CHESTER — Though war is a recurring theme in theater, it is rarely depicted from the trenches. But a new musical written and directed by Marshall Pailet promises not only musically theatrical depictions of World War I trench warfare, but from the point of view of a deaf man.
Inspired by true events, Private Jones, which began previews on Oct. 13 at Goodspeed Musicals’ Norma Terris Theatre at 33 N. Main St. and runs through Nov. 5, tells the story of Private Gomer Jones, played by Johnny Link, a deaf Welsh sniper who enlists in the British Army and fights in the trenches.
In what might have been just a brief footnote in the history of World War I, Pailet has found a story that has been a creative challenge for him, bringing a perspective not often presented on stage, and even more rare, presenting it musically.
“I had been interested in World War I,” Pialet said. “I was in a phase where I was reading a lot of books, listening to podcasts, and watching movies. I was interested in a trench warfare story.”
Digging around online, he said he came across a couple of sentences about a deaf sniper.
“I did a lot of research and digging to find out what I could about this person, which is not much,” he said. “My brain began to explode with theatrical possibility. How would you theatricalize a war experience where you can’t hear the bullets, you can’t hear the explosions? What does a silent war scene look like? Where does the music come from? How does this world move and could you incorporate sign language and spoken word into one theatrical language?”
Pailet said he started by creating a sound template, using Foley sound effects. Foley effects are the use of props to create sound. For theater, it is usually used to create a sound that isn’t seen by the audience.
“In the first scene, he’s a boy and hasn’t lost his hearing yet,” he said of Jones. “We have all of these sounds onstage that have these emotional representations. We would create the soundscape. From the second scene onward he’s lost his hearing, but that soundscape continues. No new textures are added to it. I thought, if I could pull this off, this could be something exciting.”
In order to represent the experience of deafness onstage, Pailet uses a variety of storytelling elements to give the audience some sensory connection with Jones.
“We want people invested in the characters and the story and emotion,” Pailet said. “The foley, the ensemble, the music, everything is illustrating one character’s perspective for the most part.
He reads lips. The words he sees spoken, he understands and we hear. So we basically hear and see what he sees. There are moments when he’s not seeing something and there are moments of silence or moments of strangeness. Hopefully we teach the audience to see things from his perspective.”
Private Jones uses a creative team of hearing, deaf, and hard of hearing artists, he said, and is designed to cater to a mixed lingual audience as well.
“We want a hearing or deaf or hard of hearing audience member to understand everything the whole time,” he said.
In order to achieve that vision, he said, everything has to be visual.
“If it’s only aural, we haven’t done our jobs,” he said. “It has to be visual and aural at all times so all of the information from a plot perspective and character perspective, and an emotional perspective, it’s being received from all of the audience members equally.”
The Celtic influenced score, he said, drives the story, but it also will play a role in presenting the deaf and hard of hearing experience.
“There are moments we go in and out of Gomer’s perspective and sound and lighting does a lot to shape that,” he said. “We find musical and visual ways of going in and out of his head.”
Since Jones wasn’t born deaf, sensory memory is represented from what is experienced in the first scene of the musical while he still has his hearing to represent what’s going on around him, Pailet said.
“You can take those four instruments and change them,” he said of the four piece music ensemble, “change the intensity to create his version of the sounds of war, the music of war, the tension of a battle scene.”
Though there has been a learning curve for himself and other creative members of the Private Jones team, he said to help with the communication between actors who are either hearing, deaf, or hard of hearing, there are three interpreters on staff led by Alexandria Wailes, Director of Artistic Sign Language.
“She’s both translating my written word into sign language and is the deaf authority in the room,” he said.
As director, he said, he had to create visual cues for the deaf and hard of hearing cast members.
“It takes time to coordinate all the visual cues so that the audience doesn’t even know,” he said. “In every scene there are tons of cues guiding the company around.”
Deaf theater does occasionally pop up in professional theater, like productions of Deaf West Theatre’s productions of Spring Awakening and Big River. Then there is the Tony Award winning play Children of a Lesser God. But overall, it’s few and far between and Pailet said he’s glad to be creating an opportunity for deaf and hard of hearing artists.
“It’s important that the show is shaped by people who have lived the experience of being hard of hearing or deaf,” he said. “I think it’s good to have more representation out there and have jobs available for those who normally don’t get exposure.”
Once this production of Private Jones completes its run at the Nora Terris, it is transferring to Arlington, Virginia, where it will have a run at the Signature Theatre, opening Feb. 6.
Editor’s note: The previous headline referred to Goodspeed Opera, while the organization is Goodspeed Musicals.