To start off Better Speech and Hearing Month, I was fortunate enough to talk to an actor and person I greatly admire. John McGinty is an actor who happens to be Deaf. He learned American Sign Language in college, and continues to use it today. After having this conversation with him, I can personally vouch for the fact that he’s an all-around great person. He shared so much with me about his recent performance in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, what it was like for him growing up, and his positive messages on self-advocacy and moving beyond labels.
StageSLP: What drew you into theatre initially?
John: I remember when I went to London with my Grandma and we saw Phantom of the Opera. I was around nine or ten. At the time, there was no caption, no interpreter, nothing. Even though I didn’t understand the whole story, visually, through the costumes and the story and their aura, I was so attracted to that. Then, I didn’t think it was what I wanted to do, but I grew up with a desire to see different theatre. Then I went to Clarke School for the Deaf at 12. One of the teachers noticed that my confidence was horrible, and this teacher wanted me to join the drama club. I said it wasn’t my thing, I wanted to play sports. Finally, I went in and I played the Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. It became an addiction to theatre, and my self-esteem, confidence, everything increased. It was more for my health and my socialization. I didn’t think it would eventually be a career. I actually studied finance at Northeast college. My first professional job was with Deaf West Theatre with Pippin. That’s where I started to realize that’s what I wanted to do rather than a 9-5 job.
S: That’s a great way in! Everyone has their own way in. You were just in Hunchback of Notre Dame and it’s one of my favorite stories. From the clips I’ve seen online, it looks like you’re the only actor signing.
J: I was the only Deaf actor in the show. Some of the other actors also signed in the show. In the original text by Victor Hugo, Quasimodo goes deaf from ringing the bells.
S: Did they make that a part of the storyline?
J: There are a lot of themes in the story. Society thinks that the majority rules, and it’s not worth communicating with the minority groups. It takes one other human to give strength to another person. You can find your strength to become part of the whole, we’re all equals. That’s our message in the show.
S: That’s an incredible message. Wow!
J: You know, a lot of people don’t know how I got into the show. When I saw the casting call breakdown, I said “okay, why not?” Originally, they were looking for a hearing actor. My agent was very helpful and supportive throughout the process of me pursuing this particular role. I emailed the director and asked if he’d be open to seeing an actor who happens to be Deaf. Fortunately, he had experience working with actors who were Deaf, but not within a musical. The creative team, who was very open, said, “He’s an actor like anybody else.” The first run of the production only had a rehearsal process of nine days.
S: Oh my gosh. You are a superhero. Nine days? That’s insane.
J: Well, the hearing actors had to learn to speak it in nine days, I had to learn to sign it in nine days. Everyone was in the same boat as me. What was important for me was to open the barriers so that the next generation doesn’t feel so oppressed. If I can do it, you can do it too.
S: I can’t express how much it means to me to hear you say that. The hardest thing to explain to someone who doesn’t get it is that there’s something beyond the label attached to you. That’s something I am working on in the school and that’s something you’re championing as well.
J: It doesn’t happen overnight. I think it takes a lot of support. It’s not as easy as it sounds. I realize it is okay to ask for help. I still ask for help, regardless. It doesn’t matter what age, gender, there are no rules within the book. Throw the book out. a individual has our own desire for how we want things to go. It doesn’t happen overnight, but don’t be afraid to ask for help.
S: Is it hard for you to transition in and out of the characters you play?
J: Yes and no. Within my profession, the idea is you leave work at work. I’ve had two roles I’ve had a hard time detaching from. It’s common when you go to work, you leave work at work and not bring it home. I try to do this, but it can be challenging. These parts have been easy for me to connect to; I’ve been isolated. I know what it’s like to live in a world where we don’t speak the same language. So I’m able to bring that onto the stage and it’s tough, but I keep reminding myself all of the good things that happened in my life. And if I didn’t go through those negative experiences, I wouldn’t be here today. I’d be lying if I said I go home after work, and I’m good.
S: So how do you shift your perspective?
