Arts & Culture

Dana Oland: Idaho Theater for Youth play features a deaf character and a tale about homelessness.

Music echoes through Boise’s Lowell School cafetorium as Lia Chapman pops out from behind a boxcar. The audience of second-graders through sixth-graders claps along as Chapman sets up a VHS camera and rolls out an easel stacked with title cards, like those used in silent films.

Chapman turns each card to greet her audience. “I’m Maggie Lumiere,” one reads. “Hi!” the children say. “How’s the music?” reads another card. The kids cheer. “I’m deaf, by the way.” They giggle and quiet down.

Feeling the music’s bass, Chapman keeps the beat as fellow actors Dakotah Brown, Jaime Nebeker and Chris Canfield enter. Chapman signs to the kids and turns cards to introduce the characters and explain the plot of “Maggie Lumiere and the Ghost Train.”

The tale of a young girl who happens to be deaf is told in English and American Sign Language. Maggie and her friends are squeezing fun out of the last days of summer vacation by making a silent movie about a ghost that haunts the rail yard. Maggie, who says she’s related to the first silent filmmakers, the Lumiere Brothers, invites her friends to join her. Maggie is lying. She’s afraid her new friends won’t like her if they know she’s homeless.

This is Idaho Theater for Youth’s first fully bilingual show. Like other ITY shows, it comes with a lesson. This one is about honesty, trust and being yourself. For some kids, this is the first play they’ve seen, and for many, Chapman is first deaf person they’ve met.

ITY is one of Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s educational programs that sends professional actors to tour original plays to elementary schools throughout the state. This play has been on tour for the past two months, traveling to remote spots such as Elk City and Troy. You can see a free special performance April 21 at the Morrison Center.

“What’s really cool is that it (the play) is not about someone being deaf,” says director Renee Vomocil. “It’s really about a girl who is homeless. She just happens to be deaf.”

Playwrights Dwayne Blackaller and Tracy Sunderland imagined a character who sees things other people don’t. That idea led them to write Maggie as deaf. Vomocil loved the idea and asked ASL interpreter Holly Thomas-Mowrey about coaching an actor to play a deaf character.

“Her immediate response was, ‘That’s offensive to people who are deaf,’ and I was like, ‘Whoa, she’s right,’ ” Vomocil says. “Holly suggested hiring a deaf actor, and we were like, ‘Of course, that makes sense.’ ”

They found Chapman in Los Angeles. She auditioned, won the part and made her way to Idaho to do her first stage play, her first tour and to work for the first time with hearing actors.

“I was so happy to be chosen to do this, and then I was terrified that I had to learn my lines in both languages,” Chapman says through ASL interpreter Thomas-Mowrey. “I’ve had such a wonderful, warm welcome. It’s helped me feel more confident.”

Chapman grew up in a small Wisconsin town in a hearing family. She didn’t learn ASL until age 18. She attended Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, but found it hard to fit in.

“I still didn’t feel that I could meet expectations,” she says. “I’m not as much a part of the deaf community as I could be. So I had to find my passion. I spent six years in California and discovered acting. And I knew this is what I was looking for.”

While Chapman has been learning theater, she has been coaching the cast in ASL because they speak and sign throughout.

“That’s my favorite part of doing theater,” Nebeker says. “You always get to learn something. It could be sword fighting or history or sign language. It’s a pretty cool job to have.”

It’s also a job that touches lives. When the ISF van rolls into a town, it brings new ideas and experiences. In Elk City, they met a boy who is losing his hearing.

“He and his brother came up and asked me if it’s hard to learn to sign,” Nebeker says. “We talked about how cool it was that he was going to see the world two different ways — the way Maggie does in the play.”

“I didn’t realize I would be such an example for other deaf kids,” Chapman says.

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