‘Theater people are magic’: A Q&A with Deaf and gay artivist Joshua Castille

The LA-based performance artist—now appearing as Romeo at the Frederick Shakespeare Festival—talks about being labeled and falling in love.

On the big screen, the most recent awards season was one of high visibility for Deaf actors, with Sound of Metal nailing six Oscar nominations (winning two) and a return of honors for pioneering Deaf actress Marlee Matlin, who was executive producer of the live-action short nominee Feeling Through.

On stage, though, Deaf-centric productions remain something of a novelty for mainstream audiences.

Christine Mosere, Endangered Species (theatre) Project’s founder and artistic director, aims to help change that with a reimagined production of Romeo and Juliet, now headlining at the Frederick Shakespeare Festival. It features two Deaf actors, Joshua M. Castille as Romeo and Jules Dameron as Friar Lawrence.

But Castille, 26, proves more than a poster boy for inclusivity. Deaf culture is integrated throughout the show, starting with a labor of love not lost on anyone. Deaf artist Neil Sprouse, the production’s assistant director and director of artistic sign language, first had to translate Shakespeare into a modern linguistic form before it could be translated into ASL, which didn’t exist in Elizabethan times. (Estimates of Shakespeare’s vocabulary range from 17,000 to 29,000 words.)

Of course, “the art of silence,” as French mime maestro Marcel Marceau described his technique, has been around for ages in some form. Monks in the 10th century used sign language in the context of religious vows of silence (it consisted of isolated symbolic gestures, not an organized language). So Dameron’s turn as a signing friar makes perfect sense.

And translating sign language into the arena of serious theater, tackling Shakespeare, requires many hands. For ESP’s production, it helped that Frederick is home to the Maryland School for the Deaf, with Gallaudet University and all its resources not far away. The ASL interpreter power team of Alecia Cole and Patrick Cole were indispensable in not only teaching the cast sign language, but also interpreting during rehearsals between director and actors, director and assistant director, and actors and actors. They also share the spotlight, exhaustively performing all the roles alongside the cast in shadow fashion. Deaf and hearing patrons drink in the back-and-forth flow of communication — quite an eye-opening experience.

DC Metro Theater Arts e-chatted this week with the production’s Romeo about his experience in the center of it. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Joshua Castile

You describe yourself as a performance artist rather than an actor. What’s the distinction?

Joshua M. Castille: In this production, you will see I use my whole body to tell the story. That to me is more than just acting. So, for me, I chose the term “performance artist,” because I will sign songs, act, gesture, lead a crowd of people, and more. “Actor” is a word that I think fits under the umbrella term of “performance artist.”

Being a Deaf person who signs definitely gives me more advantages for acting because our communication is visual and through the body. Our language gives us parameters and rules for communicating concepts. We also are accustomed to going into spaces without speaking and communicating with hearing people who don’t sign.

I think Deaf actors need to capitalize on that more. Having that skill and applying it are two different processes.

Do you worry about being “labeled” a Deaf actor?

As someone who is Deaf and gay, accepting such labels helps me find others like me. As a member of a minority community, I find myself seeking people who are similar to me to find resources, networks, events, information, and more. Labels in my opinion are not meant to limit or completely define people, but rather give people a general concept of how to engage and initiate a conversation. The respectful thing would be asking if a Deaf person would like an interpreter. Needing an interpreter is not something all Deaf people need or want, but it at least acknowledges that we may need to adjust our everyday way of communicating.

What are your views on SimCom [simultaneous communication, signing and speaking at the same time]?

SimCom feels like it should work, but it doesn’t. I think the important thing to realize is that visually describing a concept is different from verbally describing something — the way we unfold information, what concepts have to be established, the emotional attachment behind the words. English and ASL have vastly different grammatical structures. ASL is French-based, while English is … English! I think SimCom only works when the signs and the words match up 100%, and usually those of us who can achieve SimCom have compromised both languages to find a “happy medium” that has to be written in the script, that has to feel natural. Most of the time, we are trying to do that with scripts that are not intended to be performed that way and the SimCom comes out awkward as heck.

I imagine Shakespeare is the awkwardest.

Shakespeare is one of those scripts that shouldn’t be SimCom’ed. Now I will say this. I do enjoy watching an authentic concept come to life. Watching people gesture, sign, mouth, write. I love the idea of watching different people communicate. In this production, I love watching Gillian [Shelly], who plays the nurse, find different ways to communicate the concepts she is saying. Sure, it’s watered down, sure it’s not exactly Shakespeare’s words, but the intention is there. And the humanity comes out. THAT’S WHAT I LOVE.

Isn’t it tough watching an interpreted show, though, and having to constantly shift your gaze back and forth?

Watching interpreted shows is so difficult. However, with good interpreters, I can catch the emotional choices of the performers better because hearing people LOVE to perform with their voice and not their face. And captions don’t give me the performer’s emotional choices as well as good interpreters do.

Did you always want to be an actor? When did you catch the acting bug?

I think, for me, I really appreciated movie musicals. Growing up in Louisiana, I also loved playing make-believe in the middle of my small town. I didn’t have neighborhood friends. There were not things to go to in my hometown. So I filled my own time. As I got older, I realized I love exploring power dynamics and relationships in stories. Then my training in high school taught me how to use it to make change in the world, and that’s a big part of who I am as an “artivist.”

