When Craig Lucas saw Russell Harvard onscreen with Daniel Day-Lewis in the 2007 film “There Will Be Blood,” he knew he wanted to write a play for the deaf actor. “I was bowled over. He wiped Daniel Day-Lewis off the screen — and Day-Lewis is no slouch.”
He wrote “I Was Most Alive With You,” which stars Harvard as a deaf, gay recovering addict in a Huntington Theatre Company world premiere that opens Friday at the Calderwood Pavilion. But this is not just a production with one or two actors speaking American Sign Language accompanied by surtitles for the hearing members of the audience. It is a completely inclusive and immersive production, designed to be accessible for the hearing and deaf alike at every performance.
And that is a rare thing on local and national stages.
The seven actors onstage each have a shadow interpreter who translates ASL into spoken English — and vice versa — in real time. Typically, local theaters and touring productions offer one or two performances that are interpreted for the deaf, and the translators stand to the side of the stage, making it difficult for deaf audience members to watch the actors and the interpreters at the same time.
“Usually it’s like watching a tennis match, and you are forced to look at what is onstage and then look at the interpretation,” says Sabrina Dennison, the show’s director of artistic sign language. Lucas “It is not a full theatrical experience.”
For this production, deaf audience members can sit anywhere in the theater without missing a beat. “I am in awe. It takes my breath away,” says Dennison, a deaf actress and ASL consultant.
Lucas was adamant about the inclusive staging. “I didn’t want to do a couple of signed performances,’’ he says. “That’s like sitting in the back of the bus. I thought if I had written this play about people in the deaf community, we damn well better make every performance accessible to them.”
Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois committed to the production immediately after reading the play. “It brought me to tears, and it is also ridiculously funny,” he says. Plus, he says, the goal of increasing inclusion is paramount for nonprofit institutions. “Yes, it’s more expensive, but it is worth every penny to break new ground.”
The play centers on Harvard’s character, who is a recovering addict involved with a deaf man with a troubled past. It explores heated issues that are controversial in the deaf community, such as whether parents of deaf children should learn to sign or teach their children to speak and whether deaf people should use cochlear implants. It raises questions about faith as well, after a tragic accident upends a family.
The production is a sterling example of the concept of universal design, the idea that accommodations for people with disabilities benefit the entire community and enrich the experience for all. “ASL is embedded in the artistic content, not as a side note,” says Charlie Washburn, CEO of Very Special Arts Massachusetts. “That is huge. It goes one step further to blend two languages into one creative product. That is not common by any stretch of the imagination.”
The concept, while still rare, is gaining critical acclaim and popular appeal. The first production believed to be performed simultaneously in English and ASL was Deaf West Theatre’s 2001 adaptation of the musical “Big River,” which played at the Wang Theatre in 2004. Deaf West, which is based in Los Angeles, brought a similar production of “Spring Awakening” to Broadway last year; it is up for three Tony Awards this year, including best musical revival. “Spring Awakening” was a hybrid, with deaf and hearing performers and some shadow interpreters. The Huntington production builds on the concept, as did Wheelock Family Theatre’s 2015 production of “Taste of Sunrise,” a bilingual show with shadow interpreters that also incorporated captions for hard of hearing audience members who do not speak ASL.
Harvard performed in “Spring Awakening” along with deaf actress Marlee Matlin, and he says the Huntington production is opening the door even further. “I hope that writers will say, ‘Let’s use more deaf actors,’ ’’ says Harvard, who also played a scene-stealing hit man on the television series “Fargo.” “It’s time to show the world that you can use shadow interpreters.”
But this isn’t easy to pull off. Lucas, who is directing, works closely with Dennison and the interpreters to make sure the piece is seamless and accessible. Three of the interpreters are deaf, and the production is carefully choreographed so that the deaf performers can understand cues. When one character signs, his or her shadow speaks the words aloud simultaneously, so that everyone in the audience can grasp the dialogue.
The hearing actors took workshops to learn ASL, and they use both sign language and spoken English in the production. “I am humbled by their commitment,” says Lucas, who is best known for his play “Prelude to a Kiss” and for his adaptation of “An American in Paris.” He has a close friend who is deaf, and he has been taking ASL courses for several decades but still hasn’t mastered the language. “My ASL is now finally on the level of an 18-month-old baby,’’ he says. “Everyone is so patient, and no one rolls their eyes — at least not to my face.”
Harvard, who grew up in a deaf family, admits that he initially wasn’t crazy about the idea of shadow interpreters. “I was concerned at first that it would be distracting and that the actors would be overlooked,’’ he says. Lucas would not budge, and now Harvard embraces the approach. “It is beautiful, the entire way it comes together. It works.”
The production is part of a growing movement to bring universal access to the arts. The Massachusetts Cultural Council’s UP initiative awards grants to support institutions that embrace universal access. And Lucas thinks his production is a harbinger of more inclusion in the theater. He likens it to the acceptance of multicultural casting, in which actors of color play roles traditionally played by white actors. “The Huntington realized we are at a historical moment, and the deaf community wants to participate in the American theater at the same level as anyone else,” he says.
Harvard hopes the play will set an example and have a life beyond Boston, perhaps even move to Broadway. Everyone involved credits Lucas for his vision, and while Harvard is awed by the fact that Lucas wrote it for him, he craves more. “Craig said he is going to write me a musical, and I’m holding him to it,’’ he says.
I WAS MOST ALIVE WITH YOU
Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, May 27 through June 26. Tickets start at $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.orgPatti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.