As I entered a Rockaway-bound subway train on Tuesday night, there was an unusually vibrant scene: as a speaker blared the heavy beats to one of summer’s catchiest pop songs, a group of teens and young adults danced, laughed and sang—or rather, signed—their hearts out.
This enthusiastic group wasn’t disrupting the daily commutes of New York residents to raise money. The actors, who were mostly deaf, were helping a young girl become comfortable with who she was.
A camera panned each of their faces.
The director yelled, “Cut!”
I was standing on the platform of a once-abandoned station in Downtown Brooklyn that had been converted into the New York Transit Museum in 1976 while simultaneously offering a filming location for Hollywood blockbusters.
On Tuesday, the 1960s-era car served as the set for the Deaf Professional Arts Network’s (D-PAN) latest music video.
The cast of Spring Awakening, which is returning to Broadway with the help of Deaf West Theater—who produce their shows in American Sign Language (ASL)-- translated the lyrics of Walk the Moon’s “Different Colors” for viewers who have lost the ability to hear.
“Deaf people feel music. They just don’t get the whole experience,” Joel Martin, the co-founder of D-PAN, told The Daily Beast. “What we are doing is turning it into something that is accessible.”
D-PAN was founded in 2006 after deaf hip-hop artist Sean Forbes reached out to Martin, who manages Eminem’s publishing, to re-create the rapper’s “Lose Yourself” video using ASL.
“A month later he walked into the studio and Marshall [Mathers, aka Eminem] was there with the whole crew,” Martin described. “They watched it and everyone gave their stamp of approval.”
In the decade that has followed, the production team has re-created videos for John Mayer, Christina Aguilera, The White Stripes, and Owl City, among many others.
They even remade Idina Menzel’s wildly popular song “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen.
Adrean Mangiardi, who directed Tuesday’s video alongside Jules Dameron, told The Daily Beast that music hadn’t always been a big part of his life, though he saw it happening all around him.
Over half of the set crew—from the director and cinematographer to the production assistants—are deaf or hard of hearing just like him.
It wasn’t until Mangiardi got cochlear implants—an electronic device that transmits sounds for those considered profoundly deaf or severely heard of hearing—that he began to experience music.
“Growing up I wasn’t able to pick up a lot of sounds,” Mangiardi said. “But after I got the cochlear implants, I was able to hear a little music, like my mother playing the piano or my brother playing the violin. Now, I listen to a lot of bass.”
And the bass keeps everything in motion.
Martin explained that various large speakers on set actually emitted no noise at all. But the vibrations they produced while the music was playing “goes straight through your bones.”
“You feel the rhythm,” he said. “When you see a deaf person moving perfectly with the song and hitting every mark, you might not think that they are deaf, but it’s all through the vibrations and sensing the movement of other people.”
As the cast members executed take after take, they flawlessly synched the movement of their lips with the lyrics blasting from the speakers they couldn’t hear. With each beat they moved to a different position around each other.
“It’s mostly about the blocking and less about the dance steps because the priority is the signing,” Jaclyn Walsh, the video’s choreographer, told The Daily Beast. “It’s a tricky combination of making sure not to take focus away from the signing while also making sure the bodies are in the correct space.”
Walsh had no previous experience with ASL, but Kevin Breslin, the video’s producer, knew she would be a perfect fit for the job. Though Walsh realized there were certain “obstacles to overcome,” she said, and jumped at the opportunity solely for the experience.
“I had to be really smart with who I hired,” Breslin told The Daily Beast. “We were all very concerned about being able to play up to their level, not about them playing up to ours.”
“The tricky thing for me was to be able to make sure that we didn’t blow the storyline of this song, which is all about accepting each other for who you are.”
It’s a powerful message from the “disabled” community, who can often be unnecessarily coddled or overlooked. There are few disabled characters on TV shows and films—and non-disabled actors typically portray them.
Cast member and Glee alum Ali Stroker, who is hearing-abled, revealed that she will be the first paralyzed actress to ever perform on Broadway when Spring Awakening opens next month.
Deaf West, which was founded in 1991, has won more than 80 awards for their productions, which seek to enrich the lives of millions of deaf or hard of hearing people around the world through entertainment and employment.
Similar groups like the Phamaly Theatre Company—the Physically Handicapped Actors & Musical Artists League—produces high-caliber plays and musicals cast entirely of performers with disabilities across the spectrum.
“This has been so fun,” Stroker told The Daily Beast, admitting she didn’t learn ASL until last year. “Then I auditioned for Spring Awakening and it just feels so natural because it’s very expressive and as an actor or a performer you are used to that. I like being thrown into situations that are scary and the best way to learn is by just being around it.”
The entire cast and crew were “really proud of the shoot,” Breslin said the next day. “They came here and are working on a New York level, which is great. It’s like saying, ‘Just because we can’t hear you, doesn’t mean we’re not hirable in your world.’”