J: One sentence: Things will get better. Give them time. You can’t say oh you have to have a better day. They can’t do that. Everyone has their own process and you just have to trust that things will get better. I was very passive aggressive growing up, and I’d get too defensive. I tried to find balance and I learned what worked best for me. Life is too short.
S: What was school like for you? Did you always have the support you needed?
J: Over the course of my education, I was in 6 different schools. My first language was American Sign Language (ASL), I went to a signing Pre-K-Kindergarten program. Then I went to a school with an oral/aural approach with a focus on speaking and listening skills through 4th grade. From there, I went to a private school with no support—no signing, no interpreting. In 5th grade I transferred to Clarke School for the Deaf in Massachusetts. I’m originally from Cleveland, so I lived there with all of the other students. That was the best time of my life because we had one sense of community. We were all Deaf, we could empathize with all of our needs, we were one big family. It only went up to 9th grade, so at the end of freshman year, I had to go back to Cleveland. Back home, I was the only kid in school who was Deaf. I had an interpreter. The amount of lip-reading required in a school day wore me out. The best part of high school was when I was allowed to study away and go on the road and perform. We all need to find what’s best for ourselves, that’s the bottom line. There’s a lot I’d change but I’d go through it again because it got me where I am today.
S: That’s so many academic transitions with that many different levels of support. That’s a lot on you. That’s commendable.
J: Thank you, but I am so thankful for my family. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know what today would look like.
S: I agree. There is no support system like someone’s family.
J: It’s interesting. Some people aren’t sure how to self-advocate. It’s okay to advocate for yourself, and it’s hard to figure out how much to do this. I include myself in this. In this profession, when I’ve been offered to try something, I ask if it’s okay if I can have an ASL interpreter. Sometimes, when they get that email, the offer has been rescinded. Should I keep quiet for the sake of my career or do I speak up? You have to speak up for what you need and not worry about what other people think. Analyze each situation and think about the conclusion if you do speak up, and its impact on you and the world.
S: See, this is why I really am not a fan of labels. We’re all people with our own abilities and have different ways of accessing the world. My students really just want to shake off whatever label has been assigned to them. What would you say to them?
J: I don’t believe in labels either. That label becomes constant and I’m careful about how I identify myself. The press likes to call me the Deaf actor, because they think it’s empowering enough for who I am. My personal belief is that I’m just an actor who happens to be Deaf. If I didn’t, people would assume I can only play the Deaf character. People have asked me “Who are you?” Did I have to pick one word to define me? Am I male? Deaf? White? So now when people ask me, I use my name, and I have a lot of layers within me. I encourage the people with other abilities to find their allies and see them as human. For example, no one with Autism is the same as another person with Autism. It’s a spectrum. If you’ve met one person, you’ve met one person. You want to be within the community. Whether it’s at home, or at work or in your free time. You want to be with the people who want to be with you and not for them. “For” is a dangerous word, meaning you’re beneath them. You just have to move on and leave the people that you feel aren’t a fit for you alone and keep moving forward through life.
S: Exactly. What are you up to now?
J: This summer, I’m going back with Berkshire Theatre Group to do Children of a Lesser G-D directed by Kenny Leon. I will probably be reprising my role in Hunchback in Seattle in the summer of 2018.
John is a great actor, and I’m so glad I got to talk to him about the arts and what school was like for him. I hope this has encouraged you to go check out some of John’s work.
I educate others about my profession all year long. If I had any say, I’d change the name of this month to be more inclusive. When we think of language as a society, we think of speaking. As a speech pathologist, I think of it as communication by any means. This includes sign language, comprehension and use of nonverbal pragmatic skills, picture exchange, assistive technology–you name it. All of these have their own rules for meaning, content, and use. My knowledge of American Sign Language is limited to the one class I took in college, but I think it’s a beautiful language, and I love it’s structure. It gets to the point much faster than English in its grammatical structure, which I think would serve many of my students well. Here is my challenge to you: consider the different languages you use every day–I promise you use more than one. Pay attention to how you code-switch, or change how you speak, between conversational partners. Watch your nonverbal language too–folded arms, eyerolls, slouching–all of these body positions convey a meaning to the person receiving the message. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn about yourself.
Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP