Thunder River Theatre Company welcomes first deaf guest actor in latest production, ‘Tribes’ |

Thunder River Theatre Company welcomes first deaf guest actor in latest production, ‘Tribes’

WHAT: TRTC’s production of ’Tribes’

WHEN:7:30 p.m., June 14(sold out), June 15, 21, 22, 27, 28 and 29; 2 p.m. June 23

WHERE: Thunder River Theatre Company, 67 Promenade, Carbondale

COST: $25/Adults(40+); $15/20/30-something(20-39); $10/Full-time students

When Corey Simpson, Thunder River Theatre Company executive artistic director, selected “Tribes” as the company’s final production for the season, he had no idea how much it would change him.

“I have to admit I didn’t take all of the intricacies of this piece into account when I selected it,” said Simpson, who is directing the production as well. “In part, that was based on me not having experience with the deaf or hard of hearing community before.”

Written by playwright Nina Raine, “Tribes” tells the story of a Jewish family of five: a mom, dad and three children.

The play follows the family as they assimilate the youngest child, Billy, who is deaf, into the hearing culture as much as possible.

Billy meets a young love interest who is going deaf and proceeds to teach Billy sign language.

“I fell in love with the piece,” Simpson said. “It is a beautiful, funny, incredible and heartfelt piece, with a lot of things about that I was looking for in filling the season.”

For Simpson, the research for this project was really interesting. He searched for deaf theaters in Colorado and located one in Denver.

Simpson said he found contact information for the artistic director.

“Picked up my phone, and I was halfway through dialing it when I realized I was calling someone who is deaf, and had no idea how that process would work,” Simpson said. “It was not even part of my reality until then. That was the first experience I had where I knew all of us working on this piece were about to have a really eye-opening experience.”

One thing Simpson realized quickly was the lack of resources on the Western Slope.

“The resources I was hoping would be available here, but as it turns out, the resources for the deaf and hard of hearing in our valley are extremely limited,” Simpson said.

Simpson learned that the Aspen Deaf Camp had recently closed, and many of the employees had moved because of the lack of resources.

Through his research, Simpson was able to make contact with Michelle Mary Schaefer, a deaf actor from Austin, Texas, who ended up playing Billy.

Simpson said he has been in awe of her ability.

“When I first met her, we had never spoken face-to-face or even on the phone before,” he said. “It had all been over email and texting. I was really nervous when she showed up, because I had no idea what the process was going to be like directing someone who can’t hear me.

“My universe has been completely blown open by working on this piece, and also by working with one of our actors who is deaf,” Simpson said. “Michelle has just been amazing to work with, she can speak, is fluent in lip reading and sign language, and at the same time some of us in the cast crew have really worked to learn as much sign as we can.”

Simpson said it has been a lot of fun and created a lot of hilarious moments between the cast members, and created a lot of laughter in the process.

“This is an incredibly powerful piece, and we have experienced that every night in rehearsal, because the actor playing the main character is deaf,” Simpson said. “What the audience is going to experience is a situation that most of us don’t experience every day.”

Simpson said seeing someone portray this role who has lived through so much of what this character experiences really takes this play to different level. It just adds another layer of reality and strength to the message of this play.

The cast of six also includes guest actor and former valley resident Brittany Dye, who now lives in New York City, and talented locals William Bledsoe, Meredith Nelson-Daniel, Suzanne Brady and Dana Gaubatz.

After five weeks of rehearsal “Tribes” takes the stage at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 14, at Thunder River Theatre Company in Carbondale.

Thunder River Theatre Company will bring in two ASL certified interpreters for the final two shows at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 28, and Saturday, June 29.

“I have been changed by this process,” Simpson said. “I have leaned some sign, I’ve made some life-long friends that I would have never connected with before, and since starting here at TRTC, I have really aspired along with the board, staff and actors to continue to open our doors more to the community. And this kind of play is really about creating new bridges between people that might not otherwise connect.

“In some ways this play is more. I think it is expressing what we’re passionate about trying to do with theater, and sometimes its easy for those of us in the arts to forget that art really does have power and really can impact people in ways that change them, and I think this play is going to be a great reminder to us about how much theater can do in the world.”

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