Following in the footsteps of the National Theatre of the Deaf and California's Deaf West Theatre, Raleigh Little Theatre will perform its May 9-24 production of the classic children's story, The Secret Garden, in American Sign Language and English. RLT will employ the NTD's visually expressive style and physicality and put signing actors center stage while the speaking actors shadow them.
RLT, which previously produced essentially bilingual ASL/English productions of Jungalbook in 2000 and Mother Hicks in 2002, will stage Pamela Sterling's drama (not the hit Broadway musical) based on the world-famous novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
"I first heard of The Secret Garden in my childhood," says RLT guest director Sam Parker of Greensboro, NC. "I do not have any memories of reading the book as a child. ([I'm] probably one of the few who did not.) I think I felt that it was a girls' story as a little boy. But now as an adult, of course, I know different.
"My first reading of this play was in the beginning of this year when I was asked to direct the show," says Parker. "This show is unique in that I was approached by Raleigh Little Theatre to direct the play as a bilingual production in American Sign Language and spoken English. I had never worked on The Secret Garden before, and the challenge of mounting a show with two languages sounded like something I would love to do."
Parker, who last year co-directed Mother Hicks with RLT youth education director Carmen-maria Mandley, says, "The Secret Garden appealed to me because it deals with life and the changes we go through, the healing that occurs from time to time in our lives, and the secrets we keep to ourselves and others. It thrilled me to know that Raleigh Little Theatre wanted to take this well-known story and add a visual language (American Sign Language) to bring this story to a broader range of communities, including the community of the deaf."
For those, like Parker, who never read The Secret Garden in their youth, he briefly summarizes the plot as follows. "The Secret Garden is a story of a sickly young girl named Mary Lennox (Carlie Huberman — sign, Amanda Kouri — voice) who loses her parents to cholera in India. She is then sent to England to live in a huge manor house with her widowed uncle, Mr. Craven (Jimmy Miller — sign, Steven Hardy-Braz — voice), who is rumored to be a hunchback. Mary travels with the head housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Ann Donnelly — sign, Missy Dapper — voice) to Misslethwaite Manor. Mary is left alone in the huge house with no friends. She eventually meets a friendly housemaid Martha Sowerby (Shauna Marie Wheeler — sign, Kristin Post — voice) and begins to learn about her new environment."
Parker says, "[Mary Lennox] wanders the grounds of Misslethwaite Manor reluctantly and befriends a Robin (Kymberly Aurora Shepard — sign, Lori Huberman — flute), a cheerful clever bird, and a crusty old gardener, Ben Weatherstaff (Karen Magoon — sign, Anthony Marshall II — voice). In her exploration of the manor's grounds, Mary discovers a buried key with the help of the Robin and opens a hidden gate to an overgrown and neglected garden that she keeps a secret from the house staff.
"Later, in her room, Mary hears wailing coming from down the hall and is drawn to a hidden door behind a panel, but is stopped from entering by Mrs. Medlock. More and more secrets reveal themselves as she discovers that Mr. Craven is not as monstrous as she thought. The wailings continue... and she eventually finds a sickly little boy named Colin (Tonio Tucker-Young — sign, Cedric Stapleton — voice) locked in a room with a portrait of his deceased mother hidden behind a tapestry. Later, Mary meets Dickon (Ryan Magoon — sign, Lori Huberman — voice), a child of nature and animals. Through Dickon, Mary learns to plant and take care of her secret garden, which helps her heal physically and spiritually. She decides that it would do Colin good to get outdoors and into the garden. With the help of Dickon and Martha, Colin is taken out into the garden against the wishes of his doctor, Dr. Craven (Steven Hardy-Braz — sign, Anthony Marshal II — voice), his father's cousin who will eventually get the manor home when both Mr. Craven and Colin die."
What will happen when Mr. Craven returns from his European travels, and finds Mary and Colin cavorting in the secret garden? You will have to attend The Secret Garden to find out.
Director Sam Parker, associate director Carmen-maria Mandley, set designer Rick Young, lighting designers Roger Bridges and Andy Parks, costume designer Vicki Olson, sound designers Ed Bodell and Darryl Parks, and company interpreter Karen Lewis will have their hands full staging this bilingual production of The Secret Garden.
"Perhaps, the major challenge was finding a creative way to present this play visually," confesses Sam Parker. "American Sign Language is a visual, conceptual, movement-oriented form of communication and requires good sight lines and visibility. Creating a set and lighting that would enhance those elements was a challenge.
"In addition," he says, "working with two casts, one speaking in English and one signing in American Sign Language, also created its own unique obstacles. Sign-language interpreters were needed in rehearsals, and communication in general needed to considered carefully at all times. Using a model from the National Theatre of the Deaf and adapting it into a new form was exciting for both the creative team and the actors."
Parker adds, "The set is fairly minimal and relies on large panels or doors to help with transitions and a few set pieces to indicate locations in the manor house and gardens. The secret garden is created by the actors themselves — their hands and bodies become the plants and flowers."
Sam Parker says, "The lighting is, perhaps, the most important element of this show. Cool lighting at the top of the show changes to warmer lighting as characters heal and secrets are revealed." Parker adds: "Costumes reveal character and the time period — 1911. Cooler colors are used at the beginning of the show and transition into brighter colors as Mary and Colin return to health."
In describing his ASL/English production of The Secret Garden, Sam Parker notes, "This production is very different from plays that the hearing audience has seen before. In this production, the signing actors are the focus of the play and the voices are secondary. I don't mean that one is preferred over the other, but that the two blend together to make the poetry in this show, and the story itself [is] a visual performance that is also heard."
Raleigh Little Theatre presents The Secret Garden Friday, May 9, 16, and 23, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, May 10-11 and 17-18, at 1 and 5 p.m.; and Saturday, May 24, at 1 p.m. in RLT's Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina. (NOTE: All performances are wheelchair accessible, and assistive listening devices are available.) $10 ($7 students). 919/821-3111. http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/secret.htm [inactive 7/1/03].