Sunday, July 22, 2018

Schoolhouse Arts Center reaches out to Deaf community by Neil Ruecker

In 2019 Schoolhouse Arts Center in Standish will celebrate their thirtieth year as a community theater and educational facility in the Lakes Region. Schoolhouse was founded in 1989 with a mission to provide a safe and nurturing place for young and old to explore and enjoy live theater productions. 

They have recently brought onboard a brilliant young Artistic Director, Zachariah Stearn to provide new vision and energy for that mission in the future. Last year Stearn directed the smash hit production of “Peter Pan” for the Schoolhouse. And this year he has taken on his new role with gusto in directing their current production of “Seussical the Musical,” on stage from July 12 through July 29.
In the first weekend, audiences have been thrilled with the lively music and colorful production of this play based on a wonderful collage of Seuss stories. The performance combines clever acting,  great dance numbers choreographed by April Monte, lots of audience interaction, toe-tapping music by an orchestra led by Rachel Scala, and professional lighting and sound direction by TJ Scannel. But Stearn has also brought an important new element to the stage in his adaptation of Seussical.

His cast of 36 local actors ranging in age from four to somewhat over 65, each of whom have not only learned their dialogue, dance routines, stage blocking, and a dozen musical numbers but Stearn has taught the entire cast to perform every major element of the story line in American Sign Language for the Deaf. 

This is a first step forward in a new element of the Schoolhouse mission. During their next decade of service to the Lakes Region Community, Schoolhouse Art Center plans to reach out to the Deaf members of our community and offer them greater involvement as an underserved audience and as participants in Schoolhouse productions. Numbered among the three dozen members of the cast are five and seven-year-old brother and sister, Sephine and Jason Seal. Not only are they very talented young actors but they are also both Deaf.

Think about how difficult it would be to learn and perform dance moves and songs if you cannot hear the music. How difficult would it be to perform complicated dance moves at the right moment if you could not hear the queues in the dialog. These challenges would be daunting for an adult cast member to take on. But Sephine and Jason have succeeded admirably with a strong desire and the support of their hearing cast family.  

“The success of our deaf actors is inspiring”, said Stearn. “This is an opportunity that is seldom offered to Deaf members of our community. They are just as eager and have just as much desire as their hearing neighbors. But too often they are just not offered a chance to try.” 

Stearn grew up in Augusta and was taught American Sign Language as a child by his Deaf mother. He could sign before he could talk. 

He has an extensive performing resume for his young age, touring the country as a stand-up comedian since the age of 13. He has performed as a comedian off-Broadway in New York and returned to Maine in 2017. In 2016-17 he was Artistic Director at Art Works Studio Theater in Hamden CT.

“Seussical is an important step forward,” says Cristina McBreairty, Chairman of the Board for Schoolhouse Arts Center.  “The cast and our audiences have embraced our use of ASL (American Sign Language) in the production with enthusiasm and have been very supportive.  We feel that this is an important step forward for Schoolhouse and for our community.  We are hopeful that other theaters in Maine will follow our lead. The show itself is not officially a full-ASL production. But all of the important elements of the storyline are signed by the entire cast.  And we will be presenting a fully signed presentation of the play for Deaf patrons on July 28th.  

We are planning to provide at least one fully signed production of all of our plays in the future.”  In further support of this effort, Schoolhouse plans to offer classes in American Sign Language to the community starting this fall. Their first class, ASL 101 will be held on Thursday nights for 10 weeks starting August 2 from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Schoolhouse Arts Center, 16 Richville Road (Route 114) in Standish, 7 miles west of downtown Gorham or North Windham. The cost for ASL 101 will be $175 per student. More advanced ASL classes will be offered later in the fall if there is sufficient demand.

Schoolhouse also plans to offer a wider range of educational opportunities in coming months.  They are planning classes in Acting, Directing, Stage Management, Sound and Lighting, and other theater skills. These changes represent a new emphasis in helping the Lakes Region Community to experience and enjoy the magic of live stage productions. Anyone interested in more information about Schoolhouse Arts Center, Seussical reservations, or upcoming classes, should visit their website at www.   

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