When Doug Zschiegner, associate professor of theatre at Niagara University, went on sabbatical in 2020, one of the things he planned to do was to direct “Tribes,” a powerful production that tells the story of a British family—two retired academics and their three adult children who return home, the youngest of whom is deaf—and the ways communication affects their perception of one another and the world around them.
COVID-19 changed that, twice.
But it also created a time and place that uniquely connected the audience, who had experienced the isolation of a pandemic lockdown, with the characters in the production, which primarily took place around a dining room table in a crowded London home.
The comedy/drama by Nina Raine finally opened in March 2022, two and half years after Zschiegner first saw the script, which he calls “the best script I’ve ever worked on.”
Because the play “was about deafness, and I knew nothing about deafness,” Zschiegner immediately contacted Nanette Harmon, recently retired faculty fellow and coordinator of NU’s ASL and Deaf studies program, for her input.
“She validated immediately that it was an efficient and effective description of Deaf culture and the medical aspects of deafness,” he said.
“As the play so clearly articulates, there are many ways to experience deafness,” said Harmon, who is active in the Deaf community as a late-deafened person and a teacher of the d/Deaf. “Additionally, the play managed to tie deafness to the common human experience of miscommunication.”
Harmon also suggested Zschiegner consider casting David Wantuck for the role of Billy, the son who was exploring his deaf identity. Wantuck, community engagement officer at Deaf Access Services in Buffalo, was “remarkable” in the role and also served as an advisor to Zschiegner on deafness and American Sign Language.
Zschiegner cast two NU alumni, Anna Krempholtz, BFA’16, and Johnny Barden, BFA’18, to play Wantuck’s siblings. “We had a great time,” he said of working with them. “They both had great respect for me, and I had great respect for them. I could use language that I used in school, and we could share what we’ve learned since they were at Niagara.”
“Doug invited me to audition for ‘Tribes’ because he knew about my involvement in the ASL program at NU when I was a student there,” said Krempholtz. “When I read the script, I jumped at the opportunity—it’s so rich and beautifully written and has a great message everyone can learn from and relate to.”
Originally scheduled to open in spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the production until January 2022. A COVID surge during that month postponed it a second time, until March 3, when it opened at Road Less Traveled Productions in Buffalo, N.Y.
By then, Zshiegner’s sabbatical had long been over, so he juggled his work in NU’s theatre department with his work on the play.
“The week after I closed ‘Decision Height’ at Niagara this fall, we started rehearsals for ‘Tribes’ evenings and weekends,” he said.
Although the rehearsal process was “filled with problems”–COVID masking requirements and quarantines, family issues, car accidents, and the holiday season all presented unique challenges—and the cast and crew were not able to get on stage until January, the delay also offered some unique benefits, including the opportunity to have the time to bond as a family and to discover new aspects of the play that might have been lost had the opening taken place as originally scheduled. And when “Tribes” finally opened, it received acclaim for the way it portrayed the characters, both deaf and hearing.
“Doug has had a beautiful vision for this show, and his passion for what he does always translates into his work,” said Krempholtz.
“It’s probably the hardest play I’ve ever directed because of just so much stuff—British dialects, it’s very fast and then it suddenly slows down, there’s realistic scenes, there’s abstract scenes, and a lot of British humor,” said Zschiegner, who has directed dozens of shows over the past 30 years for theatre companies, community theatres, and university theatre programs. “I think everybody in this play has done things that we’ve never done before. I think it stretched us in really specific ways, and I think that shows.
“There’s a lot of tech in this show,” Zschiegner continued. “It’s all in one house, and anytime somebody signs, subtitles are projected. We worked very hard to make sure that the titles were as close to the actor’s heads as possible.”
Zschiegner also partnered with St. Mary’s School for the Deaf in offering two interpretive performances for the D/deaf and hard of hearing audience.
Before the show was open to the public, Harmon and her husband, who recently retired from St. Mary's School for the Deaf after 45 years of teaching, attended the final dress rehearsal. She said that the production left her with a sense of hope that more people will be exposed to the fact people who are D/deaf and hard of hearing continue to be marginalized, even in 2022.
“Deafness is complex and varied,” she said. “‘Tribes’ passionately demonstrates the truth to the statement ‘there are many ways to be D/deaf.’ Doug clearly studied the depth of deafness, and through his creative talents and tenacity, brought it to life. He managed to do this without making ‘Tribes’ exclusively about deafness. Rather, he urged his cast to display raw human experience.”
“Nanette and her husband validated everything that we had been working for, and we were really trying make sure we represented the community right,” Zschiegner said. “I think it was the hardest I’ve ever worked on a production, and I think it’s going to have biggest impact of anything I’ve ever worked on.”