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Volume 24, Number 6 — June 2017

Across a Distance: The Collaborators

Dr. Kelly Bremner
Dr. Kelly Bremner

November 29, 2011

The creative team working with Dr. Kelly Bremner on Across a Distance includes her husband, composer Scott Gendel. The two performers are Julia Faulkner, a professional opera singer, and Robert Schleifer, a professional actor who happens to be deaf. The lyrics and script were written by Nick Lantz.

"In November of 2005," Bremner recalls, "Julia, Robert, Scott and I gathered in Julia's living room with a crazy idea. Julia, a world-renowned operatic soprano, and Robert, an accomplished professional deaf actor, had a rich relationship based, in great part, on the dedication of their lives to their respective arts. Though they had nothing but the greatest respect for each other as artists, Julia could not speak American Sign Language and Robert could not hear her sing. And yet they claimed there was something being exchanged between them as she sang or as he signed that shouldn't be literally possible. Wanting to explore this rich paradox, they invited Scott and me to talk about a possible collaboration."

It wasn't until 2007 that they all set aside a major portion of their summer to start experimenting with the idea. Bremner admits, "It was all well and good to say that it would be interesting to combine deaf performance and music, but how to make this a piece of theatre?"

The group started with the idea of utilizing Julia's and Robert's personal stories as a link. "Since the idea for the performance had come from their personal relationship, we concluded an obvious way to bring the source material together was to use their own stories, and see if we could call any obvious connections between what they had gone through to get where they were," Bremner explains. "In this way we worked on creating performance snippets based on their personal narratives. I offered them prompts each day to bring in different kinds of stories from their lives, and we would find a way to stage them in a way that involved both performers.

"We also played with staging music sung by Julia, by adding exaggerated sign and movement. This work was particularly informative because it was thrilling to watch and listen to. Robert began to use sign language in a more elevated and theatrical way than he had before, filling his body with the same sentiments that Julia was filling with her voice, discovering a place where ASL achieved the same kind of emotional intensity as the singing voice.

"We also learned how hard it would be to include this kind of work in our show. As rewarding as it was, Robert could not hear or read music. While he is very good at lip reading, the way we use our mouth when singing is so exaggerated, that he could not follow her this way. It was difficult to sync up any moments."

[Because of the exaggerated way the mouth moves while singing, the cast and crew hit a roadblock when Robert attempted to sign the words of Julia's songs.] In this work we learned it would be best if we never had to get the signing exactly right against the English of the sung word. In short, we learned it would be best not to try to directly translate the text through sign, but to let them both work on their own time, allowing the intensity of the experience to unite them as performers."

In 2008 the playwright came to see what they were working on. He loved the work and proposed the plot that eventually became the full script for Across a Distance.

The same performers who created the work in Wisconsin will perform at E&H, including the original musicians, Jessica Johnson and Anthony DiSanza. Nevertheless, the production at E&H College will be an adaptation of the original one. "We will be in a different theatre, and the designers are not traveling with the show. We will be using the original costumes and puppets and many of the original scenic items, but we will also be building a few new pieces," explains Dr. Bremner. "This aspect of the show will be run completely by E&H students. Professor Dan Wheeler will aid us in execution of the design and create the lighting."

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Topics: Music, Theatre