What I learned. . .

If there was a politically incorrect pitfall concerning Nina Raine’s astonishing play, Tribes, I managed to find it and step right into it.

I was thrilled to get the offer to direct the play; I’d heard a lot about the London and New York productions, but hadn’t read or seen the play when Michael Barnard called to ask if I might be available and interested.  As it turned out, I was – and boy, was I.

First lesson: there are two published scripts.  We worked from the earlier London version, and didn’t know there was a second edition of the script, based on changes that were incorporated for the American production.  Duhr.  One whole scene did not exist in our version; there were also essential differences in the use of projected subtitles during some of the signed scenes.  Other differences were minor, but unfortunately, we didn’t find out about the newer version of the play till too late in our own process to make the change.  I don’t think the production suffered; it remains one of the most powerful plays I’ve been lucky enough to direct, and a production of which I am very, very proud to have directed.

Although I myself come from a family with a history of deafness (my paternal grandmother went completely deaf late in her life; my father and his four siblings had hearing difficulties; Dad wore hearing aids all his adult life), I quickly learned I knew little about deafness, about Deaf Culture, the history of being deaf in America, and the controversy within the deaf community about learning to sign vs. learning to lip read, speak, and/or receive cochlear implants.  I thought I was being sensitive and open as I approached the work, but quickly discovered how completely unaware I was about deafness in general and in this country specifically.

Another lesson: British Sign Language and American Sign Language are vastly different.  Figuring that the play was British in origin and the speaking people in the play would work with British dialects, I naively thought we should likewise incorporate BSL as our preferred sign language. I assumed because both methods of signing were English they would be similar, but I discovered that ASL is derived from the French, quite different from BSL, and that deaf audiences attending performances would be baffled by the choice and quite possibly offended.  Quick course reversal; fortunately, this discovery came early on, before Willem and Gabrielle (the actors who needed to sign in the production) had delved too deeply into their sign language lessons.

Casting the key role of Billy proved far more of a challenge that I suspected, but our lengthy search led us to a wonderful young actor, Willem Long, whose own personal story was remarkably similar to the character he played in Tribes.  Raised in a hearing family who also wanted their son to grow up lip reading and speaking, Willem has Waardenburg Syndrome, a degenerative condition that, at the time of our rehearsals, had left him with 25% total hearing.  A troubled and difficult student in the public school system where he grew up, Willem was saved by sports and the arts: in his case, lacrosse and theatre.  After high school, Willem attended community college in Southern California and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena.  When he realized the sort of acting he wanted to do required more classical training, Willem applied to and was accepted at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, where he completed his MFA in acting.  The first time Willem signed was in preparation for playing Billy in Tribes; with the help of his own tutors and the wonderful Missy Keast (known as “the American Shakespeare of signers”), Willem’s personal journey paralleled Billy’s in the play in ways none of us had anticipated and was clearly profound.  For me, the key lesson was to break myself of the habit of assuming Willem could hear me if I turned my back while giving a direction.  I disciplined myself to make sure he could always see my face and read my lips.

Willem and Gabby were two of six terrific actors I got to work with in Phoenix: Cathy Dresbach, Dion Johnson, Caroline Wagner, and Marshall Glass completed the ensemble.  I was also given a wonderful design team with which to work, and thorough support from Phoenix Theatre’s resident staff.  Somehow I managed to not be swallowed by the quicksand of my own ignorance, though I came close on more than one occasion. I emerged from the experience far more enlightened, much more respectful, and incredibly grateful for the growth opportunities directing plays inherently provide.


Phoenix Theatre

February, 2014

Willem Long, Gabrielle Van Buren

Tribes isn’t the kind of play that’s easily boiled down to an elevator pitch.  But as an engrossing family drama that explores some dangerous cultural waters, it’s a worthy challenge for adventurous theatregoers, as it is for the cast of Phoenix Theatre’s current production as part of its inaugural black box season.  Nina Raine’s play, first performed in London in 2010, introduces us to a seemingly familiar family of sniping English culture vultures, whose artistic talents and rapid-fire repartee inevitably disguise a slow-rolling existential crisis at the bottom of each troubled soul.

“Under the direction of Paul Barnes, this ensemble does an admirable job essaying the various character quirks presented by the script, not to mention the British accents.  [Willem] Long and [Gabrielle] Van Buren in particular succeed in creating satisfyingly nuanced characters, and their performances beautifully capture both the optimism that buoys a new relationship and the seeds of division that slowly come to the fore.

“Most of play is performed as straight-up naturalism, but when Tribes reaches a climax, it takes a surprising surreal turn that helps illuminate both the relationship and the intellectual subtext of the drama.  It’s a daring theatrical gesture that guarantees this story will continue to resonate long after the final bows.”

     Kerry Lengel

     The Arizona Republic

“Nina Raine’s Tribes was so impressive when it premiered Off Broadway in the Spring of 2012 that it got extended twice, ran for ten months, and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.  The play is receiving its Arizona premiere in an equally impressive production at Phoenix Theatre.

“Set in modern day London, Tribes focuses on Billy, deaf from birth, who has recently moved back home after graduating college.  Billy is the only deaf person in his family and his parents decided when he was young to not let him learn sign language, teaching him to speak and read lips instead, with the belief that it would make him feel less disabled.  Billy’s entire family are creative intellectuals and, with brother Daniel and sister Ruth living at home as well, and his parents always ready for an intellectual argument, Billy is never truly able to contribute to, and is barely able to follow, the many fast moving and loud conversations that his family has.  It’s not until he meets a young woman named Sylvia, who is on the verge of losing her hearing, that he feels like he has found a place to belong, a “tribe” of his own, and can finally feel what it means to be heard.

“Playwright Raine poses the question: What is the best way to protect the family you love?

“Director Paul Barnes does an excellent job of accurately showing the many questions Raine poses, and also quickly getting across the many points of the family dynamic—from the first scene where Billy is seated at the family dinner table with his back to us for the entire heated conversation the rest of the family is having around him, unable to understand or contribute at all, to the nervousness shown by Christopher, Beth and Daniel when Billy brings Sylvia home for the first time and the three of them keep changing the knives at the table.  The way Barnes uses touch in the play is also beautiful; how Billy touches Daniel in the way two close brothers would interact, and Billy holding Sylvia’s hand, both add a lovely sense of realism to the production.

“The set design by Eric Beeck is extremely creative.  With superb attention to detail that includes a huge number of stacks of books and an abundance of clutter, the set design forms a cocoon, as if the family is trying to insulate themselves, their “tribe,” from the outer world.

“Ultimately about someone finding their voice and realizing how to us it, Tribes, is a thought-provoking play that will make you think about the way we speak to each other, the dynamics of family, and how we treat people that have disabilities.  The Phoenix Theatre production is exceptional, with an excellent cast, concise direction and impressive creative elements.”

     Gil Benbrook

“Remember when you were young and you played over at a friend’s home?  This was where you noticed, maybe for the first time, that things were done a little differently than the way things were done in your own home.  Nothing big, just little things.  Maybe your friend’s parents talked to their children in a slightly different way; more aggressive perhaps, or more affectionate.  Either way, whatever it was, it was different.  Like a tribe within the privacy of its walls that created its own set of values or its own way of doing things, maybe even its own language, your friend’s family interacted with each other in a way that differed slightly from your own.

“In the enthralling drama, Tribes, by Nina Raine, currently playing at the excellent new Black Box venue at Phoenix Theatre, the tribe in question is here a Jewish family in London.  They’re intellectuals who see themselves as creative.

“When we first meet the family, they are seated around the dinner table in their untidy, book strewn living room and they’re debating, though it sounds like arguing.  Our attention is drawn so forcefully to the four family members, we don’t even see a fifth character sitting with his back to us.  He’s practically invisible.  Then he suddenly leans aside and asks a question.

“What works so well in Tribes are these moments of relatable truths.  Sylvia talks of trying to remember the face of someone she once met but now can’t remember what that face looks like because she photocopied in her mind too many times.  ‘I wore it out,’ she explains.  And when, in the second half, Sylvia’s deafness is becoming more apparent, she states that it’s like losing her personality.  Like all the characters, Sylvia has a love of music and can even play the piano, but the sound is fading, replaced in her head by a roar or a buzz.  We can only imagine.

“Eric Beeck’s wide spread set design of the family living room and kitchen area, with its endless piles of books that seemingly appear to be holding everyone together, perfectly captures the look of what the living quarters of a bunch of undisciplined intellectuals might look like. They surround themselves with references rather than furniture.  The really nice touch belongs to the giant hanging pages of water-damaged music sheets that decorate above the set.  The faded look of the musical notes disappearing under the fungus filled stains spreading across the paper echoes the disappearance of the musical sounds Sylvia can no longer hear.

“Like Beeck’s set, the brilliance of the play is in the detail.  When dad’s resentment of the learning of sign-language and its inability to translate everything exactly as spoken is apparent, he asks Sylvia “How can you feel a feeling unless you have the word for it?”  When Sylvia translates a poem in sign, the flow of her arms coupled with the graceful movement of her hands conveys a moment of lyrical, silent splendor.  It’s a beauty that mere words will never capture.”

     David Appleford


Tribes,” Nina Raine’s 2012 off-Broadway play, is thoughtfully moving and Phoenix Theatre does it beautifully with an exquisite cast who portray their characters with touching depth.

“As directed by Paul Barnes, the play is touchingly real as we look in on this closed family and the awful expectations they’ve placed on Billy [the deaf son]. You believe every minute you are eavesdropping on this . . . family.

Tribes” is a difficult play to watch because it opens our eyes to the awful challenges that deaf people confront in a heartless society that does nothing to aid them.  Grade: A.”

     Chris Curcio

     KBAQ/Curtain Up Phoenix