I’ve admired actress/writer/director Hillary Baack since we met doing the ABC Diversity Showcase in 2007 and I’m very happy to introduce her and her unique experience as a Deaf actress working in Hollywood.
CK: What sparked your passion for acting and what sustains it to this day?
HB: Perhaps it was because I ended playing by myself a lot as a kid, but I really loved to imagine and create. As an outsider, I enjoyed observing people and considering their experiences, so being able to embody different characters and tell their story felt like a heart-calling, and still does. I began writing plays and acting from age 7, so I’ve always been a storyteller. For years, it didn’t feel realistic to pursue a career in acting considering my deafness, but I was inspired by the example of Marlee Matlin and decided to follow my passion. I moved to NYC, began studying acting with The Barrow Group, doing theatre, writing, and eventually I produced my autobiographical one-woman show “Birth Story”. Writing my own work keeps me feeling creative and empowered, and makes me more conscious of the kind of work I want to do. I love feeling like I’m creating my own path.
CK: Can you give us some insight into the Deaf actors’ community?
HB: Deaf actors are incredibly resilient, resourceful, and creative, which certainly comes from living in a ‘hearing world’ and the daily challenges that brings. We have our own culture and language that is special and unique. The Deaf community is hungry for the opportunity to tell their own stories and have an authentic voice on their experiences in life. I’d like to note that our deafness is not the most important or interesting part of who we are and it definitely isn’t our entire identity. Yes, it’s a part of our life, but it doesn’t define us and we have so much more to say.
CK: What are some things to be aware of when working with a Deaf actor?
HB: The key word here is awareness. The biggest challenge we have is communication. There’s a wide range in the levels of deafness and modes of communication, so it’s helpful to know each individual’s personal needs. Don’t shy away from consulting with them because learning what works for that actor helps tremendously. For example, I can easily lip-read during a one-on-one conversation, but group conversation is very difficult to keep up with. The more that people have a sustained awareness of my personal needs, the easier it is for me to be a full participant. When I’m on set, I work with an interpreter. Though it might feel unnatural, it’s important to speak and look at the Deaf person when communicating with an interpreter, even though the Deaf person will mostly be watching the interpreter. And as for being on set and waiting for an “action” cue, I find creative solutions, like getting a hand signal from the First A.D. or my scene partner scratching their nose. I personally really appreciate the effort people put into staying aware and conscientious.
CK: What are your thoughts on hearing actors playing Deaf characters?
HB: It’s frustrating because there are so many talented Deaf actors. I sometimes think Hollywood is afraid of casting Deaf actors for fear of the burden and expense of communicating with a Deaf actor. Hollywood is naturally concerned with box office draw and casting ‘names’. But we have to start somewhere, and if Deaf people aren’t able to play their own roles (which are already few and far between) what hope do we have? I do think our biggest hope lies in creating in our own work, but Hollywood can help along the way by casting more Deaf actors. When they were casting the role I ultimately landed in “The East”, the director had to fight to cast a Deaf actress instead of a ‘name’ to “play deaf”, and thankfully the studio responded well to my audition and gave me the chance.
While not exactly the same, I do think there are parallels between the experiences of Deaf actors and minority actors and the importance of giving roles to unknowns and letting them build an audience.
We can bring a depth of authenticity that someone who is not living with Deafness simply cannot. Sir Patrick Stewart said, “When you are dealing with an actor who has the authentic handicap, that person carries an authentic tension around with him and it never dissipates; it’s always present. And tension is what makes great theatre.”
When watching an actor with a disability, I feel like the audience quickly accepts the character and focuses on the story and the journey the character is taking us on, rather than marveling at what a great job the able-bodied actor is doing at portraying the disability. There is so much to be gained from casting Deaf actors in Deaf roles.
To see more conversation around this topic, search on Twitter or Facebook for #deaftalent.
CK: What are some resources for the community of Deaf actors to tap into?
HB: Deaf Talent Guild, Deaf Talent, Deaf Women in Film, D-PAN: Deaf Professional Arts Network, and Deaf Talent Network are helpful and supportive groups as are these Deaf theatres: Deaf West – deafwest.org, New York Deaf Theatre – http://www.nydeaftheatre.com, Rocky Mountain Deaf Theater – http://rmdeaftheatre.com and Cleveland SignStage Theatre – http://www.chsc.org/main/signstage.aspx.
My friend, Jules Dameron, teaches Deaf actors in Los Angeles:
CK: What is next for you?
HB: I’ve been cast in the Deaf West production of “Spring Awakening”, and am currently consulting on a studio film script that features a Deaf lead character. My short film “You & Me” is available to see on Vimeo and I am in the process of developing my two completed feature scripts. I’m also finishing up a third feature script that I hope to direct.