Arizona theater company hopes to combat lack of deaf actors in media

Sam and actors practice at Detour Company Theater. (Photo by Allison Bailey/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — This isn’t the first time Hollywood has been scrutinized for its lack of diversity and inclusiveness on screen.

A recent study showed nearly all fictional characters with disabilities are portrayed by able-bodied actors.

Movies like “Wonderstruck,” where hearing actress Julianne Moore plays a deaf character, show how the deaf community is underrepresented in mainstream media. However, it is not due to a lack of available deaf actors.

At St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Tempe, the Detour Company Theater is dedicated to making the arts accessible for people with disabilities. It produces up to three major Broadway productions a year, has 46 actors and an audience of 300 to 400 people per show. Detour has been recognized as a unique theater company for celebrating actors with disabilities.

Hailey Simon, a 21-year-old deaf actress, has been a part of the theater company for two years. She was unsure about her future in acting until she started working with Detour.

“Yes, I really like it because before I was in the audience, it was great, but now to be up on the stage I can feel from their expressions and things like that. I can feel that they are really connected to me,” Simon said through an interpreter.

Simon understands why some deaf actors are hesitant about getting into acting, but she believes Hollywood needs better representation.

“Maybe deaf actors don’t want to do a lot because there is also the added expense for paying for an interpreter for whatever they’re doing as well. They really need to get a deaf individual no matter what. It should be a deaf individual,” Simon said of casting decisions.

Detour Company Theater performs annual plays that are interactive for both the actors and the audience.

“We turn off the lights so everyone is singing in the dark to feel what it’s like to be blind and we stop the piano and sign language the music to know what it’s like to be deaf,” said Sam, the artistic director at Detours Company Theater.

The company is preparing for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in January where Simon acts, sings and is a narrator. At practices, Simon has a sign language interpreter to help her with her lines.

Sam, who only goes by her first name, founded the Detour Company Theater. She started it with friends when her son wanted to get into acting, but she could not to find an arts program that had a theater production for people with disabilities.

“We don’t make it about the disability. We find ways to make the story. Maybe that’s what we need to do in life for one another. Instead of focusing on why it’s not working, find a way to make it work. How do we make it fun, successful and real,” Sam said. “Detour takes no government help or money. It’s a theater company first, not a social service.”

Hailey Simon hopes to one day work as an actress in Arizona. For now, Detour is a place where Simon can live out her dream of theater and connect with people through her work.

“They make me feel like family, I just love it. Just feels like a family. They’re open to sign language and learning sign language and they just accept me as I am,” Simon said.

Successful deaf film companies like Hollywood-based ASL Films and award-winning television shows like ABC Family’s “Switched at Birth” are examples of more authentic deaf narratives.

According to a study on employment of actors with disabilities by The Ruderman Family Foundation, 95 percent of characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors. The foundation fights for the rights of people with disabilities and brings awareness to issues faced by people with disabilities.

“Although people with disabilities make up nearly 20 percent of our population, they are still significantly under-represented on television,” according to the study.

At the Detour Theater Company, Sam said filmmakers need to be more resourceful and seek the right representation of deaf characters. This could help the hearing mainstream to better understand deaf culture.

“They are talented. They know their art better than any person who can pretend to be them. It is insulting and degrading in this society to not honor the artistic talent and contribution of any group,” Sam said.

“We’re people who are full of talent and dreams and hope and we don’t need someone to usurp that. We don’t have deaf people asking to portray hearing actors. We have deaf people asking if they can portray themselves.”