Less than a year ago, Connor Yuzwenko-Martin (’14 BA) was preparing to graduate from the U of A with a BA in Political Science. He was also gearing up to teach beginner-level American Sign Language (ASL) classes in the fall, offered in partnership with NICA Consolidated, the professional Network of Interpreters, Consultants and Advocates in Edmonton.
Today, he is on the threshold of taking to the Timms Stage to perform the role of Billy in Tribes, the thesis production of MFA Directing candidate Amanda Bergen. Tribes tells the story of a young Deaf man born into a hearing family, none of whom are interested in learning any form of Sign Language. Instead, they have taught Billy to read lips and to speak, so that he may assimilate into the hearing world. When Billy finally encounters Sign Language, however, a whole new world of communication and community opens up for him. This results in a confrontation between Billy’s family and his Deaf identity, leaving him to make a difficult choice between the two. Tribes is a hard-hitting play that brings Deafness front and centre, and presents the audience with some difficult questions.
Yuzwenko-Martin’s Tribes journey began when director Bergen, who was enrolled in his conversational ASL class, approached him to participate in the production. Excited as he was to collaborate in the staging of a Deaf play, he was initially hesitant to play Billy. He felt he would be more suited as a community advocate and organizer for the play. Yet after months of persuasion and personal reflection, he decided to accept the role. With his background as an actor, improviser and social activist, the entire spectrum of his university experience is coming to fruition in his portrayal of Billy.
Throughout his BA, Yuzwenko-Martin was involved in Deaf and queer advocacy at the University of Alberta, serving as co-chair, member-at-large and Secretary of OUTreach, the student group for queer, non-queer identified and allied students. “Some of my most critical learning moments happened as part of OUTreach,” he says, noting that the experience taught him “a great deal about the power of ideas when expressed by authentic people.” Such extracurricular applications of his Political Science degree helped him recognize opportunities for creating social change on an even larger scale. He carries this knowledge to the rehearsal hall for Tribes, an environment where dialogue and collaboration are essential aspects of the process.
As a Deaf actor in a main stage production, Yuzwenko-Martin’s involvement has been made possible by the generous professionals of NICA Consolidated, who have volunteered their time to allow for a truly accessible rehearsal space. Their participation has been invaluable to the larger social dialogue of inclusivity he hopes the play will encourage. The presence of interpreters in rehearsal and on stage during performance makes a marked statement about the future of accessibility, showing both the Deaf and hearing audience that clear, effective communication is ultimately what theatre must strive to deliver — for everyone.
As a recent UAlberta Arts graduate, Yuzwenko-Martin considers his role in Tribes as a way to give back, and also to expand the reach of pedagogy wider into the community. He hopes that the production will cause a ripple of consciousness beyond the walls of the theatre. “That may be the fantasizer political scientist in me speaking,” he says, “but I do hope that the right people see this play – be it the future parents of a Deaf child, or the future administrator of a school, or the future advisor on an educational or medical policy. To me, that would be the perfect example of why our world needs art: to remind ourselves of each other.”
The U of A Studio Theatre production of Tribes by Nina Raine runs May 14 through 23 at the Timms Centre for the Arts. Click here for more information.
An eloquent writer for his own blog, My Chrysalis, Connor has graciously agreed to share some excerpts of his blog posts throughout the rehearsal process for Tribes on the Curious Arts blog:
Tribes rehearsals: sheer velocity
Tribes: act one, scene one
MFA Director Amanda Bergen is seeking your support for the U of A Studio production of Tribes: “We are hoping this play opens up dialogue about accessibility, the Deaf community, and how we can take action to provide a more inclusive space in the theatre.” Click here to support the USEED online fundraising campaign. Your support will go towards the additional production costs of ASL interpreters for the Saturday, May 16 and Saturday, May 23 performances.
Watch the Tribes video teaser here: