Previewing ‘Stepchild, A New Musical’ in the Rough Draft Festival at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center: An Interview with David James Boyd, Chad Kessler, and Kim Weild

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As part of LaGuardia Performing Arts Center’s Rough Draft Festival, IRT Theater and TGF 12 Productions have teamed up for a workshop presentation of Stepchild, A New Musical, inspired by the popular children’s story of Cinderella. But this is not the same girl you knew from the 1812 version in Grimms’ Fairy Tales. In the inspiring new musical-in-development, conceived by David James Boyd (book, music, lyrics, and concept), Chad Kessler (book and concept), and Kori Rushton (concept), we follow the young heroine Orella, born deaf during the Italian Renaissance, through her journey from an impoverished childhood to being crowned the world’s first proud Deaf Queen – the happy ending a result of her courageous and empowering drive to communicate with sign language.

Art by Olga Whitmoyer

The original work offers audiences a magical fusion of theater, music (with accompaniment by Musical Director Dan Pardo on keyboard, Joseph Brent on strings, and Kevin Garcia on percussion), and American Sign Language (the third most commonly used language in the US), including ASL interpreting (by Craig Fogel, Frenchetta Perez, Samantha Kuperberg, and Veronica Staehle) for theatregoers who are Deaf and use it as their primary means of communication. Directors Kim Weild (Drama Desk Nominee for Charles Mee’s Fêtes de la Nuit) and Alexandria Wailes (who is also serving as Director of Artistic Sign Language for the current Broadway revival of Children of a Lesser God) are respected leaders in the movement to weave ASL with music and theater.

Many of the cast and team for Stepchild have worked together before on Deaf West’s Broadway productions of Spring Awakening and Big River, and many of the show’s ten cast members (Dickie Hearts, Amelia Hensley, Jacob Hoffman, April Lavalle, Johnny Link, Alexandra Mazzucchelli, Melissa Van Der Schyff, Nicole Vande Zande, Alexandria Wailes, and Catalene Sacchetti-Manganelli) have flown in to NYC to be part of this important project.

David James Boyd. Photo by Billy Weimer.
David James Boyd. Photo by Billy Weimer.

I had the opportunity to talk to Co-Writers David James Boyd and Chad Kessler and Director Kim Weild during rehearsal week, to discuss the background of the show and their interest in giving greater accessibility, visibility, and opportunities in theater for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, and offering greater insight into ASL to hearing audiences.

Deb: When and how did the idea for the show originate?

David: The idea for the show has a long and interesting backstory. When Kori Rushton was a kid, her beloved uncle was a teacher at a Deaf school. He passed away of AIDS in the 1990s, but Kori had learned ASL from him, so in order to keep his memory alive and to stay close to him, she continued her studies.

Kori Rushton. Photo by Cristina Noel.

Chad: Kori brought a concept to do a new Cinderella story to David and me, and we all decided to do this darker historically-based take on the idea in 2010. While Stepchild is inspired by the Cinderella tale, it certainly tells its very own unique story, steeped in a rich, at times brutal, history.

Deb: Do any of you have a personal connection with the Deaf community or with ASL that inspired your work?

Kim: I have a Deaf brother, five years older than me. He attended Model Secondary School for the Deaf in DC – a residential four-year high school located on the Gallaudet University campus. Statistics show that 95% of Deaf children are born into hearing families, and my brother was born at a time when parents were told, by doctors and educators, to teach them to speak and to mainstream them. But Jamie was born profoundly deaf, he didn’t start learning sign language till later, and I learned with him, and then my whole family did. So yes, I have a very personal connection to the theme of our show and to ASL.

Kim Weild. Photo by Xanthe Elbrick.

Deb: Why is the tale of Cinderella the right choice for your specific adaptation?

David: Oh, that’s a good question! I think the tale is oft-told for its primal yearning to be recognized as someone important in society; it’s become a tale about being a member of the elite. But here, in Stepchild, she doesn’t want to be in the highest echelon of society, she just wants to be a part of society. Her goal isn’t to be the Queen, to wear a beautiful gown and glass slippers, but for her kingdom to be able to communicate using sign language. Becoming Queen happens to her because of her hard work and efforts to create communication and understanding between people who are deaf and hearing, so our focus is more social than economic or political.

Chad Kessler. Photo by Billy Weimer.
Chad Kessler. Photo by Billy Weimer.

Chad: We set the story in 1590, on the imaginary island of Costa Bella in Italy, but it’s actually based on the history of Martha’s Vineyard, which was a Deaf colony, once considered to be a kind of “Deaf Utopia,” where everyone was fluent in ASL. When trading, shipping, and, eventually, elite tourism took over the island in the 20th century, the colony died out. But it existed for 350 years as an important Deaf colony, up until the 1950s, and some of the present-day residents still know ASL.

Kim: In our story, Costa Bella is a pious world, where sign language is seen as “the devil’s language” and people can be put to death for using it. So our character is deprived of language until the gypsy Allegra (the equivalent of Cinderella’s fairy godmother) teaches the girl and her father sign language. Her world blossoms, and her relationship with her father deepens, through her new-found ability to communicate.

Deb: What are you most excited about in your workshop production for the Rough Draft Festival?

David: There’s so much great talent here from across the board! Deaf actors, hearing singers who’ve learned ASL, a singer who is hard of hearing, CODAs (Children of Deaf Adults), people who simply just wanted to learn ASL – so many people connected to the Deaf community in so many ways have all gathered together to become a part of our show.

Chad: Every day in our process I wake up happier than I was the day before because of all the people who are so enthusiastic about being together for this project. I’m also very excited about doing a gloss (an ASL manuscript translation) of the show, which is very different than how we wrote it.

David: Yes, we started in the traditional way of writing a musical, and are now translating it into ASL. It’s a most important step, since that’s what the show is about. We couldn’t be more grateful to the Rough Draft Festival at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center for giving us the opportunity, space, and funding to develop our project, and to present it in the festival.

Kim: We’ve been working on the gloss for five days now, and it’s amazing what we’ve accomplished. The rules of grammar in ASL are different, so the Deaf actors collaborated with Alexandria Wailes [the show’s Director of Artistic Sign Language], the hearing actors have also been given translations from her, and some have learned to sign, so there’s been a great deal of communication and involvement by our entire cast and team.

Alexandria Wailes. Photo by Christian Coulson.

Deb: What do you hope to accomplish with Stepchild?

David: To be very clear, we are hearing writers. We do not claim to represent the Deaf culture/experience. Only a Deaf person can truly relay what it is like to be Deaf. We are storytellers, people from our own diverse backgrounds, who wanted to tell a story about how ignorance, prejudice, and fear can divide a family and a community at large – the story of how people’s efforts to communicate with people who are not like them can take steps towards uniting us all. It’s also very rare that a Deaf heroine is featured in a musical; maybe this is the first. Also Orella is not just rescued, but against all odds and obstacles, she triumphs through her own courageous efforts and empowerment. So along with her accomplishments and pride in being a Deaf Queen, there’s also a definite feminist element in her story. 

Many thanks to all of you for sharing the background and development of Stepchild with me. I look forward to seeing the workshop production this week, and a full-length full-stage production in the future!

Running Time: Approximately 60 minutes.

Art by Olga Whitmoyer.

Stepchild, A New Musical plays in the Rough Draft Festival, April 18-20, 2018, performing at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center at LaGuardia Community College – 31-10 Thomson Avenue, Long Island City, NY. For tickets, purchase them online.