MALIBU, Calif. – Language is constantly evolving. It also forms the basis of a new production of Oedipus, an ancient tragedy that marks new territory in many ways. This is the first time the Getty Villa has hosted a bilingual production in its outdoor theater. This is the first time Deaf West Theater has performed in the space. And it’s the first time in the Tony-winning company’s 30-year history that they’ve had a deaf-blind actor in the cast.
Ashley Hayes plays Tiresias, the blind oracle who is a recurring figure in Greek mythology. In the theater, she is often seen with her Protactical translator, Erin Sanders-Sigmon, by her side. Hayes’ peripheral vision is diminishing, she says, and Sanders-Sigmon uses physical cues to help her understand what’s going on around her.
“She’s telling me someone’s smiling,” Hayes said as Sanders-Sigmon patted her thigh.
Protactile ASL is relatively new as far as language goes, developed over the past 20 years by the deaf-blind community and centered around touch rather than visual communication. Hayes says that often deafblind people and other people with disabilities are often infantilized or portrayed as helpless. It’s a stereotype she wants to break.
“I don’t want to be humiliated, and that’s often described,” she said. “The independence of the deaf-blind characters is never depicted. The deaf-blind characters never get to show their autonomy. It shakes everything up and I’m excited about it.”
As well as her co-star Russell Harvard, who portrays Oedipus. He most recently performed with Deaf West Theater in their production of the opera Fidelio earlier this year. He says that while he hears that actors can memorize and perform their lines, he has to go one step further.
“I have to translate and figure out what the meaning is in English, what the sign meaning is,” he said. “If one sign is lost, the whole show can be really confusing.”
The show is actually presented in several languages simultaneously. ASL, Spoken English, and Protactile ASL. Deaf Wests art director DJ Kurs says there’s a bit of a true crime element to the story, with the characters having to work through those layers of language to find clues. It’s a small insight, he says, into how deaf people experience life.
“We often find contextual clues from our surroundings and try to put the pieces together,” Coors said. “So I think that will really resonate with our deaf audience members.”
Coors first discussed Oedipus with director Jenny Koons in 2020, right at the start of the pandemic. Although written more than two millennia ago, the play has proved remarkably timely.
“The story takes place during the end of a terrible plague and during a time of political upheaval,” Coors said.
“We’re dealing with a kind of story that’s larger than life in a moment that we’re living through that often feels really heightened, that feels larger than life,” Koons said. “We often find ourselves asking big questions that are similar to the questions they ask on the show.”
After more than 2,000 years, audiences probably know how the story ends, but the cast says no one has ever seen Oedipus presented this way. Both Harvard and Hayes hope the show will attract a diverse audience, both deaf and hearing.
“This show will be a feast for your eyes, boys, when you come,” said Harvard. “Everybody’s going to be blown away.”
“Whether you’re hearing, you don’t know sign language, you’re scared of deaf people, or you’re deaf and you’re like, ‘I don’t know Protactile, how am I going to understand this show?'” Whatever, Hayes said. “It doesn’t matter where you are, you can come and see the show. This is very affordable for you.
Although she has worked in front of the camera before, the role of the oracle is Hayes’ first professional acting work on stage. It’s something she predicts more of in the future.
“I get direct feedback from audience members and it’s fantastic,” she said. “I don’t think I can not do this again.”
Oedipus runs through Oct. 1 at the Getty Villa. For information visit the Deaf West Theater website.