What if you were breaking into theatre without any experience whatsoever, looking for your first big break as an actor? Where would you go?
Well, that is exactly what this month’s Artist Spotlight is focused on—a young actor with no stage experience who just landed her debut performance, her first anywhere—in a major show at Stage Door Repertory Theatre in Anaheim Hills!
Meet Lili Jae, brave, exuberant and passionate—already a blossoming model, a gifted aerialist, and now an aspiring young actor who just happens to be a member of the Deaf Community.
JUNE 8, 2022 — BY CHRIS DANIELS
FIRST OF ALL, is that even possible? Can you really become an actor on a popular community theatre stage like Stage Door Repertory, with no experience?
Well, here’s the good news: obviously you CAN. Everybody has to start somewhere. The key is actually taking action and doing something in order to get that experience, even if you literally don’t have anything on your resume. I can still hear my mentor, Zig Ziglar constantly whispering in my ear back in the 80’s, “You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”
But what if you’re not just inexperienced, but you also happen to be deaf.
Finding people who are open-minded and open-hearted in recognizing and valuing deaf talent could be challenging then. And yet, as you all know, this year's best picture Oscar went to “Coda,” a film that tells the story of a child of deaf adults who must balance her own dreams against threats to her family.
Remember that young actor I mentioned earlier? Her name is Lili Jae. Right now, she’s in a featured role as Sister Mary Robert at Stage Door Repertory in their current production of “Sister Act,” now playing through June 26th. Owners Nick Charles and Julie Incorvina have graciously committed themselves to help even up the playing field by incorporating strategems to accommodate Ms. Jae in her debut role at Stage Door. You may notice one unique accommodation here.
Lili Jae (photoshoot)
Actor/singer songwriter Fadeke Oparinde (“Love Affairs and Wedding Bells”), a BFA alumni from AMDA (pictured above) is voicing her dialogue and songs, acting as a shadow double for Ms. Jae’s character in the play. How difficult is it? Well, it’s not just movement and sound that needs to be coordinated.
Other shows where this has been done has provided remarkably clever cues woven into the show without the audience’s knowledge. The devices are myriad. Many times a stage manager installs flashing lights on the balcony rail or blue lights at the entrances to somehow alert deaf actors of their cues. Other times the hearing actors use their hands as metronomes, squeezing the shoulders of the deaf actors to synchronize the forward motion with the musical beat.
It can be a blink of an eye, a shrug of a shoulder, a tap of a leg — little ways to know what they need to know. They could study the mouth movements of the lead actress who sings and speaks for her character, or learn their cues from the rhythmic vibrating tones on a musical instrument like a guitar or piano.
Musicals, after all, are built around sound, and ordinarily it is a beat, a lyric or a spoken phrase that signals to an actor when to walk on or walk off, when to begin a speech or a song, when to start a step. But for this “Sister Act,” Director Tyler Stouffer has integrated Ms. Jae into the show through a truly brilliant technological system, using a computer program to transpose spoken dialogue on screen so that Ms. Jae can see what the other actors are saying at all times.
Lili Jae (photoshoot)
On her cues, she communicates through sign, which is then interpreted and rendered orally by her shadow double, Ms. Oparinde. Ironically, this conforms perfectly with the character, Sister Mary Robert, a postulant, abandoned as a baby and raised in the convent. Living a shell of a life, she is shy and soft-spoken, but singing with Deloris lets her find her voice. Ms. Jae’s depiction has not only changed the depth of the play and the depth of the characters, but also the strength of the message.
As it turns out, Lili is already a popular model, has made an appearance in a short film, and loves many of the same things you and I do, like roller skating, puppetry, sports fitness and aerial hooping (if you’re not familiar with that: an aerial hoop, or Lyra as some call it, is basically an enlarged hula hoop ring of steel suspended from the ceiling, in which hoop artists can exercise spins, drops, tricks and positions. In aerial hoop you conduct the exercises in fast motions and you often practice rather long combinations. It’s an art in itself.)
So, who is Lili Jae? Let’s find out. We asked Lili a series of short questions and found out some interesting details on this aspiring artist. Her viewpoint on her role in the show may surprise you. Here’s what she has to say:
TSR: Congratulations on your role as Sister Mary Robert in “Sister Act” at Stage Door Repertory! Can you tell us what communication methods you will be using during your performance in the show? Will you have an interpreter and in what way will you be speaking and singing?
LILI: "For the rehearsal process, we’ve used a TV that we connected to a computer with which they open up their Google meet, and launch the speech to text application that took whatever anybody in the cast said to me and turned it into closed captions so I could understand what was being said. There will be no interpreter for the performances, just myself using my language as we use another actor to voice what I sign. The ever-talented Fadeke Oparinde is the voice of my character and she does a phenomenal job of bringing vocal life to my character."
TSR: Can you tell us a little about the extent and reason behind your hearing loss?
LILI: "I was born with hearing loss and it wasn’t until later that I was diagnosed with the hearing loss. And later into my teenage years is when it all went."
TSR: Do you remember when you first realized you wanted to be an actor?
LILI: "To be honest, I don’t think there is an actual realization. I recall during the pandemic thinking to myself maybe I should just do something crazy when this is all over. And to me- that something crazy was auditioning for a theatre show. I auditioned with a video submission, and I remember reaching out to the Director and sharing my situation, and I didn’t really expect anything from it. And when they responded, I honestly thought that they were just doing it to be nice. So you can imagine my surprise when I was offered a callback for a specific character. But it took until after the call back that I realized how much I kind of wanted it."
TSR: What productions have you been involved in and which are you most proud of?
LILI: "My theatrical experience is slim to none. I did one Shakespeare show in high school, and everything else I ever did that revolved around theatre was just background scene design and costume assisting to the show. Back in my day, it was kind of hard for a deaf person to be given such opportunities without judgment or doubt and questioning of how I (or any deaf person) would be able to do it. So I guess the thing I’m most proud of now, is being a part of Sister Act."
TSR: As a deaf actor, it has probably been difficult over the pandemic when masks were required, making it almost impossible for lip reading. How did you compensate, and what else has been some of your greatest challenges?
LILI: "I will admit, masks did not help for me or my fellow deaf peers, but I understand it was a safety measure, and I myself took it very seriously. But having a roommate that knows sign language was very helpful, and lipreading was never my forte to begin with lol"
TSR: Does your whole family know how to sign, and are they supportive?
LILI: "I’m living on my own here in California, my family doesn’t know that I took such a leap into the theater world out here in California. But my roommate is aware and is very supportive, and I have several friends who are aware that I did this- and they’ve been very helpful in the practicing process when I’m not inside of an actual rehearsal. They’ve helped me stay motivated, focused, they keep me on beat with all the dances and the songs that I perform, and without them I don’t think I would’ve been as successful as I am."
TSR: BAFTA nominee and “A Quiet Place” star, Millicent Simmonds, recently said, “For real change to occur, actors with disabilities need to be seen as four-dimensional characters and not defined by their disability. We want to see something that doesn't reflect the struggles that deaf people have. We want to have cheesy moments, cheesy romance just like everyone else, and show deaf people aren't victims and aren't helpless." What are your thoughts on this, and if you could change one thing about the acting industry in regard to aspiring deaf artists, what would it be?
LILI: "I couldn’t agree more with Millicent, she says it so perfectly. I, like many others in the deaf community, want to be seen as ourselves, and not the one thing that makes us different. If I could change thing in the industry, I guess the one thing I would change is the way people look at deaf artists, which is a as a “one dimensional figure to be seen as only one thing.” We are more than a disability, and we have so much to give if given the opportunity."
TSR: Many deaf celebrities, like two-time headlining Broadway star, Treshelle M. Edmond (“Master of None,” “Spring Awakening”), and Lauren Ridloff who is playing Marvel’s first deaf superhero in “Eternals,” have overcome all hard of hearing barriers to their stardom. Even major stars like Halle Berry, Rob Lowe and Lou Ferrigno have indicated their deafness is not limiting, but empowering. Today in 2022, what are your observations and advice in regard to recommending a career in acting for a deaf person?
LILI: "I don’t feel I am well equipped enough to answer that, because this is my first time to be in a position where I am acting and portraying roles that I never thought I’d be able to do. But the one thing I will say is- don’t limit yourself from opportunities because fear and doubt is telling you not to. You will never know the possibilities if you don’t try. Nothing is stopping you but yourself. The other roadblocks- just obstacles you have yet to overcome."
TSR: Do you think enough has been done to represent deaf actors on the stage, make their sets accessible and user-friendly, and to make ASL services available with audiences?
LILI: "I would say, that we are now in a time where accessibility and inclusion is now becoming an ever-growing forefront. More acknowledgment is being made in terms of accessibility to the disabled community now more than ever-which makes me very happy to see. The diversity that comes in with talents and skills (of disabled individuals) that can be utilized is abundant, and if everyone could just accept that, and make the effort to be more inclusive, then, the success in the industry could boom."
TSR: And finally, what’s something you are really good at that few people know about?
LILI: "Something I’m really good at is, aerial hoop- which is a circus performance apparatus that one uses to perform tricks in the air."
TSR: Thank You Lili Jae for graciously spending time with us today on The Show Report!
Lili Jae (photoshoots)