Meet James Caverly

Actor James Caverly

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What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Royal Oak, Michigan and I am currently living nowhere in particular.

Were you born deaf?
I was born Deaf, yes. I am close to profoundly deaf but I don’t use that term… it’s a medical term– I prefer to use ‘Deaf’ since it’s more of an identity nomenclature than an medical one.

Are any members of your family deaf?
My parents are hearing, my two younger brothers are hearing, my older sister is Deaf and they all communicate with me through sign language.

What kind of schooling did your receive? Did you attend public school or a school for the Deaf?
I went to a mainstream school–which means that it was a public school with a deaf program. I went to hearing (a term we Deaf describe those who can hear) classes with interpreters up until I graduated high school. Then I attended Gallaudet University–the only Liberal Arts university for the Deaf in Washington DC.

What do you make of the fact that many audience members ask after the show if you are really deaf or just playing a role?
I’m kinda surprised that they thought I was hearing playing a Deaf role. It’s a bit unsettling.

Tell us about Billy, the character you play in TRIBES.
Billy is brought up in a hearing household with a garrulous, dysfunctional family and is brought up orally, which means that he learned how to speak rather than use sign language. One day he meets and falls in love with a hearing woman who comes from a Deaf family and is slowly going deaf herself. He becomes engrossed with the Deaf community and sign language but finds himself conflicted with his family’s ideals. The whole idea of the play is finding your own “tribe”. Where do he belong in? Is it Billy’s family? Or is it the Deaf community? What happens to the dynamics of Billy’s family if he were to leave?

How different was your own family and upbringing from Billy’s experience?
While Billy’s upbringing is different than mine, I do find moments in the play that I understand what he went through. At times when his family becomes submerged in their conversations that they overlook Billy’s struggle to catch up with the discussion is also the same thing I go through. That communication barrier is a big handicap in our lives–it also applies to quite a considerable amount of Deaf people in the world. The social loneliness he faces is also something I do find myself at times when I am surrounded by hearing peers with no knowledge of sign language. I can understand the acceptance that Billy seeks, the sense of belonging he so long desires.

What was the rehearsal process like for you, being the only deaf person in the cast?
No different than what it’s like working with a Deaf cast. The only obstacle that I had to overcome is the communication barrier but thankfully, SpeakEasy has provided interpreters throughout the whole rehearsal process.

How does this role compare with others you have had while at Gallaudet or while performing with The National Theatre for the Deaf?
This is my first speaking role. I’m a bit apprehensive when it comes to speaking onstage but thankfully our dialect coach and director has helped me throughout this procedure. That’s really the only difference in terms of preparations and character analysis.

The playwright, Nina Raine, is not deaf but makes a lot of observations about the Deaf community. Do you agree with her representation of Deaf Culture?
Nina Raine did her research well when she wrote this play. Most of the topics she touched upon were factual, although she might’ve amplified those issues to make it more theatrical… but that’s what makes the play so appealing.

One of the reasons I love this play is because I don’t view this as a “pity” play about the oppression of Deafness. This is about finding your own sense of belonging. What is your “Tribe”? Billy’s family is his tribe–a dysfunctional posse of crazy characters that strives to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world. When he meets Sylvia, he falls in love with her and her tribe–the Deaf community. He finds a sense of belonging but the family don’t agree to that. Sylvia wants to withdraw from her tribe which contradicts Billy’s feelings and their relationship. There’s that hierarchy of the Deaf community but there’s also the hierarchical power within Billy’s family that constantly shifts through disputes; are these two tribes really any different? There are a lot of topics and issues that I find interesting and appealing which sets this apart from what I feel to be a “pity” play.

Last Sunday was the first ASL-interpreted performance of TRIBES, which was followed by an ASL talkback. How would you categorize the response to the play by the Deaf community members in the audience that night?
During rehearsals, we’ve decided that our objective for this play is to make people discuss the different themes within this play after they’ve seen the show. It’s always good to see the audience members share their input afterwards–with the Deaf audience at the talkback, it was good to see that they’re talking about the same topics that the hearing audiences also discussed as well. It’s a play with universal themes that we all share.

What’s next for you after this production closes on Oct. 19th?
Starting in December, I’m doing the same role with the TRIBES production over at Studio Theatre in Washington, DC. I’m happy to be going back to where I graduated from! But right after the show, I’m heading home to Michigan to spend well-deserved time with my family.