Andrew Lloyd Webber is not the only one who will be delivering his keynote address Sunday at the fifth annual Theatermakers Summit. Brandon Kazen-Maddox will be sharing the screen with him, simultaneously interpreting Lloyd Webber’s words into American Sign Language.
Kazen-Maddox has been an ASL interpreter for a decade, for notables like Joe Biden and Lin-Manuel Miranda and Marlee Matlin, as well as for Broadway shows. “Newsies” was not only the first Broadway musical he interpreted, when it was on tour on the West Coast; it was the first he ever saw in person. Since moving to New York in 2017, his artful hands have been visible from “Aladdin” to Little Island, from the Shed to Shakespeare in the Park.
He will be interpreting three of the other panels at the Summit on Sunday, one of some half dozen interpreters employed for the three day event. He will also be one of the panelists on a panel entitled The Non-Negotiable MUST Knows on Access & Inclusion in Theater. “What I would like people to come away with is that access is not just for the disability community. Access is for everybody.” In the short-run, he’s happy to see more productions offering interpreted performances more regularly than had been the case. In the long run, he says, he’d like to eliminate interpreters.
That’s a surprising statement coming from an interpreter. To understand, it helps to know which panels he is personally most interested in this weekend: Getting Repped, because “I want to be represented by an agent; that has to happen soon.” and Why Broadway Investors Invest. “I need to know because I’m making a show.”
Kazen-Maddox is not just an ASL interpreter; he’s a performer and producer — an ASL performer and producer. He moved to New York in part to get a Masters degree from NYU Tisch School of the Arts in both dance and new technology
An example of his art, the first three of ten planned “Soul(Signs)” music videos, debuted this week at Broadstream, a newly launched online arts platform: Up Until Now Collective , which he cofounded, has so far created ASL/dance versions of Nina Simone’s 1964 “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”; Gladys Knight and the Pips’ 1973 “Midnight Train to Georgia”; and Tina Turner’s 1984 “What’s Love Got to Do With It” (Has he interpreted that same song in person for “Tina The Musical”? “Not yet,” he replies.)
The aim of the Collective, he says, is a “focus on radical empathy and inclusion, putting people together who would not normally be together.”
He’s also in the process of creating “ASL Wild Party,” an ambitious adaptation of Andrew Lippa’s musical. “It will have the same music but I’m taking the lyrics away and replacing them with sign language.” It will also be captioned throughout.
“I call what I’m doing American Sign Language Dance Theater,” he says – and also interprets the theatrical genre for me into ASL, using the signs for ASL, dance, and theater.
With a $56,000 grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts National Dance Project, he’s aiming for a production of “ASL Wild Party” in New York in 2023. The plan is to make the production “85% Deaf – the actors,dancers designers and musician￼s.”
For the show, he’s partnering with an L.A. company called Music: Not Impossible that uses a technology that allows deaf people to feel music by wearing special vests that vibrate. “People in the show, people in the audience will wear the vests, and all the vests will vibrate in the same way. So one character would be assigned to the shoulder and when the shoulder is vibrating, that means that the character is saying something. When your gut is vibrating, it’s the ensemble.”
He came up with the idea of ASL Dance Theater when he was performing as a circus acrobat after college in San Francisco, but its roots were planted way before that, in his hometown of Vancouver, Washington, thanks to his two grandmothers. One grandmother, Lorayne Caudle , is Deaf (as are six other members of his extended family) which is why he says ASL is his first language and why he calls himself a GODA (grandchild of Deaf adults; the more common phrase is CODA, child of Deaf adults.) He shows me a photograph that he keeps on his cell phone of Baby Brandon signing the first word he ever knew in any language: moon. The other grandmother, Ava Maddox, whom he calls Nana,is a native New Yorker “who taught me about New York and NYU and Broadway and the Rockettes; she told me all about the Apollo Theater. That’s why I wound up here.” She helped pay for him to go to gymnastics from the age of four and ballet the following year. School musicals and choir followed.
So ASL and performing had always been parallel preoccupations when, as a tumbler and a dancer in a circus, he started signing the lyrics to the songs that accompanied his performance. The experience led him to become serious in two different directions: He took the training necessary to become a certified professional interpreter, and he started experimenting with a new accessible and inclusive form of theater.
“I’m an interpreter, but my dream is to eliminate interpreters,” he says, “because they won’t be needed. The access will be incorporated into the shows themselves.”
Video examples of Kazen-Maddox’s art, including excerpts from ASL Wild Party.