Joseph Ausanio told me that he knew from the time he was about seven that he wanted to become an actor.
“My mom had taken me to see ‘Children of a Lesser God,’ and when I saw Marlee Matlin, I thought, ‘I want to be like that,’ ” he said.
Actually, that doesn’t sound particularly unusual. Many young people dream of becoming actors when they grow up.
But Joseph Ausanio, who will take on the character of Billy in the Lean Ensemble’s production of Nina Raine’s award-winning “Tribes” when the show opens Jan. 26, was not the typical 7-year-old. About the time he turned four, following a frightening battle with bacterial meningitis, he was diagnosed as profoundly deaf.
“My family was devastated,” said Ausanio. “No one in our family was deaf. They could not imagine that something like this would ever affect any of us. My dad, a major league baseball player, and my mom, were determined to see to all of my special requirements. I had cochlear implant surgery, and they befriended a deaf couple and arranged for me to spend time with them and connect with them in their silent world.
“Above all,” he continued, “my parents wanted to make sure that I experienced a typical childhood and that I was viewed by everyone as simply a member of our family. Though I had an interpreter, took speech therapy and I worked way beyond my classroom requirements, I wasn’t given any particular accommodations for my hearing loss. I was mainstreamed in school, succeeded academically. I was always involved in the school’s sports programs. ... And, so importantly, I would speak. I would not use sign language, and they wouldn’t either.”
“I was surprised,” said Ausanio, “when I realized that my personal life paralleled, in so many ways, Billy’s — my character in “Tribes.” ... He also was required to connect with his family, friends and his broader community by speaking.”
The 25-year-old actor has enjoyed a fast acceleration from his college days at Rochester Institute of Technology and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, with early performing and writing opportunities in New York and Van Nuys, Calif. He has recently appeared in a number of plays and musicals and auditioned for the role of Billy in the New York and Boston productions of “Tribes.”
“That early experience with ‘Tribes’ completely opened my eyes,” said Ausanio. “I am Billy. I know how Billy feels. I am thrilled to have auditioned for and been given that part in Lean’s ‘Tribes.’ ”
Ausanio was incredibly charming. We talked, we laughed, we concentrated on each other’s words. I spoke slowly and directly, and so did he. Only a couple of times did we resort, with a laugh, to pencil and paper.
It was probably 30 minutes into our time together when it occurred to me that our conversation was exactly the kind of communication that his character, Billy, was challenging in “Tribes.” The rules, the subtle nuances, the undertones — which are so dramatically integral to communicating in sign language — were absent. I realized how much I was missing about Joseph Ausanio and the way he graciously shared his story.
Actually, the importance of my observation and that consideration is the critical basis upon which the play was written and produced.
We talked further, and he reminded me of his comfort in speaking and pointed out that I would see him sign at the performance. Later, I asked Ausanio what he thought would be the message that our Hilton Head audiences would remember most.
“You know ... ‘Tribes’ raises a lot of questions and makes us think about so many things,” said Ausanio. “I hope everyone will remember that one of life’s greatest gifts is to be heard in his or her own language.”
I spoke with Blake White, founding artistic and executive director of Lean Ensemble Theater and director of this production of “Tribes.”
I asked him, first, about Lean Ensemble Theater and what his motivation was for selecting “Tribes.”
“One of the reasons Lean Ensemble Theater exists is to offer the chance for audience members to look at the world in a different way,” said White. “ ‘Tribes’ certainly offers that chance. It offers not only an inspection of the deaf community, but also family, how we communicate, and I think, most importantly, how we love.”
“This is ambitious storytelling,” explained White. “This is storytelling that asks everyone — cast members, designers, crew, certainly me, and an audience — to do a little more than just show up at the theater. If you come ready to be a part of this story, your time will not only be well spent, but you will head home with a head full of new ideas, new perceptions and perhaps the desire to hold a loved one a little tighter.”
Artist, musician, teacher and writer Nancy K. Wellard focuses on portraying and promoting the cultural arts, first in Los Angeles and, for close to 30 years, in the Lowcountry. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other cast members
- Megan Bowers (Ruth) is an actor/comedian based in New York City. She is an ensemble member of Lean Ensemble Theater after appearing as Cassandra in last season’s “Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike” and Louise in “The Underpants.”
- Jerry Durkin (Christopher) is a member of Actors’ Equity and SAG/AFTRA and most recently appeared as John Barrymore in “I Hate Hamlet” and as the title character in Hugh Leonard’s “Da.”
- Ian McCabe (Daniel) makes his on-stage debut with Lean. Some of his favorite acting credits include “The Lonesome West,” “Boeing Boeing” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
- Sarah Newhouse (Beth) returns to the Lean Ensemble after last season’s “The Waverly Gallery.” She is a founding company member of the Actor’s Shakespeare Project, with which she has performed more than 20 roles in 11 years.
- Prentiss Standridge (Sylvia) is a native of Greenville and serves as a teaching artist for the Warehouse and the Metropolitan Arts Council there. She is a graduate of the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities and received a BFA in acting from the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Training Program.
IF YOU GO
▪ What: “Tribes” by Lean Ensemble Theater
▪ Where: Hilton Head Preparatory School Main Street Theatre
▪ When: Performances at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 26-28 and Feb. 2-4, and matinees at 2 p.m. Jan. 29 and Feb. 5
▪ Tickets: Evening performances $40, matinee $35, students/active military $15
▪ For info: 843-715-6676 or www.leanensemble.org