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Essay

From the Artistic Director: I Was Most Alive with You

By Tim Sanford, Artistic Director

One summer, when I was a Resident Assistant at one of the dorms at George Washington University, I was checking the ID’s of people coming in and out, and I was talking with a few of my hearing friends who were kindly keeping me company. A man, upon hearing my speech, walked up to inquire as to what kind of accent I had. I replied — as one fed up with innumerable questions of this sort — “A deaf accent.” He looked confused and then asked, “What country is that?” I looked him very seriously in the eye as I gave him my answer: “Deafland.” He said to himself, “Deafland? Where is that?” and slowly walked off, quite puzzled. 

“Textual Bodies, Bodily Texts,” Jennifer L. Nelson, from The Aesthetics of ASL 

Genius and disease, like strength and mutilation, may be inextricably bound up together. 

The Wound and the Bow, Edmund Wilson

Knox: I’m grateful for my family…. And for two, no, three things I used to think weren’t gifts at all: Deafness…. Being gay…. Addiction…. They are gifts… Each brought me great clarity. 

I Was Most Alive with You, Craig Lucas

 

Theater has provided the dominant hearing culture with glimpses into Deaf culture sporadically over the last few decades. Some examples include Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, productions by Deaf West Theatre, and Nina Raine’s Tribes. Craig attributes the origins of this play to a close relationship he developed with a Deaf woman 20 years ago. And that interest was rekindled, professionally, when he went to Tribes and was so moved by Russell Harvard’s electrifying performance that he found himself pledging to write a play for him. As he reimmersed himself in Deaf culture, he soon learned that while the aforementioned theatrical works represented milestones for the Deaf community, these productions were also viewed as being pitched to hearing audiences.

As I Was Most Alive with You began to take shape, he vowed to tell this story in a way that would feel as accessible to Deaf audiences as hearing ones. The results of this determination in production have led us to double cast the play with hearing and Deaf actors.

The Deaf actors will have their own playing space where they can be well-lit so an audience can see their signing, and they will have their own director — Sabrina Dennison, Director of Artistic Sign Language.

Sophocles’s rarely performed tragedy, Philoctetes, tells the tale of a gifted archer, exiled to an Aegean island because of an agonizing, pustulous, unhealing snakebite, yet oracles have declared Troy will only fall by dint of his skill with a bow. Edmund Wilson’s seminal essay, quoted above, draws a compelling comparison between Sophocles’s misanthropic hero and the artistic temperament. The Deaf community would doubtless bridle at the comparison of their Deafness to Philoctetes’s snakebite. But what draws me to Wilson’s essay is the way he blurs the dichotomy of affliction/proficiency in the service of a more complex understanding of genius. The idea of the brilliant archer, whose mastery of the bow is linked directly to his hobbling infection, corresponds compellingly with our understanding of the artist beset by obsessions or manias that are integral to their artistic vision.

In the same way, we are not interested in a view of Deafness that elicits pity for an affliction, but one that sees it as a condition that opens up new perspectives of seeing and feeling that are less accessible to hearing humans.

Craig captures this view in his Thanksgiving affirmation by Knox, the Deaf son, that he is thankful not just for his Deafness, and for his gayness, but even for his addictions.

It is a testament to the grandeur and generosity of Craig’s worldview that he responds to the assignment of immersing himself in Deaf culture by conducting an interior inventory of his deepest concerns; Craig’s contribution to this bulletin shares with admirable candor his own personal struggles with addiction and despair. But here is the main reason I cited Wilson’s essay on Philoctetes: When I think of the paradigm of the struggling artist, the artist I think of first is Craig Lucas. Craig’s work invariably rides the knife edge between despair and grace, grimness and hilarity, chaos and plenitude. And I Was Most Alive with You represents a culmination of artistic concerns that have consumed him for well over a decade. I think it is a masterpiece.