Actor Donald Lyons stood before one of his toughest audiences: a small group of children at Bella Vista Elementary School in Monterey Park.
The kids wriggled impatiently in their seats, expecting the artist to be another outsider who did not speak their language.
Then Lyons quickly moved his hands and lips in silence, telling the tale of Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" using American Sign Language.
The children's eyes lit up. They were amazed to see that Lyons, like them, was deaf.
Since March, Lyons, 47, has had a captive audience in the 38 deaf and hard-of-hearing students, ages 3 to 11, who attend daylong special education classes at Bella Vista. Lyons visits the children once a week for three hours to teach them "Gulliver's Travels" through performance, drawing and writing exercises.
Lyons is an artist-in-residence at the school for 15 weeks as part of a Los Angeles County Music Center project to provide arts education to Southern California students. He is the first disabled artist in this program to teach a group of students with the same disability.
"Having Donald here is terrific and very
important," said Gayle Prince, who teaches disabled Bella Vista students. "It would be as if we had an all-black school and didn't have a black teacher. It's a sign of the times."
Lyons showcased the efforts of his students May 9 in a performance of scenes from "Gulliver's Travels" as part of the Very Special Arts Festival at the Music Center Plaza in downtown Los Angeles. The outdoor festival featured performances and artwork by disabled children.
In class, Lyons uses sign-language explanations and points to poster-size illustrations of key scenes and characters to teach "Gulliver's Travels," the allegorical satire about a shipwrecked sailor. On the chalkboard, Lyons writes words from the tale--such as coin, sword, hair, ship--and asks students to draw them.
"The children are so smart, and I enjoy teaching them about stories and history. Each week I see them improving their own creative perspective," Lyons said in sign language. Lyons can read lips but uses sign language to communicate.
Lyons and the children frequently sound out words, but only a few of the hard-of-hearing children can enunciate clearly. Sometimes the only sounds are the swishes and brushes of rapidly moving hands.
If one or two students look away, Lyons abruptly stops instruction. He proceeds when all eyes are fixed on him. He knows that he cannot get his point across without constant visual contact.
Teachers and students at the school said Lyons' knowledge of sign language allows him to communicate in class without a translator.
"I learn a lot from Donald because he's deaf and because he can sign," 9-year-old Christian Vasquez said in sign language.
When Lyons and students reviewed the storm scene that landed Gulliver on the island of Lilliput, the artist acted out being caught in a storm to teach the word storm.
Teaching new words is more effective when accompanied by body movement and facial expressions, Bella Vista teacher Susan Bayuk Pruden said. "When we had artists before, we had to teach them about deafness," she said. "Donald already knows. These children need to have visuals and pictures. Teaching them is a lot different than teaching hearing students."
Denise Grande, who directs the Music Center's artist-in-residence program, said that Lyons also serves as an invaluable role model for students. "It broadens their world and what they can expect and hope to do in their own lives," she said.
Lyons agreed. "Because I'm deaf and can sign like the children, I can be a positive role model," he said. "It's good when hearing people can sign, but the children got so excited when they learned I was deaf.
"This project really helps the children improve their own self-esteem in some ways. When it's finished, I bet they will work at and pursue anything that attracts them," said Lyons, who has not allowed his disability to slow him.
Lyons, who at age 3 lost his hearing to meningitis, was a star track athlete and a forward for the University of Nevada Las Vegas basketball team. The college inducted him into its athletic Hall of Fame. In 1970, he tried out for the Los Angeles Lakers. He recalled that because of his deafness, "the coach was uncomfortable communicating with me during practice and drills."
The multitalented actor has a black belt in karate, plays piano and flute, and holds a bachelor's degree in business administration from Cal State Northridge.
He began his acting career in 1990 when he portrayed a deaf character in Harold Pinter's "The Silence" at the Rose Theater in Venice.
Last year, Lyons joined Los Angeles-based Will & Company, a nonprofit ensemble of 14 actors that adapts classical literary works for the stage. He is special projects director and performs in company productions. Lyons also teaches sign language classes to actors who can hear.
His company has been involved in the Music Center residence program since 1988, but this is Lyons' first year in the classroom. Lyons is one of 26 artists in the residence program, which began six years ago and has sent several artists to Bella Vista. The school, which includes non-disabled students, relies on the Los Angeles County Office of Education for special services to disabled students.
The arts program costs $3,000 to $6,500. Private and government grants to the Music Center pay a third of the costs; participating schools pay two-thirds.
On May 9 at the Music Center, the Bella Vista students joined 3,000 other physically and mentally disabled students from Southern California for the afternoon arts showcase. On June 11 in their school auditorium, the students also will write and present a 30-minute version of "Gulliver's Travels" to their schoolmates who are not deaf.
And what does Lyons expect from his young troupe? He smiled.
"I want to see them win Oscars."