition. So if you reframe the need, the value become more clear.
Look at Ali Stroker, who won the Tony Award for Oklahoma! She’s a wheelchair user and she played a role that wasn’t written for someone in a chair. That’s an amazing example of how far we’ve come.
That's why I feel that this language of burden is something we need to get to get rid of.
D: They’re asking what your dream role is.
J: Wow, okay, so I want to do something that has never been done, something new. If I had to pick an existing role, I’d say, The Last Five Years, Billy in Carousel and I’d love to play Hamlet. What about you David. Do you have a dream role?
D: I would love to direct Follies. And I would love to direct an inclusive Into The Woods, where everyone in the woods had a different label at the beginning of the show, to the eye, but by the end of the show, realized that none of those labels mattered.
J: I love that, that's a great idea.
D: You will be in it if I do it. Count on that.
Shayla is online. Shayla is blind and asking How do you deal with casting directors who have never been in this territory before. They’re afraid of new so they go with tried and true.
J: I think it’s important for us to be open and transparent, and ask for what we need. If you need for example, large print sides or braille sides, ask. I think casting directors are rooting for you. Also, be ready for awkward moments. Those are normal in any relationship when you’re getting to know somebody. Diversity and inclusion is so vital to the artistic community, change is coming, just be patient, open and transparent.
Sharing your needs is important but so is lifting up your community and one way to to that is educating casting people about what accommodations are required and in that way, you’re helping the people who come after you.
D: I love what you said about new relationships being awkward in the beginning. I think that is such a good way to put it.
Alley is asking, she dreams of being an interpreter for theatre. Do you know of any courses or tips on how she might be able to do that?
J: So I’d say try to find a community college. That will allow you to get certified, then find interpreters who do that work and ask them to mentor you.
A director of artistic sign language, what we call a DASL is a deaf person who is proficient in English and ASL who is hired to direct interpreters for a show while they’re preparing to interpret it. They are the eyes of the deaf audience, so working with a DASL is a really critical step.
D: One, I don’t think everyone realizes signing isn’t a translation of English. It is its own language, and that when people are signing on stage, there’s been so much work that came before that for everyone to agree on a signed interpretation, right?
J: Yes, ASL and English are unique languages. ASL has its own syntax, its own grammar, its own rules. I’ve worked as a DASL and that person will read the script and watch the show, then you assign the characters to the two or three or however many interpreters you have on your team. Then you pick a few themes that are consistent throughout the show and develop a physical vocabulary for those themes.
Then, the interpreters will write out a gloss which is English words written out in ASL grammar to help them remember it. Then, the interpreters show the DASL who will then give them feedback. It is quite a process.
If you want to talk about a challenge, let’s talk about Shakespeare. You have to first translate the Shakespeare into modern English, and then into ASL. It’s a whole different ball of wax. A really fun challenge too.
D: How did you do that in King Lear? Who was responsible for creating the sign language and did you and the other actor playing that role have the same language or could you interpret it in your own way?
J: For King Lear, we had a phenomenal DASL, I can’t say enough great words about Alexandria Wales, our Director of Artistic Sign Language. Alexandria is so freaking incredible. If you don’t know her, you should. She’s a gifted actress and a very talented DASL. The work she did from my understanding was she worked with a fantastic deaf actor, Russell Harvard, who played the Duke of Cornwall. The two of them worked one-on-one for quite some time and talked about ideas for translations and then created what we call an ASL bible.
Me, as an ensemble member who also covered Russell, I could not have my own translation. I had to use his translation because if I was to go on, the other actors on stage need to respond to specific cues so if I did a different translation, they wouldn't necessarily know if my line was finished and when they were supposed to respond.
D: So you had to learn the English translation of the Shakespeare text and then you had to learn. Russell and Alexandria’s interpretation of the text.
J: Yeah, yeah.
D: That’s amazing. Alexandria is the person who did the Deaf West Spring Awakening translation. She's a force.
J: She was also in Big River and just got nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award just yesterday as best featured actress in For Coloured Girls Who Considered Suicide When A Rainbow is Enough.
D: So exciting. We’re wrapping up. So John, what are your thoughts? What should we be doing during this time to open our hearts, and stay moving forward?
J: I think it’s like I said at the beginning, challenge yourself to do something artistic every day. Just take a moment of your time each day and share with others. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. We’re all here to support each other.
D: That’s a perfect way to end this. Thank you, thank you for making it work. Thank you Craig, the interpreter for being so brilliant and open to this idea.
Thank you everyone for watching. John we're going to follow you to the end of the Earth. We're going to get on every one of your socials and support you in every way we can, because you're making history, you have already changed history and you're going to continue to do that and we're on your team.
Stay safe, stay happy, and if you've missed anything or need a transcript or have any other questions, or suggestions, let me know.