Deaf Actor Russell Harvard Discusses Starring in the Off-Broadway Show, ‘Tribes’

In the off-Broadway show Tribes, a young deaf man, Billy, struggles with his relationship with his hearing parents who have difficulty accepting Billy’s disability.

The actor playing Billy comes with the kind of experience that most actors couldn’t replicate: Russell Harvard really is deaf.  Best known for his performance as the adult HW in There Will Be Blood, Harvard talks about his preparation for the difficult role with The Wall Street Journal.

Since the play takes place in England, Billy had to learn to speak with a British accent.  Of course, this was challenging for Harvard, yet he had no issue confronting the challenge, pointing out, “My friends told me that I seem to have a Texas accent, so I really have to try and practice this British accent. They have a dialect coach that works with the cast and works with me. Speaking is not my first language, right?”

It was also difficult for Billy to “speak” in American Sign Language while speaking with a British accent.  He explains, “It’s like if you were trying to speak English and Spanish at the very same time. There are not so many times that I actually have to speak and sign at the very same time in this show, and that’s good. There are a few places where I have to do it. To me, that’s a big challenge.”

Harvard gives a lot of credit to director David Cromer for helping him with the difficult role.  He says, “He’s very straight. We’re very honest with each other. We change whatever needs to be changed. I absorb it. My first job, I had a hard time doing that. Back at my very first theater experience, it was hard to adapt and change. That’s a long time ago and I’ve learned now. I always say to myself, ‘Be an amoeba—don’t be concrete.’ As an actor, you want to be flexible. You want to accept the director’s feedback. It’s not criticism.”

Tribes opens March 4 at the Barrow Street Theatre.

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