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Gael Hannan on The Hard of Hearing Actor’s Nightmare

The (Hard of Hearing) Actor’s Nightmare

By Gael Hannan, 2/28/2012 at Hearing Health Matters

You’re standing on a stage in front of hundreds of people. You’re about to start your speech when you think, “I don’t know the lines. Or the play. Hey, I’m not even an actor!”

The actor’s nightmare – every actor has a personal version. A friend of mine dreams of arriving at the theatre to find they’re doing Act III that night – but the play only has two acts! My nightmare? Just as I walk on the stage, I’m told to start singing because we’re doing the show as an opera tonight. I’m not a singer.

A hearing actor might dream that during a show, all of a sudden he can’t hear very well. What did that character just say? Was that the doorbell – or not? What’s that sound going on behind me?

That dream is my reality – the hard-of-hearing actor.

Onstage, I need the same communication access I need in real life – visual cues, good lighting, and face-to-face interaction – which are not always possible in live theatre. Acting is about reacting to other actors and situations, not necessarily what the script says should be happening. Hearing loss can pose a challenge in the immediacy of theatre; when something or someone goes off-script, it’s up to the actors to stay in character and get things back on track.

From age 6, I wanted to be an actress. I probably really just wanted to be famous and admired, but to me that meant being an actress. In our early teens, my friend and I took drama lessons from a delightful but mad Englishwoman who wrote incomprehensible children’s plays. We had no idea what we were saying but I loved prancing around the stage and my hearing loss didn’t pose a problem, because I didn’t have to listen to anyone else; we just spouted our lines.

My friend went on to a successful stage career, but I stopped acting until age 30, when I discovered the joys of good community theatre. By this time, my hearing loss was moderately severe and I had to be open with directors and fellow actors about my communication needs. During the rehearsal period, we would try to anticipate problems and the director would “block” the scenes to my advantage so that I could see the faces of the other actors.

Still, because it’s live theatre, things do go off-script. And since actors love to share theater anecdotes, here a few of my choice theatrical nightmares.

Deaf in the Dark

I don’t hear well in the dark, and I don’t like moving around in it, so stage cues, entrances and exits are my biggest challenge. Entering in the dark has to be well-orchestrated and glow tape on the floor helps me find my mark; otherwise it’s easy to crash into tables and other actors.

Exits in the dark are another matter. In one show, several actors had to exit quickly through two narrow doors and one actor was supposed to guide me through. One night, inexplicably, I was left to flounder off by myself. I completely missed the doorway and when the lights came up, supposedly on the next scene, I was still feeling my way along the back wall in search of the bloody door. I straightened my shoulders and exited – only to turn around and re-enter immediately. No time to collapse backstage. Is it any wonder that that some actors have a reputation for drinking?

For an entrance in the middle of a scene, I usually keep my eye on the stage manager who motions when it’s time to enter. In one show, it was so dark backstage that she would hold my wrist, and release it as my entrance cue. One night, she was distracted and let go of my wrist; in I sailed – about two pages of dialogue too soon! The panic on the actors’ faces was nothing, apparently, compared to the sight of the stage manager freaking out backstage. Luckily, I’m very good at improvising two pages of script into three lines!

Did You Hear Something?

Sound cues such as doorbells and phones ringing are my arch-enemies. Onstage, if a sound cue is late or simply fails to occur, actors must find a way to work around it. But what about the hard-of-hearing actor who doesn’t hear that a sound hasn’t happened? During a busy scene in The Odd Couple (Female Version), it went like this:

Gael (in character, picking up phone): Hello?

(Phone rings).

(Huge audience laugh.)

Gael: Damn phone never works right.

From that time on, someone gave me a discreet visual cue to let me know when the phone actually rang.

Those Darn Hearing Aids!

During a volatile scene with another actor, I was to pull off my sweatshirt and fling it on the floor. The neck-hole caught the back of my BTE aid, which flopped around my ear, and my hands and head became tangled in the sleeves. 250 people watched, fascinated, as I battled and cursed (in character, of course). After what seemed like an eternity, the other actor barked, “What the hell are you doing, girl?” The sweatshirt flew off, taking my hearing aid with it. I retrieved my hearing aid, made an elaborate show of putting it back in, and yelled back – “PARDON?” Brought the house down, but it was hours before my pulse was back to normal. Now you know why some actors drink!

When All Else Fails…

That wasn’t the only time I’ve had to give my character a little hearing loss. During opening night of Steel Magnolias, as the hairdresser Truvy, I was so focused on curling someone’s hair that I forgot my lines and we all got completely mucked up. As I continued to do hair, praying for the stage to open up and swallow me, another actress came and whispered in my ear. She whispered! In my ear! I said, “Listen, honey, you know my hearin’ hasn’t been the same since he’s been shootin’ that damn gun of his. Now y’all just come around and say to my face whatever you’re tryin’ to whisper!” I’m sure I drank that night.

These days, my acting focuses on hearing loss with my solo shows Unheard Voices and EarRage! Just me, the captioner and hearing loss, and still things go wrong! But that’s the joy of theatre. I wouldn’t have it any other way.