Beauty and the Beast

This past January, the Arizona Commission on the Arts invested $119,000 in 16 arts-focused ventures at regional fast-pitch events held in four Arizona cities. This month we’re checking in with some of those ventures to see how they’re progressing.

So far we’ve caught up with Gretchen Baer’s Paint Your Town! and ProMusica Arizona’s Unpredictable Adventures of Henry Hicklebee. Today, we get a peek behind the scenes of the Building careACTOR program, a partnership between Tucson’s Arts Express and Arizona Schools for the Deaf and Blind (ASDB).

Expanding on an experimental program that was piloted last year, Building careACTOR unites deaf or blind students with students that can see and hear in the production of a full-length musical production. Using synchronized speaking/signing, English and American Sign Language (ASL) are interwoven with music, dance and storytelling techniques to create a one-of-kind theatrical event.

The Building careACTOR production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast will open on Friday, April 24, 2015.

Recently, we spoke with Karen Wiese, Executive Director of Arts Express about this unique production and the experience of pitching it at Arizona Art Tank: 2015.

How did you begin working with Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind?

AT-68Arts Express began working with ASDB in 2012 through its’ Behind the Scenes Broadway and More programs. In collaboration with Broadway in Tucson (BIT) and UApresents, this program provides a workshop, behind the scenes experience and admission to a professional show. Blind students attended an African dance/percussion workshop in conjunction with the UApresents production of FELA. Next, deaf and general community students learned side-by-side about pantomime and attended BIT’s Blue Man Group. As the students later wrote, poignantly about their experiences, the potential impact of future arts programming became clear.

In partnership with ASDB, Arts Express produced Rodgers and Hammerstein’s BIG RIVER, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as its pilot Building careACTOR production in Spring 2014. Directed by Emil Lamanda and Kate Howell, a talented cast of 30 students from the general Tucson community and ASDB participated in the production and performed for a live audience. As evidenced by the student and audience responses, the pilot was a success. All students displayed improved self-confidence, self-control, conflict resolution, peer collaboration, empathy and social tolerance. After that experience, we knew that the program was a success and made plans to further develop the model.

The production this year is definitely built upon the foundation of the last one. We learned so many lessons the first time around and have been able to start from a position of greater knowledge. The entire scale of the show this year is bigger and we never would have had the faith to jump into a production of this size without this knowledge base and the support of Arizona Art Tank.

How experienced are your cast and crew in doing this sort of work? 

Luke Howell, an experienced theatre professional and fluent ASL signer, is the 2015 Production Director and Kate Howell is the Production Music Director.

Luke has been in theatre and film for more than two decades and Kate has been working just as long. Kate and Luke have been working at the ASDB for several years. She teaches music and Luke runs the media department. As with many people at the school, it started out as a day job and then became a very important part of their lives.  

FightMany of our cast members have never performed in theater before!  That being said, the production of this show has been as much about educating the people involved as it has been about putting on a great musical.  Luke has worked hard to incorporate teaching into his directing style.  Luckily, our crew is very experienced.  Our stage manager, set designer, lighting designer, choreographer, costume designer, make-up artist and others have come to us with lots of knowledge.  The growing talent and commitment of our cast and experienced crew will take the quality of our production to the next level this year!

Can you describe how a production like this works? 

Since the production is performed in two languages, the script must be transcribed from English to ASL. A Sign master is responsible for glossing the show’s spoken text and providing a transcript in paper/video form.  He/she consults with the director to develop artistic interpretation and also works with students to clarify and perfect the performance of the translated dialogue. For blind students, a braille transcriber converts the script and musical lyrics into braille. Technology like audio software and screen readers are used to help students learn and practice their music skills. In addition, screen magnifiers and large print materials are provided to students with low vision.

The songs and dialogue of the production are concurrently sung/spoken and signed, providing each student with the opportunity for a role. Accordingly, all of the roles are double cast with ASL signers and hearing speakers/singers. All student actors receive training in acting, singing and stagecraft, as well as disability awareness and skills training. Students learn about orientation, mobility and cane technique, providing a better understanding of how their visually-impaired peers travel across the stage. All actors learn the basics of ASL and perform many group songs while singing/signing simultaneously.

Belles - English on Right and ASL on LeftThe artistic process of the Building careACTOR program is extremely complex, synchronizing two languages to tell a united story. This process is further complicated by the need to develop cues to orchestrate signing/singing/speaking, in some cases between two individuals that do not have the direct ability to communicate (for example extra communication challenges are created if one actor is deaf and the other is blind). This calls for creativity “above and beyond the call of duty” to produce a show that the audience will understand while meeting the educational needs of each population.

For our audience members who are blind or visually impaired, we are creating a soundscape that will allow them to escape into the audio world of Beauty and the Beast. Each scene has an audio set and audio cues that have been designed to help our audience follow the action. We are taking steps to light the show brightly and avoiding the use of atmospheric effects such as fog or haze (barring a few moments) to make sure that no light is skewed and we are still working on some atmospheric effects that will complete the immersion of the audience.

Staging a play like this is just like staging any other, except twice as hard. It’s important to keep visual continuity for audience members and having two casts in similar costumes moving around the stage can get confusing.  We have done our best to create choreography that will capture the imagination and touch the hearts of our audience.

What was the experience of preparing and delivering your pitch for Arizona Art Tank like for your team? 

AT-52We are all very passionate about the Building careACTOR program and finding things to say about why it’s important was not hard. When you’re so close to something–and passionate about it–it’s hard to pick and choose sales points. It was a real challenge to try to do that in 6 minutes! After lots of practice and using feedback from others, we were able to “boil down” the narrative into its salient points.

Beyond the grant, what has your organization taken away from the experience of preparing for and pitching at Arizona Art Tank?

It was energizing to have the Building careACTOR program validated. While we have put a lot of thought into the structure of the program, it is really a “labor of love.” Preparing for and pitching at Arizona Art Tank helped us to gain a new perspective of the program through internal and market analysis, as well as gaining the thoughtful advice from our peers and audience members. The process gave us a fresh perspective on the strengths of our program and what challenges we may have to overcome. As a small organization, we sometimes get too caught up in the details. Art Tank is a great way to encourage innovation and risk-taking and helps organizations see their programs through a business lens.

Building careACTOR will present Disney’s Beauty and the Beast from April 24-April 26 at Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind’s Berger Theatre. Tickets are available at or by calling (520) 319-0400.