Director M. Bevin O’Gara is in a rehearsal room at the Calderwood Pavilion, giving notes to the SpeakEasy Stage Company cast of “Tribes.” She is talking directly to actor Joey Caverly, but he isn’t looking at her. Instead, his gaze is on an interpreter who is translating into American Sign Language. The conversation is animated and seamless, without the unnatural pauses that occur when something gets lost in translation. Caverly disagrees with O’Gara on a small point, and they amiably agree to try the scene another way.
Caverly, who is deaf, plays Billy, the central character in Nina Raine’s 2010 award-winning play, which began its New England premiere at the Calderwood Friday and runs through Oct. 12. The play is a mix of ASL and spoken English, and O’Gara says she implicitly trusts the show’s two interpreters, Jessica Doonan and Kristina Miranda. “Collaboration has to be a part of our process,’’ she says. “I could not do this play unless they understood my vision, because everything I say has to get filtered through a different individual.”
This is the third play O’Gara, 30, has directed that features a deaf character (the others were “Love Person” and “Clybourne Park”), and she has made an effort to immerse herself in deaf culture. She studied ASL at DEAF, Inc., in Allston and initially found the classes intimidating. “The first thing you need to know is, ‘I’m lost,’ ’’ she says, shaping her thumbs and index fingers into two Ls and throwing her hands over her shoulders. She can carry out a basic conversation in what she calls “rehearsal sign.” The actors have also learned some ASL during the process.
But while everyone involved in the production strives for genuine communication, the characters in the play do anything but. Billy has been raised in a hearing family, and he knows nothing about sign language. He is the only deaf member of an argumentative clan.
Usually when O’Gara directs, she frequently tells the actors, “You just have to listen to each other.’’ But she isn’t giving the actors that advice for this production. That’s because the characters talk and talk, but nobody really listens. “No matter how close you are to someone, if you are not really hearing them, you do not understand them,’’ O’Gara says.
The play explores how different tribes — whether they are a family or a group of people tied together by a common culture — communicate, and how that defines who they are.
Raine wrote the play after seeing a documentary about expectant deaf parents who wanted their child to be born deaf. She began thinking about what parents want to pass on to their children. “Not only a set of genes. A set of values, beliefs. Even a particular language,’’ she wrote in her notes for the London premiere of the play at the Royal Court Theatre. “The family is a tribe: an infighting tribe but intensely loyal.”
In the play, Billy’s family is upended when he meets Sylvia, a child of deaf adults who is slowly losing her hearing. She introduces him to sign language and gives him an entrée into deaf culture. Some members of the family are not particularly welcoming, especially when the young woman explains that there is a hierarchy in the deaf world, with people who are born deaf and use sign language at the top of the pyramid.
The cast had a long discussion about this particular pecking order, but Caverly told them he prefers to define himself on his own terms. “In every community in the world, there are hierarchies, not just the deaf community,’’ he says through an interpreter. “Here in America, you have your rich white males and then a whole list of levels below that, in terms of religion, ethnicity, and economic status. In the deaf community, it is the same thing. It is a big hot topic of discussion.”
While Caverly acknowledges that this order system exists, he doesn’t dwell on it. “I don’t view myself in a hierarchy. I view myself as someone who is culturally deaf, who signs, and who grew up in a hearing family,” he says.
The actor’s parents and two younger brothers are hearing, while he and his older sister are deaf. Caverly, 24, went to public school in Michigan and later attended Gallaudet University, the Washington, D.C., school for deaf and hard of hearing students. A self-described attention-seeking ham who grew up performing skits for family and friends, he got serious about theater as an undergraduate and has performed with the National Theatre of the Deaf.
His life experience diverges from the character he plays. His family communicates with him through sign language, while the fictional family expects their son to fit into their world, the hearing world. “This is definitely a very dysfunctional family, a gregarious dysfunctional family,’’ Caverly says. “They show love through challenging and heated discussions.” Most of the members of the fictional clan are searching for a voice, an identity. One wants to be an opera singer. Another struggles to write a “marriage-breakdown detective novel.” Another wrestles with a thesis about the insignificance of language. “No tribe is perfect. We all know that,’’ Caverly says.
That becomes all too clear when Billy’s love interest is introduced, and the family’s long-established order is challenged. Miranda, one of the show’s interpreters, stepped in as an adviser on those scenes. Miranda’s parents are both deaf, and she didn’t speak English until she was 6, when she accidentally blurted out the word “ow” after tripping on the stairs. While she can speak and hear, she considers herself culturally deaf. As a child of deaf adults herself, she relates to the play, particularly during one scene when Billy’s father describes sign language as “broken English.” That makes her bristle.
“It’s a personal attack on Sylvia and her upbringing and her roots,” Miranda, 24, says. “It’s personal. It’s raw. It’s real.”
Director O’Gara invited the interpreters to give their perspective as a way to open up the channels of communication. Her process is the opposite of the way the fictional family operates. Communication is everything, and ASL is honored.
“I love the visual nature of the language, and the way it uses your body,’’ she says. “It is in three dimensions.” And, she adds, it’s more than just a language, it’s a culture. “How does language formulate who you are and what your personality is? The French and Italians are romantic because the language is romantic. I wanted to understand what that was with ASL before embarking on ‘Love Person’ and to deepen that before starting ‘Tribes.’ ’’ She wants audiences to walk away with a similar appreciation of a language and culture that go hand in hand.
Caverly does, too. He can speak, but he prefers ASL. He demonstrates why with an impromptu demonstration during a rehearsal break. “We have a lot of personification with signing,’’ he says. “So as an example, when you tell a story, you become the object. If I am telling you a story about a golf ball, I become the golf ball.”
The good-natured actor places his hands on his head, holding his neck erect. “I put my head on the tee, and then the golf club comes closer and closer.”
He jerks his head, and his hands fly through the air.
“Oh, there are the birds coming by, and I hit the ground, bounce and fall down.” He bobs his head and then rolls it in circles. “I am circling the hole.”
He drops his head down, with a big infectious smile. “Score.”
Patti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.