"My hands are my voice," says actor Robert Schleifer, slowly and deliberately, as he holds out his palms. "Inflection comes with facial expressions, body language, and visual gestures."
But that wasn't always the case. Born 95 percent deaf to two hearing parents in 1964, Schleifer grew up in West Dundee using his speaking voice to communicate. "Years ago it was an embarrassment to have a deaf child," Schleifer signs through an interpreter. Parents "would teach the child to talk and say, 'Look, my child can talk--everything is fine.'" Schleifer was sent to grammar school with other deaf children who talked. "The goal was for us to be able to communicate with hearing people."
It worked, to an extent. To understand other people's speech, Schleifer read lips. But he grasped some polysyllabic words easier with games of charades; he says his brother once referred to Tennessee by swinging an imaginary tennis racquet and pointing to his eyes.
Schleifer didn't realize sign language existed until high school, when he met someone who used it. "I was shocked. I really thought it was awful and lower class. I didn't want to communicate in that lower-class way," he signs. "My mind-set at the time was that I was hearing."
Schleifer finally confronted his prejudice head-on during his freshman year at Rochester Institute of Technology. His deaf classmates signed, and Schleifer couldn't understand them. Reluctantly he enrolled in an American Sign Language class. To his surprise, his hands became a more fluid voice.
Mostly signing and rarely speaking onstage, Schleifer has starred as Romeo as well as Felix Unger while another actor "voiced" for him--reading his lines from one side of the stage. But landing parts is tough, Schleifer says, since many hearing directors don't know how to use deaf actors. "One of the frustrations I face is that some people will look at a deaf actor and say, "Well I'm sorry you can't speak, the role of that character is a speaking role." Schleifer says these directors are more concerned with the inflection in the character's voice than body movements and facial expressions. Casting deaf actors in speaking parts is "very risky because it's new, but I try to explain the possibilities, hoping they will be open to trying new ideas."
Schleifer is putting his ideas to practice on October 27, when he will direct Samuel Beckett's Act Without Words, a 30-minute, one-act play that'll be performed by a hearing actor at the Bailiwick Repertory. "There is no dialogue, no words," he says. Sounds like whistling will be replaced with flashing lights.
Schleifer chose the play because it reminds him of times in his life when he felt isolated. "I was deaf and alone and trying hard to speak and fit in with the majority culture, with their jobs, and felt like I was doing all of the work," he signs. Schleifer sees Act Without Words as a metaphor for the human condition. "We are alone, nowhere," he says.
Act Without Words will also be performed as part of Bailiwick's sixth annual Director's Festival, along with work by two other deaf directors, James Lomanto and Ronald Jiu. Mother's Nightmare, a comedy directed by Lomanto, features two deaf actors and plays October 17. Top of 16, directed by Jiu, is also a comedy and features both deaf and hearing actors; it plays October 18. All shows begin at 7:30 at the Bailiwick Arts Center, 1229 W. Belmont; tickets are $8. Call 883-1090 or 800-526-0844 (TDD).
Although he loves theater, Schleifer ultimately wants to act in movies and on TV. He may make his film debut in the upcoming remake of Miracle on 34th Street. If he doesn't end up on the cutting-room floor, he'll be waving as Santa's sleigh takes off.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michelle Litvin.