With Deafness a Central Issue of the Play “Tribes,” Theatre Students Embrace Challenge of Learning Sign Language

"Tribes," NWU student-directed show

Anna Sell (right), an acting major from Kansas City, Mo., enlisted the help of Casey Cyganowski, an athletic training major from Mansfield, Texas, to teach sign language to her and the cast of "Tribes," which Sell will direct May 6-8. "I wanted a show that was going to challenge me this semester," said Sell. Cyganowski will sign each performance.

"Tribes," NWU student-directed play

"Tribes" is a play about a deaf boy whose family makes every effort to ensure he doesn't feel different. In their efforts, he never learned sign language or embraced his deafness until he meets Sylvia who introduces him to the deaf community. NWU junior Anna Sell discovered the play during her study abroad experience in London.

"Tribes," NWU student-directed play

Cast members spent weeks learning American Sign Language (ASL) for the play, "Tribes." "We wanted to do the show justice and do this as authentic as possible and use ASL," said Anna Sell, who is student-directing the play. The play runs May 6-8 in the Studio Theatre.

"Tribes," NWU student-directed show
"Tribes," NWU student-directed play
"Tribes," NWU student-directed play

Last year when Anna Sell studied abroad in London she made a visit to a local bookstore where she skimmed through plays hoping to find inspiration for the play she would direct the following year. 

She came upon the play, “Tribes,” and never looked back. 

“I read through it and knew that was it,” said the junior directing major from Kansas City, Mo. “I wanted a show that was going to challenge me.”

“Tribes” tells the story of Billy, a deaf boy in a family of five.  The family makes every effort to ensure he doesn’t feel different, including never teaching him sign language.  In their efforts to normalize his life, they neglect Billy from embracing his deafness.  Billy eventually meets Sylvia, the lone member of her family who can hear. Sylvia, who is going deaf herself, helps Billy learn sign language and introduces him to the deaf community. 

To best embrace the roles of this play, Sell turned to first-year student and athletic training major, Casey Cyganowski who has extensive experience with American Sign Language (ASL).

“We wanted to do the show justice and do this as authentic as possible and use ASL,” said Sell.

Cyganowski taught sign language to Sell and then the rest of the cast members. Hours of practice and rehearsals will culminate when the student-directed show opens on Monday, May 6. 

Cyganowski started by showing the cast video recordings of her signing each line and eventually, subtitles. In recent weeks, Cyganowski worked with individual cast members to practice the finer details of pacing and emotion. 

“They’ve picked it up so well and they’ve surpassed my expectations,” said Sell.

“I couldn’t do this without her,” Sell said of Cyganowski.

Cyganowski initially auditioned for a role in “Tribes” after learning that it included sign language. Sell asked if she would be willing to sign each performance to accommodate the deaf community in attendance.

Cyganowski graduated from Mansfield Legacy High School in Mansfield, Texas, where she took sign language classes. She performed in her high school’s production of “Beauty and the Beast,” signing the part of its lead character, Belle. 

“Working with a play previously made this experience easier,” said Cyganowski. “I had to think about if the audience can see your hands and if they can see your face. It gave me the confidence to tackle this play.” 

“One of the best parts of working on the play was seeing people so happy to work on it,” she added. “I love helping any way I can and seeing people who are so excited and respectful and willing to learn is really exciting.”

The play did not come without its challenges.  Time management was hard, Sell said, as cast members balanced her show with other NWU theatre productions. And learning a new language was a new challenge that they’ve never done for a play.  

“It was trial and error. It was a struggle, but we made it work as a team,” said Sell. 

Sell’s new insight and perspective has solidified her passion for directing. 

“It’s creative problem solving. It makes you grow as a person, it challenges you,” said Sell. “I studied abroad so I haven’t directed since last year. It’s great to step back into the shoes of a director.”

In the future Sell hopes to direct theater with hopes of one day directing on Broadway.  

“I’m just excited I’m going to be able to do this for a living,” she said.

“Tribes” will be performed Monday, May 6 at 8 p.m., Tuesday, May 7 and Wednesday, May 8 at 7:30 p.m. The shows will be held in the Studio Theatre, located at 2710 North 48thStreet. Admission is free. The play is rated R for language.


Story by Kelsea Porter, public relations intern.