Jared Debusk lies on a bed in the middle of a stage at USF, using every bit of his 5-foot-8-inch frame to pretend to be the big bad wolf impersonating Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. Little Red Riding Hood says to him, “But Grandma, your eyes look so big…”
He responds with his mouth shut and hands signaling, “Better eyes to see you with, my dear.” He delivers his lines with sign language. It’s not a silent performance though; the interpreter provides a feminine voice for the hearing students in the class, just as the wolf does in the fable to trick his victim.
Though far from a big bad wolf, Debusk was chosen out of the group of four to play the villainous character, perhaps because the rest of the group was women.
A freshman at USF with a major in film and a minor in acting, Debusk wants to move to Los Angeles when he graduates to become a film director, regardless of not being able to hear or speak.
Like a film director, he tells stories, and he’s full of them. But his narration is noiseless. Without an interpreter, sign language and pen and paper are his voice.
Voice and hearing are not required to be heard in Hollywood. At the 2012 Academy Awards, the silent film, “The Artist,” won six Oscars. Marlee Matlin is a deaf actress who is the youngest woman and only deaf person to win an Oscar 20 years ago, but she still maintains an active presence in Hollywood today, according to her website.
Improv, Debusk’s favorite class, and his future career are based on verbal and physical performances, but he doesn’t speak because he’s been deaf since he was a baby.
He wasn’t born deaf though. Debusk said he and his family suspect a vaccination he was given when he was three months old is responsible for his and his older sister’s hearing loss. The family chose not to give their third child the vaccination, and she can hear.
Improv always begins with the students in a circle for a warm-up. He’s more fluid than other students. Due to what he calls his “four eyes,” he often transitions into the different stretches before everyone else.
Debusk explained having four eyes is a trait many deaf people learn to develop.
“Our vision is very important to us, and we can see everything around us,” Debusk said. “Hearing people always use their hearing for awareness.”
He said he does everything hearing people can do, except talk. When driving, his “four eyes” are key to avoiding emergency vehicles needing to pass. Rather than depending on noises to communicate, he keeps his “four eyes” open and alert at all times.
Past the booming, energetic music outside, Debusk walks into the Marshall Center, which is bustling with people. He goes to Sbarro and a server asks, “What can I get for you?” He walks around the people waiting for their food in line to better position himself to point to the baked ziti. She responds with a confused, almost insulted facial expression.
Another working woman intervenes, knowing what to do. She gets his food, and then asks him, “extra sauce?” She chuckles, and remembers to point to the sauce, and he nods approvingly. She mouths, “Have a nice day,” and he smiles and mouths “thank you.”
His hearing loss has not stopped him from following his dreams in film or doing the same things hearing people do everyday. Currently, he’s a model, has an agent and has auditioned for the ABC show “Switched at Birth,” which is a sitcom featuring deaf actors that he watches avidly.
He didn’t land his first audition, but this has not stopped him. He continues to try to improve his acting abilities, and improv is a start. For spring break, he’s traveling to Los Angeles for “SIGNin’ in the Street,” a two-day event featuring deaf entertainers and artists. There he will network with people involved in the deaf theater community and do another audition for “Switched at Birth.”
Acting without speaking seems like a daunting task because so much of television and film revolves around verbalization, but Debusk’s “four eyes” allow him to capture the most indicative type of communication, nonverbal communication.
One interpreter at USF, who spoke in confidence because interpreters are not allowed to discuss their student clients, has almost 20 years of experience interpreting theater for the deaf.
“Nonverbal communication communicates more than words do for both hearing and deaf people,” she said. “Generally body language and gestures reveal the tone of a scene without actually signing it.”
Since Debusk is unable to speak to the people in his life, much of his communication depends on his and others’ expressions and actions.
He is able to capture a scene without relying on words. He uses his body and his face to its full potential, reciting script is only a small part of an actor’s job. People have communicated, mimicked, and loved in silence long before there was language.
Professor Rosemary Orlando teaches voice and body improv at USF. She has taught improv and acting classes for 30 years and has never had a deaf student in her class.
“I think everyone benefits from the experience,” Orlando said. “I have done more exercises that are less voice heavy and require students to focus more on their bodies and nonverbal communication.”
A freshman getting acclimated to his unfamiliar surroundings, Debusk spends a lot of time on campus. He shares a large dorm with a hearing roommate. From his hearing friends, Debusk gets that his roommate is a quiet, peculiar person who plays piano and depressing music, but his roommate’s dreary sounds don’t bother him much.
The transition to being an independent college student has had its challenges, but he’s persevered. He admits that being away from his family the first semester was a bit lonely. Though he spends a couple hours each day on his studies, written assignments can be difficult due to the structural differences in his first language, American Sign Language, and English.
“My grammar sucks because we don’t use we/were/are, plural “s”, and many other things. Deaf culture uses a shorter way,” Debusk said. “I have problem with essays or English classes because I have to write a lot, and sometimes the teacher can’t understand it. I used to get frustrated.”
Tuesdays and Thursdays, Debusk and 25 students, two interpreters and a professor come together for two hours of acting. The floors of the spacious theater room are dark, dilapidated and hollow. Each step vibrates beneath their feet; Debusk feels the empty wood echo as he stretches.
After toe touching and back bending, the class warms up their voices. They chant in unison a quote by Sir Arthur, “…I can see you use, any language you choose, to indulge in impropriety.”
Almost everyone synchronizes with the quick rhythm of the quote. He indulges in another language, but no one else in the circle, including the teacher, understands.