Have you seen Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo?

Leo DiCaprio’s Romeo is iconic. Of course, I’ve seen it.

How does yours compare?

Well, Leo is definitely a hearing man playing the role. I’m a Deaf man playing the role. I think I bring a tenderness that he didn’t. I think I bring a unique charm in the sense that I’m using gestures and communicating to a woman [Juliet, played by Surasree Das] my innermost thoughts without using words. I think that brings a different touch.

Who served as an acting role model for you as a youngster?

Hmmm. I think it was Dakota Fanning! AHHAHAHHA I love her! I found more and more Deaf actors and artists as I got older. I did find out about Alexandria Wailes when I was in high school, and that was big for me. To see her work and to see her working with Meryl Streep was powerful for me. (Theatre of War doc, check it out.)

Tell me more about your childhood in Louisiana.

Cajun culture is part of my upbringing. I make gumbo for my cast members. I love to have a good time. During times of stress or turmoil, I host events and serve food to increase morale. It’s just our Cajun way.

My family all grew up in a small town, including myself. We have farms and my grandfather owns livestock and we grow crops. We mostly are a self-sustaining farm, not a merchant farm. My family does travel, but we all live within an hour radius of each other.

Is your family supportive of your career?

They all have a different perception of what a “real job” means. I think they were just nervous to know that their Deaf family member was going into a very unstable job when they all have banking, farming, medical — jobs that are service-based. So when I did Spring Awakening [with Deaf West Theatre on Broadway in 2015–16], we definitely had our differences of opinions. When they saw the show and see what I’m doing with my life now, I think, they are very proud and respect that I did take a risk and they support me.

Scene from Deaf West’s Broadway production of ‘Spring Awakening’: Joshua Castille and Andy Mientus (on top of piano) Daniel David Stewart (seated at piano), and Miles Barbee (seated on ground). Photo by Joan Marcus.

You seem born to play Romeo. Is it a new role for you?

I never thought I would play Romeo because I thought that was for someone else who was hot and not me. LOL! I’ve played Romeo in Seattle with A Contemporary Theatre under the direction of John Langs. He went more modern, whereas Christine is going more period-like. I really enjoy the difference in vision. I also have different takes on Romeo. I know that Christine and assistant director Neil have talked to me about the idea of LOVE and how Love is patient and Love is kind. … That concept was different for me because in the last production we talked about depression and suicidal thoughts more.

How about this cast? Have you overcome any communication barriers?

THIS CAST! I ADORE THIS CAST. People don’t realize this, but theater people are magic. They are the most beautiful people and I love them.

I have to admit, my experience keeps getting better. I love working in different spaces, I love working with different people.

In what ways do you think you and Romeo are alike? Different?

I think Romeo and I are both strong believers in the power of love and how it can be used to unite people. I think if you talk to people who know me, I’m always trying to find ways to work with people who are different, who struggle with my existence and working on how to close the gap between communities.

We are definitely different in that I don’t allow my feelings to make life decisions for myself. I have seen too many relationships run hot and cold. I am definitely a logic-based person. I always want the other person to feel safe with their autonomy. I want them to feel like they can make any choice they want (for themselves) without repercussions. Romeo definitely is more emotional.

Have you fallen in love in that “to die for” way?

I have fallen in love a few times. I can say that my logical brain definitely struggles with it. I don’t care for the feeling — HAHAHAH! As for love in a to-die-for situation, that was my first boyfriend from high school who I was madly in love with. I remember watching Practical Magic and they made the perfect lover spell. Mine was to have someone sing “I’ll Cover You” from Rent … and to be a musical nerd. To have that magnetism, and I got it. He and I are not together but he is very special to me. Sadly, he isn’t here on this planet anymore. He died by suicide and that was something that I use and bring to the show with me.

Oh, heavens, I’m so, so sorry. Such a difficult connection to the show ― I cannot imagine. And then with the pandemic, it seems an endless season of loss. … How did you cope when all the theaters shut down?

[The pandemic derailed a few projects, but] I know something else will happen. I am loving this. COVID really gave me the chance to focus on what I want and focus on how to advocate for myself as an artist. I’m definitely interested in being an actor/director. I realize I bring so much to the table, and I want to be on the creative team more, to work and elevate the projects I’m in. Thinking back on Spring Awakening, I do pinch myself often. The amount of things I learned from my fellow actors, the process. … I am grateful. It really helps me with my craft. It is something that I hope to bring into the classroom later in my career.

Surasree Das and Joshua Castille. Poster by Aaron Angello.

Romeo and Juliet plays August 13, 14, 15, and 16, 2021. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. except for on August 14 at 8:30 p.m. Performance venue is the Hodson Outdoor Theatre on the Hood College campus, 410 Rosemont Ave., Frederick, MD. Rain/weather location: Rosenstock Building. Tickets are pay-what-you-can and available at esptheatre.orgEach performance will have ASL interpreters. Call 301-305-1405 or email contact@esptheatre.org for more information.

SEE ALSO: A mesmerizing and moving ‘R&J’ from Endangered Species (theatre) Project review by Terry Byrne

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