Canadian-born actress TL Forsberg didn’t speak for the two weeks leading up to her audition for Rubicon Theatre Company’s production of Children of a Lesser God. The role of Sara calls for little speech but much emphatic communication. It is a silent performance that enables the audience to know most intimately a deaf woman whose language few understand.
Playwright Mark Medoff stipulated that only hard of hearing actors would perform the roles (although Forsberg notes, in this production, “you have hard of hearing people playing deaf, you have deaf people playing hard of hearing”), and Forsberg herself lives in limbo between the deaf and hearing worlds. A ruptured ear drum at age 8 left her with a conductive loss of 40 decibels. One-on-one, Forsberg betrays no difficulty in hearing her conversational partner, but says she has issues with “audio perception,” and that within a crowd, she is essentially deaf.
“When they offered me the part, they thought that I was profoundly deaf. I’m closer to hearing than deaf.” She adds, “Deafness is more than hearing loss — it’s identity.”
The play follows Sara and her teacher, James, through a rocky working relationship, romance, marriage and the aftermath. Highlighting the cultural rift between the hearing and the deaf, Sara cherishes her control over how she interacts with the world. She refuses to learn to read lips, communicating only through sign language. By the play’s end she has emerged as a staunchly independent lightning rod for deaf issues. In Forsberg’s grip, she is more than an allegorical representation: she is compelling.
Forsberg also had a troubled history identifying herself as hard of hearing; it wasn’t until she was in theater school and a voice coach pulled her aside that she considered the possibility. A role as an increasingly mute woman soon after proved both terrifying and therapeutic.
Currently, the Rubicon performances give her a daily opportunity — and obligation — to practice her American Sign Language (ASL) skills. She applauds co-star Remi Sandri, a hearing actor who first performed the role of James 20 years ago, for taking on such a monumental task as ASL.
The chemistry between the characters of James and Sara is only accentuated by the difficulties of a mixed hearing couple. The communication rift between them takes a physical toll on James as he struggles to clarify their auditory surroundings. Despite James’ apparent understanding of Sara’s situation — few people know how to sign, and Sara refuses to read lips — he resents what he sees as self-imposed isolation on her part. In spite of James’ unflagging effort to incorporate Sara into the hearing world, she resents being spoken for.
Forsberg credits Sandri with vocalizing for a hearing audience the thoughts and motivations of two people — his character and Forsberg’s. But the heavy use of sign language has proven to be a performance challenge to Forsberg as well.
“Often [Sandri] has no more words to say, he can take his time; I’ve had to condense my signing,” she explains. And though the majority of the theatergoing audience isn’t well acquainted with ASL (and would probably give the actors a pass for fudging a little), the cast has committed to full signing accuracy. They retain signing interpreters to keep them on task.
But it wasn’t only Sara’s struggle to relate to a fully hearing world that resonated with Forsberg. Sara’s insistence in one scene that she could hear her husband’s music — through her nose and through vibrations — provided a parallel with Forsberg’s other life as a musician.
An avant-garde performer laboring in the genre of “hard rock, with a bit of gothic pop feel,” the hard of hearing performer refutes the popular industry misconception that “deaf people don’t listen to music.”
While she seamlessly brings together both the hearing and hard of hearing with powerhouse performances that command attention, and with strong lyrics and engaging visuals, Forsberg argues that her deaf fan base’s listening experience is akin to her own creation process. Through a combination of sound sensation and the use of earplugs, Forsberg worked with a vocal coach early on to train her inconsistent musical ear.
Her entertainment lawyer convinced her to move to Los Angeles, where she landed a production deal and is five tracks into recording her first album, titled KRIYA, a “project named after sound of deaf people screaming, the silent sound within.”
“Deaf people love bass lines,” she insists.