Guest editor Sandra Alland interviews Brooklyn Melvin about Deaf acting training, their first professional role, cancellation, and the future.
When Deaf actor Brooklyn Melvin scored the lead in the 2020 Ramps On The Moon / Leeds Playhouse co-production of Oliver Twist, it was their first big break. But I’d already been a fan for years.
In 2015, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland began a first-of-its-kind programme, Performance in British Sign Language and English. A new colleague at the time, Bea Webster, told me she was pursuing the BA in Glasgow. So I followed the inaugural cohort of ten Deaf students over the next three years. It’s no surprise that Brooklyn, and many of their classmates, have gone on to exciting careers. Every production I saw was fire.
By the time Brooklyn entered the program, they had already studied acting with Solar Bear’s Deaf Youth Theatre. But RCS offered an extended and wide-ranging opportunity. As Brooklyn puts it, “We did training like acting foundation, devising, movement, text, visual theatre. And a module class where we could pick other topics like music, dance, lighting, prop-making. We got the opportunity to explore new things.”
It can’t be understated how important such programmes are for Deaf performers. Separate and/or inadequately-accessible UK schools and universities, and a resulting lack of opportunities, mean that many Deaf people (especially BSL-users) are cut off from higher education.
“I thought I would never go to university,” Brooklyn tells me from rehearsal via email. “I just thought I didn’t have the potential because of my poor education. BA Performance showed me that it wasn’t just about intellectual (background), it’s also about who you are as a person and what you give in the space.”
Glasgow has now turned out some of the country’s best (and the only trained) Deaf actors. But graduates have had to leave for England and Wales to get work. Bea Webster was cast in Red Ladder Theatre’s Mother Courage and Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2020 season. EJ Raymond featured in Crucible Theatre’s My Mother Said I Never Should, Jamie Rea in 4.48 Psychosis with Deafinitely Theatre / New Diorama, and Ciaran Stewart in the Manchester-based TV series Traces. The list of accomplishments is long, but all south of border.
Brooklyn says, “I feel Scotland’s theatres are behind at the moment. We are ready for Scotland’s mainstream theatres, they just need to ask Deaf actors what they need. We need to work together to support each other to make theatres accessible. But not only Deaf (performers and crew), what about wheelchair-users, blind people, and other disabilities?’
On Twitter in February 2020, Bea Webster wrote:
– I had more auditions in England than the whole cohort (myself included) had auditions in Scotland since graduation. Apart from accessible theatres/own work/contemporary/smaller theatres none of us have been in a Scottish mainstream production.
— Bea Webster (@bea_p_webster) February 16, 2020
Brooklyn’s own break came from Leeds Playhouse’s Oliver Twist co-production with Ramps on the Moon. The show opened in February 2020 in Leeds, and was booked to tour throughout England until June. It was a huge success, earning four stars in The Guardian and fabulous audience feedback. But sadly, as with most current live arts productions, Covid-19 shut it down.
It’s unfortunate a streamed version of Bryony Lavery’s adaptation couldn’t be funded to continue online, as this Oliver Twist seems especially apt for our times. (Or is it just that ongoing class oppression, and the connected mistreatment of Deaf and disabled people, are more obvious in a crisis?) The production features several Deaf and disabled actors, including Caroline Parker as Fagin, Steph Lacy as Swifty, and Nadeem Islam as the Artful Dodger.
Lavery’s adaptation has Oliver using a mixture of silence, speaking, and British Sign Language, as learning BSL is part of his journey. Brooklyn adds: “There’s one point Oliver will be using Visual Vernacular (VV), a physical theatre technique with elements of poetry and mime primarily performed by Deaf artists. Its storytelling style combines strong movement with gestures and facial expressions, to capture the world in all its visual complexity.”
Oliver Twist also has integrated audio description and captioning, and makes reference to Deaf history, including the international banning of sign language at the Milan Conference in 1880. Talking about working with Brooklyn on the show, director Amy Leach says:
“Playing Oliver Twist is a tough ask for an actor… He is bullied, abused, manipulated and taken advantage of numerous times. And in this version, we have the added aspect that Oliver is a Deaf child in Victorian Britain, so all the more isolated and oppressed. So it’s been hard-going for Brooklyn to embody this character, but Brooklyn brings such joy to the rehearsal room. They have such a warm, mischievous sense of humour.”
Brooklyn says of the role: “What I like is the fact he’s Deaf in this play, so it’s an interesting journey for Oliver as a Deaf person. There are certain ways that I relate to Oliver, so there are times where I forget to separate myself. There will definitely be a lot of Deaf people that relate to him.”
It’s gutting to write an article about an actor who’s had a show cancelled. Brooklyn, and many young artists like them, have lost not only vital income but also work that’s personally and politically life-changing. I caught up with Brooklyn after the bad news, to ask how they’re feeling: “When I found out about the whole tour cancellation, it was heartbreaking for me, as we had all just built love and trust, and were having a good time together. I didn’t want to come back home.”
In an environment where there are virtually no jobs going, it will be even more difficult to find BSL-centred Scottish roles, and especially roles that also embrace genderqueer casting. All the more reason to make sure we keep supporting multiply-marginalised Deaf artists in these times.
But Brooklyn is full of hope for the future. They plan to work with co-actor Nadeem Islam (Artful Dodger) on sign-song music videos, and to develop a film script they started while at RCS. They tell me they dream of Oliver Twist picking up where it left off, and they’re feeling more positive: “Now I’m back in Scotland, I have processed it. It’s all going to be okay, I say to myself. I will see them again, and we all still keep in touch.”
Stay tuned for Brooklyn’s upcoming theatre, film and sign-song videos. They’re on Twitter at @BrookTheDreamer, and they’ve started a sign-song account on Instagram @BrooklynSignSong. Professional updates are posted to their Infinity Artists agency page.
Sandra Alland bio (audio):
Sandra Alland is guest editor at DAO from 25th March to 26th April. Check out all San’s commissioned pieces on their Project page. Audio versions of all pieces can be found on San’s dedicated SoundCloud channel.