“I am just an actor, who happens to be deaf,” says John McGinty, who is breaking new ground as Quasimodo in the Los Angeles premiere of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. McGinty is the first deaf actor to portray Quasimodo, despite the character being deaf in Victor Hugo’s novel.
Though Disney's 1996 film is significantly cheerier than the book, the stage version returns to the spirit of Hugo’s characters more fully with the casting of McGinty.
While Disney has previously promoted deaf and hard-of-hearing artists, this is a major step toward inclusive casting. “I am so thrilled to be able to break and make history,” says McGinty. “I’m so proud to break barriers and bring more awareness and deaf skills to Disney.”
McGinty has worked on professional stages before, in Deaf West Theatre’s 2009 production of Pippin and in Nina Raines’ Tribes with three separate theaters, including Chicago's renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company. His role in Pippin motivated him to become a full-time professional actor. Previously, he worked in finance at Merrill Lynch, a job that he says left him depressed and constantly complaining.
Despite his previous experience in musical theater, McGinty says being in a musical in which he's the only deaf artist has been a new challenge. No matter the production, McGinty says he memorizes his lines a month before rehearsals start so he's fully familiar with the words before tackling the challenge of blocking and interacting with the director and other cast members. This was particularly necessary in the case of Hunchback, as the production team had only nine days to rehearse before opening in Sacramento.
Learning songs and memorizing lyrics presented a new challenge for McGinty when it came to picking up cues and mastering musical tempos. “In a straight play, I just sign my natural way and speak my natural way,” he says. “But in a musical, the song itself has specific timing, so it’s very challenging for me.”
In addition to visual cues, McGinty works closely with his singing voice, Dino Nicandros, to get the tempo just right. Nicandros joins McGinty onstage for each of Quasimodo’s songs, singing the lyrics, while McGinty signs alongside him. McGinty describes a symbiotic process where he first translates the lyrics into American Sign Language (ASL) to “match the specific context and environment of the song.” He and Nicandros will then rehearse together, studying each other, and adjusting their performances to create a seamless entity. “When he’s singing, he’ll alter his emotions to fit my signing, and we will become one person,” says McGinty.
McGinty says he also dug deep to find broader connections with Quasimodo, even reading the book to understand the character Hugo created. In addition to outward shows of Quasimodo’s distinctive physical traits (the titular hunchback and an oversized eye), McGinty wanted to identify with Quasimodo’s inner life. “The interior struggle,” he says. “That’s what I brought from the book. To understand exactly what he went through, and bringing that honesty and integrity to the stage.”
Both the novel and the musical deal with issues of exclusion, outcasts, and the vilification of the “other.” Quasimodo lives a life of isolation in the Notre Dame bell tower, torn between a hunger to be a part of the larger world and the scorn he invites with his appearance. McGinty admits that he related deeply to that aspect of Quasimodo’s life.
“One of the only things I feel very connected with is sometimes I do feel excluded, and I do feel like an outcast,” he says. “It’s one of those things of being a deaf individual in a hearing world. I feel alone. I feel depressed sometimes. He’s so innocent and tries to open his world … that relates to my life because here I am signing, and I really desire communication with the hearing world.”
Still, McGinty stresses that being deaf is not a unique challenge as an actor. “I am just another actor who is struggling – the race, the gender – all of us have different struggles,” he says.
If anything, he hopes his performance in Hunchback will inspire both hearing and deaf audiences alike. With the success of Deaf West’s Broadway production of Spring Awakening and Freeform’s (previously ABC Family) Switched at Birth, deaf artists are experiencing an unprecedented level of exposure and inclusivity. “It’s a very exciting time for deaf artists because it’s more visible for deaf teenagers to see deaf artists breaking barriers,” says McGinty. “Seeing deaf people in Disney? I think that’s wonderful!”
McGinty’s advice for aspiring deaf artists is simple: “Be yourself. Be excellent in what you do and trust yourself. And don’t let other people tell you that you can’t.”
While he’s thrilled to inspire younger deaf artists, McGinty also hopes that hearing audiences see his performance as a clarion call for more inclusive casting. He hopes they leave thinking, “Why don’t they write more plays that involve deaf actors? Why aren’t there opportunities that are open for open minds and open hearts?”
Though he is a deaf actor in an otherwise all-hearing production, playing a character set apart by his differences, ultimately, he says, “It’s not about hearing. It’s not about ears. It’s about the whole world.”
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada; Fri., Sept. 16-Sun., Oct. 9. lamiradatheatre.com.