Stepping Aboard the Starship 'Enterprise'

Watching Howie Seago drop his dark gray felt hat onto his strawberry blond curls, there was no question he was an actor.

He didn't just put on his hat. He did it with style and purpose.

Seago has had to be more purposeful than most of his acting colleagues. He is deaf, which limits job possibilities.

"I have made the work myself by my own perseverance," he said in an interview at Los Angeles International Airport the other day, where he had a couple of hours to spare between planes.

Most actors have dreamt up characters whom they would like to play on a popular TV show. In Seago's case, he took his idea for a deaf character on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" to the show's producers last summer, and the result is an episode in which he guest stars as a 24th-Century mediator, not unlike Henry Kissinger. The episode airs in Los Angeles at 8 p.m. Saturday and again at 5 p.m. Sunday on KCOP Channel 13.

Maurice Hurley, the effusive co-executive producer of "Star Trek," recalled that he and his colleagues knew as soon as they met with Seago that they would use him on the show in some way. "Because he has the presence of a movie star, and I'm saying movie star , I'm not saying just a good actor," he explained. "He dominates. You can't take your eyes off him."

It isn't simply Seago's blue-eyed attractiveness. It's his way of communicating.

Since he prefers to sign rather than speak, he has several interpreters he uses regularly. At the LAX interview, it was Rico Peterson who signed the reporter's questions to Seago and spoke Seago's signed responses.

That doesn't sound very dramatic, but the 35-year-old Seago used his eyes, face, hands and body so expressively that he very nearly gave off sparks. Peterson kept up with him, translating sign to word with such close synchronicity that the interpreter's presence faded from mind.

Onstage or onscreen, of course, Seago is on his own. Once the cameras began rolling on "Star Trek," for example, he needed visual cues from the other actors.

"Star Trek" star Patrick Stewart, who worked closely with Seago during filming, said, "It requires a technique for communicating which can be learned very briefly. By the end of the first day's work, I was unaware that there was anything different."

On the other hand, Stewart said, there was something special about the experience: "When you're dealing with an actor who has the authentic handicap, that person carries an authentic tension around with him and it never dissipates; it's always present. Whereas with an actor without the handicap, that is necessarily going to fluctuate. And I think all the actors in the show were sensitive, aware of, and sometimes even nervous of that very idiosyncratric tension. And tension is what makes theater."

Talking Heads musician David Byrne was so impressed when he saw Seago star in a 1986 adaptation of the Sophocles tragedy "Ajax," staged at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center and then at the La Jolla Playhouse, that Byrne and his producing partner Robert Wilson recruited Seago for the lead role of the Forest King in a play they produced in Germany last fall, "The Forest."

Earlier, as Achilles in a National Theater of the Deaf production, "The Iliad, Play by Play," Seago moved Newsweek's Jack Kroll to write, "Not since Olivier's Oedipus has an actor come so close to the primal power of Greek tragedy."

For the role of Caliban in a 1987 La Jolla Playhouse production of "The Tempest," Seago competed with hearing actors, and won.

What's significant about the "Star Trek" role for Seago--aside from the exposure, his biggest audience yet--is that "I started the idea from scratch," he said, crediting his wife with the inspiration.

"My wife (Lori Seago), who is a Trekkie, suggested to me that since 'Star Trek' is science fiction, the problem of providing a voice for a deaf character could be handled very creatively."

Developing that thought, Seago "borrowed the idea of using a chorus from 'Ajax,' " he explained. In the finished "Star Trek" episode, he communicates through a chorus of three--a warrior, a scholar and a cultured woman. "If he wants to be aggressive, he'll use the warrior's voice; if he wants to be gentle, he'll use the woman. If only it were true in real life!"

The show is the result of an unusual degree of collaboration between guest star and producers.

"Star Trek's" Hurley recalled that Seago originally brought to them a "general idea for a deaf character. He wanted to be a regular on the show, maybe. We had a general exploratory conversation and in the course of that, he mentioned something that triggered off the whole idea of Henry Kissinger. Then we just started working on the story." (Jackie Zambrano is credited as the episode's writer.)

Said Seago, "When I first started working, I thought that my character had to sign, so the chorus would understand him. But the producers had a more unique point of view. They wanted Riva to be arrogant, like Kissinger in real life, so his signing became unimportant to him. He and the chorus are so attuned, he would communicate with a simple gesture in place of many lines. So when he gets to the crisis point (and has lost his chorus), he has to use a more conventional mode of signing, which makes for a nice contrast."

The first draft clashed with one of Seago's strongly held beliefs, however. "To resolve the dilemma when he's cut off from communication, they wanted me (his character) to speak overnight," the actor said. "I told them I couldn't do that because it would perpetuate the psychological harm that's done now in forcing deaf children to use their voice whether they can or not. I didn't want hearing parents to use the show to perpetuate the oppression of their children.

"And they (the producers) understood that. I was expecting them to be more intractable. That was a real, honest-to-God relief for me and a credit to the producers, not only in accepting the idea but in executing and designing it properly."

Seago can speak understandably, but the issue of speech is a complicated one for him. "I grew up in an oral program where sign language was not permitted," he said. "It was repressed." Meanwhile, at home, "I used homemade sign language with my brothers and my friends all my life.

"It was only when I went to college and learned (standard) sign language that I started to develop as a person. I'm still angry that I was repressed all those years of my education by too much emphasis on learning to speak, rather than learning. And that's still going on (in some schools)."

Before he made a decision to stick with signing in professional situations, he had some strange meetings with casting directors, he said: "They just didn't seem to understand that I was deaf. (He explained that, as a good lip reader, he may catch half or three-fourths of what is said.) So they would think of me as hard of hearing, or some kind of alien with a strange voice."

A stint at working local theater in Hawaii proved important to the actor because "there was a woman who was a director with a youth theater there who had a good idea of how to use deaf actors in regular productions," he said. "I felt that I was finally free of the ball and chain of being 'a deaf actor.' "

In the TV and movie industries, however, the ball and chain are still there. "Theater is more open to nontraditional casting than TV or movies," Seago noted.

Indeed, Hurley acknowledged that if it hadn't been for the Writers Guild strike last summer, Seago and his idea might never have been looked at by the "Star Trek" producers.

"We were sitting around during the strike," he recalled, "and someone said 'Do you want to meet an actor with good credentials, who happens to be deaf?' And we did it for that reason--that there was really not a whole lot else to do.

"If someone had called me last spring (before the strike), and said, 'There's a deaf actor who wants to meet you,' I'd say, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I'll call you,' but with the time constraints of episodic television, you just don't have time to do those kinds of things. Since this happened, it's made me more willing to listen to the phone. If some strange phone call came now, I'd think, 'I better take it. I'd better not miss a chance to meet another Howie Seago.' "

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