ENTERTAINMENT ARTS & CULTURE

The star of 'At Home at the Zoo' on the risks and growing rewards of being a deaf actor

When he was young, Troy Kotsur loved to watch “Tom & Jerry” on television. The cartoon cat and mouse made him laugh. They also made him realize he didn’t need to use words to be funny, a valuable lesson for someone who was deaf and hoping to find a future in entertainment.

“They didn’t speak,” Kotsur said. “Everything worked through physical comedy.”

Kotsur, 47, has since become a master of silent storytelling. With his hands, body and face, he conjures images and emotions using American Sign Language. During a career that spans a quarter-century, he has won raves on regional stages and Broadway, where he performed in Deaf West Theatre’s 2003 revival of “Big River.” His screen credits include TV series such as “Scrubs” and “Criminal Minds” and the 2016 indie romantic drama “Wild Prairie Rose.”

The Arizona native got his big break in the early 1990s when he came to L.A. to work with Deaf West, the pioneering company whose productions feature deaf and hearing actors signing and voicing. On Friday, Kotsur opens in “Edward Albee’s at Home at the Zoo,” a co-production between Deaf West and the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. “At Home” combines “The Zoo Story,” Albee’s one-act from the late 1950s, with a prequel that he wrote more than four decades later. It runs at the Wallis through March 26.

For this edited conversation, Kotsur discussed Albee, acting and ASL in a recent phone interview during which he used an interpreter.

Why did Albee write a prequel?

“Zoo Story” is about two strangers, Peter and Jerry, who meet in a park. Long after he wrote it, Albee asked himself, “Who is this Peter guy?” Jerry is more clear, more drawn. So he wrote the story of Peter and his wife, Ann. They have issues. They play games. That’s Act 1. Then Peter goes to the park.

You play Peter now and you played him when Deaf West staged “Zoo Story” in 2007.

I have a much better understanding of him today. I see many parallels between what happens between Peter and Jerry and Peter and Ann. They both try to get him to figure out who he really is. They’re trying to say, “You are an animal.” Everyone is an animal. We are all in a zoo.

The set design tells the story. We start off in Ann and Peter’s living room. But instead of walls we have bars. The audience has the sensation of watching two people in a cage. The deaf actors are inside and the voicing actors outside. In Act 2, we are at the park and the deaf actors are on one bench and the voicing actors on another. The bars are still there.

Troy Kotsur, left, and Russell Harvard in "Edward Albee's at Home at the Zoo"
Troy Kotsur, left, and Russell Harvard in "Edward Albee's at Home at the Zoo" (Kevin Parry)

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Was it hard to translate Albee into ASL?

We are doing our best to honor his meaning. A lot is going on below the surface. A writer like David Mamet has the rhythm, the poetry, the sound. We can match that in a nice, creative way in sign language. Albee is less about the rhythm of the language and more about the depth of the character. His plays are about how people don’t see each other. About finding human contact. Peter is very isolated. He stays inside his own little box.

Speaking of Mamet, you played Teach in “American Buffalo.”

“Buffalo” really works for a deaf actor in sign language. We did it with two hearing actors and me in a Deaf West-Cal State L.A. co-production in 2015. It’s a filthy play. When you’re listening to it, you’re hearing these words. But imagine seeing the play. When they see it onstage, people understand for the first time that sign language is not pantomime. It’s not code. It’s a language. Through this language they are experiencing this play in a new way.

Tell us about “Wild Prairie Rose,” which recently screened at the Sedona International Film Festival.

It’s about a woman who comes back to a small town in the 1950s and she falls in love with a man who is deaf. We won the audience award in Sedona. The movie was directed by Deborah LaVine. We worked together on Deaf West productions like “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

When you were Stanley in “Streetcar,” LaVine wanted you to speak — to yell, “Stella!”

I can’t hear my own voice. So I had to get over my fear of using my voice and how people would perceive it. That’s the great thing about theater. It pushes you to not be afraid. I had to get out as much sound as I could. Somewhere in there I kind of found something raw. Something simple.

Kotsur in "At Home at the Zoo."
Kotsur in "At Home at the Zoo." (Kevin Parry)

Is it true that you started out wanting to be a director?

I did, but at the time the world wasn’t really made for a deaf director. There have been many changes since then, especially in technology. I finally directed my first feature film, which came out in 2013. It’s called “No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie.”

Are you surprised at how busy you are?

I am grateful to be one of the few who have been able to work consistently. My father and my wife said I am a risk taker, and I think that’s been helpful. I’ve also been able to make many contacts, which is important in this business. When I started, there were not as many opportunities. Now, so much is happening. Look at “Spring Awakening” [another Deaf West production that went to Broadway].

Sometimes, someone has to decide who they want in a role, and if they want a deaf actor they might feel like it’s a risk, but obviously it has worked out. I’m sure you’ve heard stories about hearing actors taking deaf roles. That’s a situation where you have opportunities taken away from deaf actors. Things are changing. We are building bridges between deaf and hearing communities. The goal is to have a diverse cast and be able to work with great people who maybe happen to have a disability.

What’s next for you?

We’re developing an independent film, “Inside Track,” the true story of eight deaf high school runners. I play the coach. Next year, my wife, Deanne Bray, and I are going to star in an adaptation of the film “Brief Encounter,” written by Stephen Sachs, at the Fountain Theatre.

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