A few years back, writer/performer Laura Anne Harris (The Homemaker, Pitch Blond) was stuck in a creative rut.
“I didn’t feel funny or talented anymore.”
In this disheartened state, she left Toronto to join her husband in Syracuse, New York, where he was finishing graduate school. It was a joy to be with him, but two painful surprises lay in store for her.
Settling into the US, she expected to witness the first-ever female president, but her hopes fell with a heavy and resounding thud. She found herself suddenly in Trump’s America. And then, to add heartache to anxiety: across the border, her mother was battling serious illness back home.
Amidst of all this, she took a job as a relay operator for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. The calls rolled in and she set to work connecting people. Though faceless and remote, something intimate and magical was happening with these strangers. Bearing witness to their fears and hopes helped her to cope with her own situation.
Suddenly, it was there again: inspiration! And the seed of a new show.
“I knew I was on to something, but I didn’t know exactly how to frame it.”
During the next two years, a structure revealed itself and her story took on dramatic shape. She meets the love of her life, but finds herself adrift and disoriented in a country where hateful rhetoric is on the rise. Fear for her sick mother intensifies. Amidst this emotional chaos, her spirit is buoyed by the kindness and empathy of strangers on the phone.
Human connection. Hope for the future.
And so, Destiny, USA was born.
She shared an early version of this heartfelt piece last summer, as a staged reading at Toronto’s Social Capital Theatre. The response confirmed she had a compelling show.
What followed was a workshop run in Vancouver, under the direction of Krystal Osborne. Along the way, friends and fellow artists, Rose Paine and Briana Brown, provided additional sets of eyes on the piece to help it along.
As the show developed, Harris began to to feel somewhat “ethically uncomfortable” with the material, specifically the co-opting of Deaf clients’ stories based on those private messages she relayed. Though she has changed key details to protect the privacy of these callers, she wanted to go further—to integrate their lived experience into the show, incorporate their truth on their terms.
She was encouraged in this endeavour by Dawn Jani Birley, a Deaf actor seen most recently in Prince Hamlet (Why Not Theatre) and The Black Drum (Soulpepper). Birley offered ideas on how to implement closed captioning and incorporate Deaf actors into the show.
Enter: Tamyka Bullen, Natasha Bacchus and Sage Lovell—three Deaf actors whom she auditioned in Toronto and filmed for special ASL video segments. Working with projection and captioning designer Matthew Koutzun, she implemented the new elements.
During the process, she was inspired by the work of ASL interpreters, who do more than just relay literal content; they invoke the deeper meanings of words through nuanced physicality and facial expression.
Moving beyond the generic ticker-tape text that characterizes most closed captioning, Harris strives to make the experience more vibrant and immersive. By bringing Deaf performers into the show, Harris hopes the subtle shades of meaning are more thoroughly accessible.
“Ultimately, I want the experience to be the best for a Deaf audience.”
Accessibility and inclusion are a priority and Harris has sought feedback on the ASL implementation from a variety of sources—educators, administrators, artists and audiences. The response has been enlightening and encouraging.
During the rest of her Fringe Festival tour, she anticipates more feedback and is looking forward to further tweaking the show to make the most out of this inclusive component.
“I’m excited about where theatre is going in terms of adding that sort of element into productions.”
Reflecting on her run at Ottawa Fringe, Harris exclaims:
“Ottawa has been wonderful!”
She’s delighted by how accommodating they’ve been, lending props and sound equipment and placing her with a technician that she considers one of the best she’s ever had.
And the audiences?
She says this with a giggle, made giddy by the enthusiastic, heartwarming response. She’s especially pleased that it has been resonating with Deaf patrons and is proud to provide an opportunity for representation.
Destiny, USA played at the Toronto Fringe Festival
From July 5 to July 13, 2019
At Streetcar Crowsnest Scotiabank Studio (345 Carlaw Avenue)
On May 13, 2020, Destiny USA
will be featured as part of the National Arts Centre’s Canada Performs series.