Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Justin Maurer - "Falling on Deaf Eyes"

Justin Maurer (Clorox Girls, Maniac, Suspect Parts) has been a favorite of this blog for many years. Today I want to feature something he is doing outside the realm of music. He has written and produced a play called "Falling on Deaf Eyes" that will be premiering next month at Hollywood Fringe Festival 2019. "Falling on Deaf Eyes" is an autobiographical comedy about a single Deaf mother raising a family of teenage punk rockers in a small town. This production incorporates music, sign language, storytelling, and theatrical visuals along with a team of sign language interpreters to ensure access to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. The play is being directed by Jevon Whetter and will feature the performances of a talented cast of actors and musicians. I had the pleasure of discussing "Falling on Deaf Eyes" with Maurer. Here's what he had to say! 

F & L: "Falling on Deaf Eyes" must be an extremely personal project for you. Have you written about your mother's experiences raising you and your siblings before? How did it come about that this story became a stage production?

JM: The title "Falling on Deaf Eyes" is a play on what my mom used to call her "Deaf eyes". She wouldn't miss anything because her vision was so astute. I remember one time, I walked into the room and she turned her head. I asked her how she knew I was in the room because she couldn't hear me. She said, "I saw the curtain move in the corner of the room...Deaf eyes!"

I did write a few true stories in some chapbooks that were published. I had my dad thrown in jail when I was 16 for assaulting my sister, and I've written a little bit about that. It's a therapeutic experience to just let stuff like that go, and by writing about it, you can also hold the responsible parties accountable. We ended up getting a restraining order against him and moving into low-income housing. My mom was a part-time ASL teacher at the high school, and sometimes we had to eat canned food from the local food bank. Punk rock was a very important outlet for me at this time. And going back and looking at the strength of my mom, I wanted to write something that could show her resilience during this time.

As far as this becoming a stage play, I realized that punk can have a limiting audience, and book readings can have a limited audience. I also realized by working as a freelance ASL Interpreter that many of my performances weren't accessible for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community. I wanted to put together a show that everyone could enjoy, and to also try something new. I've been recording and touring with punk bands since I was 15. I'm 35 now and wanted to give myself a new challenge.

F & L: You are working with some tremendously talented individuals in this production. How did you go about bringing these people into the fold?

JM: You're right! I'm very lucky to have them all on my team. I met Jevon Whetter as he was a striking Deaf teacher during the L.A. teachers' strike. I was friends with his brother Del who told me how experienced Jevon was at acting and directing plays for the National Theatre of The Deaf and Deaf West Theatre. Since this is my first time writing and producing a play, I wanted someone experienced, and also wanted a pair of Deaf eyes on the play to make sure that it's also entertaining for a Deaf audience. Jevon suggested Deaf actor Lisa Hermatz for my mom's character. She is very charismatic, and I think she's perfect for the role. Voice actor Jann Goldsby will be voicing for Lisa. We have Canadian singer/songwriter STACEY writing an original score on piano for the play, and she will be playing it with us live for all of the performances. We also have some very talented ASL interpreters George Balayan and Andrew Leyva working with us. Del Whetter is producing.

This thing all seemed to come together pretty effortlessly. Now we need to put the work in and put some finishing touches on the script and rehearse quite a bit for the four weeks leading up to the show!

F & L: What is your previous experience with stage productions?

JM: In high school on Bainbridge Island, Washington, where the play is set, I worked with the legendary Bob McCallister. He had been in loads of music videos, directed and wrote many plays, and was an all-around inspiration. I remember I was too broke to buy or rent a suit for our high school prom, and he let me borrow a suit. I was in a bunch of plays with him in high school, and since then have not set foot on a theatre stage. I have written quite a bit, though, and all of these mediums are related - scripts, short stories, books, treatments, etc. Luckily for me, I have some very experienced theatre folks on my team who will help bring this vision to fruition.

F & L: Aside from the entertainment value of this production, are you anticipating this being a highly educational experience as well? What would you like people to learn about American Sign Language?

JM: Sure, I'd like hearing people to be aware of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing American experience. They're often a voice that isn't listened to or disregarded. I would like people to expand their curiosity about American Sign Language, but also be aware that along with a language, there's a very rich culture. Storytelling is an important part of this culture as well as performances in ASL. Hopefully we do it justice.

F & L: You've received a great deal of recognition for your work as an ASL Interpreter for the LA teachers' strike. What was that experience like for you?

JM: It was an incredible experience. It was emotional. It was tense. It was inspiring. 32,000 teachers picketing and marching for six days in the rain was a real sight to behold. The rallies had around 50,000 people attending, and included musical performances from groups like Ozomatli, Wayne Kramer, Aloe Blacc, and Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine. Being up on that stage in front of city hall with all of the teachers screaming and chanting, it was something else, man. I won't forget it for the rest of my life. It was such an honor to be a part of, and I have so much respect for all of those teachers who put everything on the line for their students and their communities. As far as the recognition, I was just doing my job. It was an emotional moment, so many of the speeches were filled with passion and emotion. My interpretation reflected this emotion. It was my job to provide equal access to communication for all of the Deaf educators on strike as well as the Deaf and Hard of Hearing parents and students at home who were watching on TV for updates. The strike affected millions of people, and there's approximately 800,000 Deaf and Hard of Hearing people in Southern California, many of them in LA County, with kids in the LA Unified School District. An interpreter should never be the center of attention. But as I was on TV interpreting the press conferences, and was up there on stage interpreting the speeches and musical performances, I did end up getting some attention. I think it's important to note that I was there to provide equal access to the Deaf Community, not for any other reason. I'm so fortunate to have been able to have been a part of that inspiring movement.

F & L: How did the experience of growing up with a Deaf single mother inform you as an artist?

JM: My mom could feel music, but being profoundly Deaf, she couldn't hear it. She loved feeling the bass in the car. So I could blast music driving around with her. She was supportive, although she wished I would spend more time studying or doing school work rather than spending endless hours playing guitar and drums. She also saw punk fashion as being directly related to people who used drugs. She also was confused by the bondage thing, spiky hair, mohawks. She didn't really understand that part of it. She was ostracized her whole life for being different; she just wanted to fit in. Having kids with green mohawks certainly didn't help that ambition of hers. But that said, she let us have band practice in the basement, she let us throw shows in the basement. So she was cool as a mom; she was supportive of us in that way. God bless her for putting up with us.

F & L: I see you have seven performance dates scheduled for this production. Do you envision continuing this production again in the near future?

JM: Yes, there are seven shows as a part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. I would love to tour with the show. We've gotten a little interest up in Seattle, where this show is set. So I'd love to go up there and do it. I also found out that the Bainbridge Island Museum is doing an exhibit on Bainbridge Punk and Youth Culture. This show is set on the 1990s on Bainbridge Island, so I would personally love to do a performance on Bainbridge as well as in Seattle. It's amazing that the museum up there is legitimizing all of the trouble we caused as a legitimate form of art 20 years later. Back then the cops would shut down many of our shows. We'd have to hide in the bushes 'cause we were drinking underage. Neighbors would call the police on our band practices and our shows. It's nice to see the adults on Bainbridge now perhaps changing their perspective on the music we made and the shows we threw. We created something out of nothing. Kind of like this play.
More info and tickets to "Falling On Deaf Eyes" are here: 

IG: @fallingondeaf
IG: @maurerjustin
Twitter: @justinmaurer17

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