Oliver Sacks' book Awakenings tells the story of how, as a young doctor in the 1960s, Sacks "woke up" a hospital ward full of people with a rare type of paralyzing encephalitis, using the drug L-dopa. Their bodies had been frozen for decades, but Sacks believed their minds were still functioning. Robin Williams played a very saintly Sacks in a Hollywood version of Awakenings, but Harold Pinter had already produced a very un-Hollywood version, A Kind of Alaska.
The play focuses on a single patient, Deborah, who fell ill as a teenager, and comes to decades later as a disoriented middle-aged woman. Her brain has been far away, the Sacks character explains, in the metaphorical Alaska of the title. The play opens just as she gains consciousness, exclaiming "Something is happening!"
A Kind of Alaska was revived last month as part of a festival honoring Sacks' eightieth birthday. It's a short play, and it was actually performed twice, back to back. First there was a traditional, Pinteresque interpretation, with long silences between outbursts of speech. The second performance took place entirely in silence, by a cast of actors performing in American Sign Language. The audience was mixed, hearing and Deaf, and there was no interpretation for the benefit of the hearing.
"Society just thinks of me as a regular performer, they don't really think about me as an artist, because, you know, they're always hearing a voice, they're always hearing spoken English," the actor Terrylene, who plays Deborah, explained through an interpreter. Deaf actors almost always perform with some kind of interpretation, which is like being in a movie with overdubs, so A Kind of Alaska was a rare opportunity for these actors to perform in their native language. (Terrylene uses one name.)
Oliver Sacks is a fan of the concept. "One can indicate physical presence and space and dimensions much more vividly in sign language," he explained. "And in A Kind of Alaska, the feeling of space being given to Deborah when she awakes, I imagine could be more powerfully conveyed in sign than in words."
The decision to mount a Deaf production of Pinter's play came from New York University's Lawrence Weschler, the guest curator of the festival, which took place at New York Live Arts in downtown Manhattan. The idea combines two prominent aspects of Sacks career: his work with the encephalitis patients, and his engagement with Deaf culture. In the 1980s, Sacks wrote influentially about the protest known as Deaf President Now, at Gallaudet University. "I was walking on the side making notes and someone yanked my arm and signed, 'You're with us,' and so I marched with them," Sacks recalled. He later wrote a book about Deaf culture called Seeing Voices.
"Oliver Sacks calls himself a 'clinical ontologist,'" explained Lawrence Weschler, "which is to say somebody for whom the question, 'How are you?' is the clinical question. 'What is it like to be you? What is being like, for somebody like you?'"
"Haven't you had that experience, where you go to a bus stop, and you're watching two people sign?" Weschler asked. "I find it mesmerizing – well, first of all very beautiful, but it's mesmerizing. And then I feel very embarrassed that I'm staring. But on the evening of this production that's what you get to do."
Kim Weild, who directed A Kind of Alaska, has reservations about that staring. "I'm suspect actually of co-opting ASL and Deaf culture in the hearing world. So it was something that I really had to question them about, why they wanted to do this." Weild is hearing but uses ASL, and this is her third play with Deaf actors.
"When I looked at the dates when Deborah's asleep – those 30 years are crucial years in the development of sign language, and also the journey of American sign language," says Weild.
"A challenge for us as a cast is that people assume Deaf actors are taking the English script and then simply moving it into sign language, that there is some sort of equivalent," said Lewis Merkin, who plays the Sacks character. Rather, they are performing the play as though the people in it are Deaf. "Reading about [encephalitis lethargica], and how it was a global occurrence," said Alexandria Wailes, who plays Deborah's little sister, "I wondered, did this affect Deaf people? I could play the role as if I were a Deaf person involved in that situation." (All three actors spoke to Studio 360 through interpreters.)
Merkin's character is very different in the spoken and the signed versions of the play. In the spoken version, the doctor calls to Deborah from across the room. "Do you know me? Can you hear me?" he shouts. The distance is physical as well as emotional. "A Deaf doctor would not be speaking to her," said Merkin. "A Deaf person would be touched, he would be maybe signing in her hand in a manual way." It's a much more intimate relationship. "So that is the actual life of a Deaf person, and we're trying to honor that and incorporate it into the play."
In contrast to Weild's reservations, Terrylene was enthusiastic about performing for people who can't understand a word she is saying. "Sometimes I see that people seem to be afraid of me, because I don't speak, I use my hands to communicate," she said. "So my hope is that through this production, the world that doesn't have exposure to Deaf culture will see the play, and will let go of their fear. I want to give them permission to experience sign language."
"We know that hearing people are sound activated," said Lewis Merkin. "They're drawn toward the sound of people's voices, which in a way disconnects them from actual performance. This is going to give them the opportunity to not be distracted by sound."
This is a bold assertion: Merkin thinks voices distract us from good acting. For those with hearing, this is hard to wrap your head around. But in a play celebrating Oliver Sacks, it makes sense, because everything he writes is about trying to see the world through another person's radically different perspective.
"Seeing sign is an extraordinary experience," said Sacks. "You may first think that it's gesture and then you rapidly see that it's not gesture and that it's much more intricate. Maybe you think this is how language started – perhaps before there was speech, there was sign."
The ASL interpreters for this interview were Jon Wolfe Nelson, Anna Carter, and Corrie Pond.
A Kind of Alaska was presented by special arrangement with Dramatist Play Service, Inc., New York. All actors appeared courtesy of Actors Equity Association.