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A futuristic mechanical dog, dizzying sights and sounds, and a gigantic robotic arm with a roving camera are featured (alongside Mikhail Baryshnikov) in a modern, immersive adaptation of Chekhov’s The Orchard — but one of the most striking turns in the production is a moment of raw human emotion as Trofimov, played by veteran actor John McGinty, delivers an impassioned, monologue in American Sign Language (ASL), only to find that no one understands him.

Trofimov played by John McGinty takes center stage in The Orchard. Photo: Maria Baranova

The production of Chekhov’s final work starring Baryshnikov and Jessica Hecht opened Off-Broadway last night at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. In it, an early 20th century aristocratic Russian family on the verge of financial collapse sputter about the stage, desperately trying to communicate with each other — a scenario which appealed to McGinty, an actor who is deaf.

Chekhov’s play, while not originally written with ASL in mind, already possessed elements to support the dramatic moment. “Chekhov is all about miscommunication,” signed McGinty. “There’s so much miscommunication in the play — and then the character that I’m playing, I believe he’s a truth-teller. He comes into the world and puts different puzzle pieces together and makes each of the family members be more aware of each other — he’s really the kind of character that brings people in and brings everything together to allow communication.”

McGinty credits Orchard director and adaptor Igor Golyak with much of the freedom to explore the parallels between the challenges of communication in Chekhov’s Russia and in his own career as a deaf actor. “ASL is a language in and of itself, but it’s not literal, and it’s not a literal translation of the script,” he said. 

“The script will sometimes have something that’s a little more poetic, but you want to integrate the intention and meaning behind it into sign language. I loved working with our director because he gave me a lot of freedom not to get stuck to the words and the translation very literally — because if I did that, I wouldn’t be able to provide my authentic experience and my character to the story,” he explained.

Golyak’s focus on communication also extended to his direction of the rest of the company, said McGinty. “He allowed the other characters to figure it out — there’s a deaf individual here, what are their choices for communicating with me? How can we do this? Do they ignore him? Is that a good or bad thing? There are different ways to address it and it’s up to them.”

To accomplish this, it was vital to ensure that, offstage, the actors could all communicate with each other. “Because some of the cast had never worked with a deaf actor before, it was really important from day one to have interpreters, and also what’s called a Director of Artistic Sign Language (DASL) — that person is deaf themselves and they are almost like a voice coach,” explained McGinty.  

“The same way a voice coach will come into rehearsals, a DASL will come in and teach the cast how to sign, so that it’s not my responsibility. It gives them the chance for everyone to do their part and creates cohesiveness, and it’s a very important step in the process,”  he added.  

“It allows us to integrate sign language in the production, though we’re not trying to make it the center of the world of the play. This really is my world — how do I get into their world, and the world of the full project?  You have to come meet me at my world, I can’t come meet you at yours — that’s the authenticity of the piece, to show the audience that this is how deaf people function in the world.”

McGinty relies on specific lighting cues and the subtle cues of his fellow actors to navigate the set safely, but the intense process of working through the challenges of being a deaf performer are something he’s keenly familiar with. The actor, who grew up in Cleveland Ohio in a hearing family didn’t initially imagine himself pursuing the arts. 

“I come from a really business-focused family,” said McGinty. “I didn’t grow up doing anything related to theater, but at the same time, I really enjoyed going to shows. I remember one in particular — when I was eight or nine, I saw The Phantom of the Opera in London.”

“There were no interpreters, no captions, nothing. There was no accessibility for that show, but I thought it was amazing.” said McGinty. “It gave me this lightbulb moment where I thought, ‘I want to be involved in theater,’  but I didn’t know how to at the time. I thought, ‘I’m a deaf person, how would I be an actor? How would I work in that world? Where are the opportunities for me?’”

The cast of The Orchard at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Photo: Pavel Antonov

McGinty instead decided to pursue a degree in finance from Northwestern University — but after graduating, he felt unfulfilled. “ I moved to LA, and saw a casting notice for Pippin at Deaf West Theatre. I was cast in a mix of deaf and hearing actors, and it really lit the fire for me.” He would go on to work at acclaimed theaters across the country, in film and television, and on Broadway in the recent revival of Children of a Lesser God

He’s learned — production by production and set by set — how to fight for a seat at the table.  “I learned that sometimes you have to bow down to the powers-that-be a bit — and that was my approach at the beginning of my career — but eventually I had to turn the tables a bit, and learn that if I don’t speak up, then I can’t do my job,” he added, noting that for veteran deaf actors in the business, “We have to use our combined experiences to create tools for the younger generations and pass them on.” 

While there are some signs of a more inclusive theater industry cropping up —  deaf actress Alexandria Wales appearing in a hearing role in the Broadway revival of for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf and Ali Stroker, the first actor who uses a wheelchair to win the 2019 Tony Award for her performance in the revival of Oklahoma! come to mind — there are strides to be taken to make accessibility the standard and not a special-case, said McGinty. 

DASLs should be “a requirement, honestly,” said McGinty, who hopes that a theatrical union can be created for the position. “Whether it’s film, television, or theater, you need a DASL to show the big picture to the director, because some directors have never lived with the deaf experience.”

John McGinty talks about his role in The Orchard. Photo: Ilona Lieberman

He added: “We really need to see more deaf directors and deaf writers behind the scenes. Why do we have this conversation over and over about inclusivity, when we should just do it? We should just be doing it.” he added. He’s excited to see the work of actors and directors who are deaf like Jules Dameron, Joshua Castille, and Sandra Mae Frank (currently co-directing a production of The Music Man at the Olney Theater Center). 

As for his own career, McGinty hopes to have the chance to audition for new works that aren’t specifically tailored to the need for a hearing or deaf actor. “I would love to see we, as deaf people, getting opportunities to audition for any role —  an equal playing field that’s less of ‘this is a special twist on a production’ and more of,  it’s just part of the production.” 

Which brings him back to his time playing Trofimov, the eternal student of The Orchard.  “What I love about the show is that there’s no mention about me being deaf, or deafness, and that’s what I’d like to see happen more and apply to other roles.” 

In the end, said McGinty, everyone in Chekhov’s world is fighting to be heard — “It’s about connection. There’s loss, and love, and memories, and history involved, but it’s still about presence and connectedness to the moment and with the world around us — that’s what I feel the play is about.” 

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