Arts West’s production of ‘Once: the Musical’ seeks to bring a fuller experience to both deaf and hearing audiences

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) – Arts West (132 W. State St.) presents Once: the Musical, opening March 17, in recognition of National Disabilities Awareness Month.

WOUB Culture spoke to producer and Arts West Program Specialist Emily Beveridge; director Dayton Willison; music director Michael Tobar; actors Daniel Cagle (Guy) and Lauren Key (Girl); and ASL interpreter Alli Kisker about the show. Find a transcript of their conversation below.

“Once” runs at Arts West from March 17–March 19, 2023. March 17, 18, 19 performances will run at 8 p.m. A sensory-friendly performance takes place at 2 p.m. March 18. Find more information on tickets here.

A poster for Arts West's production of "Once: the Musical"

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Emily Votaw: Why produce Once: the Musical and why produce it during National Disabilities Awareness Month?

Emily Beveridge: This is the second play that Arts West has ever produced. Our first one was Fun Home, which was done for Pride Month last year in 2022. And actually, the staff of Arts West, we chose Once as our next musical before we even were through Fun Home. We kind of knew that Fun Home was going to be special just going into it. So we started discussing, ‘okay we’re doing Fun Home for Pride month. Could we do a show for Disabilities Awareness Month, in March? Then we started talking about how American Sign Language is being integrated into theater. That’s a relatively new trend. But there are theaters like Deaf West out in Los Angeles that are just a deaf theater and they’ve performed in Columbus. And this was all new information to me.

But upon like seeing YouTube clips of how those shows like that are staged, I was really impressed. I was kind of familiar with the story of Once because the movie came out in 2008 and I was aware of what it was, but I’d never watched it. The music is so, so beautiful and so meaningful. I think for me at least, where I really find a connection to the show is it’s about someone who feels like art no longer has a place in his life and through a connection with another fellow artist, his abilities are reaffirmed and his value as an artist is supported. I just really think that that message is really strong, especially when you pair it with Disabilities Awareness Month. It explores a deeper meaning, questioning ‘what does art mean?’ ‘Who should be creating art?’ ‘Who should be experiencing art?’
Emily Votaw: Tell me about the music.

Michael Tobar: The music is in a folk idiom. It is set in Dublin and there’s a backdrop of the Irish culture. The songs in the show are all performed on acoustic instruments: guitars, fiddle, piano. I play accordion in a couple of tunes, which makes it more Irish. It’s very powerful music. It tells the story of the underlying emotions – what the characters aren’t saying. And the members of the band are WOUB’s own Terry Dowds who plays bass and Rusty Smith who plays fiddle in the show.

Dayton Willison: Actors who are playing their own instruments within the show. Guy plays the guitar, Girl plays the piano. At least half of the cast is also playing along with the band. It is very much part of the show. It’s the way the show is designed. You really can’t do it without some actors who can play instruments.

Emily Votaw: That’s very impressive. Dan and Lauren – I understand you play the central characters in the play – could you tell me what it’s been like to play an instrument in the context of these roles?

Daniel Cagle: Once has been my personal favorite show since like 2014, when I first saw it. And I’ve played guitar that whole time. So I’ve spent the last however many years just playing these songs in my bedroom. Getting to have this opportunity to put it up on stage and actually perform these pieces with other musicians and tell this story has been just a beautiful experience. Guy is a character I understand very well, I did before we stepped into this rehearsal process. The idea  of him being able to truly express himself through his music and struggling in his real life is something I really connected to. His art is what brings him to life and what brings out his passion.

Lauren Key: I didn’t know about the show until I saw a poster for it. And right after I saw the poster for it a couple months ago, I looked up the soundtrack and I was like, ‘oh my God, I’ve never heard anything like this!’ So I immediately went to Glidden and I think I sat there for like four hours just trying to teach myself piano. I maybe had lessons when I was like four years old, five years old – but it was never something I really stuck with. So it was a process. I remember I went into the callback where I had to play piano and where I actually even brought a guitar. I didn’t have a guitar up at school, but they wanted me to play guitar in the callback. So I posted on social media to my entire graduating class at OU and I said, ‘Hey, does anyone have a guitar that I can borrow? I will literally give it back to you.’ So someone lent me theirs, and I took it to the callback and I think I played “A Horse With No Name.”  It was the whole aspect of getting that role, it just showed me that hard work really does matter.

Emily Votaw: So Dan, it sounds like you have had a very close relationship with this production for a long time. So what’s it been like to see other folks sort of develop a similar appreciation?

Dan Cagle: That’s a really interesting question. While being mainly about Guy and Girl, this is a very ensemble piece. It’s very reliant on every portion of the band. It’s been incredible to watch the music grow through our first couple music rehearsals. The first time we sang through the — I don’t wanna call it the leading track – “Falling Slowly,” I think I just started crying. I’ve been playing that song alone in my room since I was a 14-year-old kid. And to be in a room with 10 other actors and musicians, watching that piece grow has been really powerful.

Emily Votaw: Alli, your role in the production is very important. For folks that may not be familiar with the kind of interpretation that you do, could you sort of tell me exactly what you’ll be doing during the production?

Alli Kisker: So, the way that this show is being interpreted is extremely unique, especially for being in Athens — and I would even say on a statewide level. So I have been doing performance interpreting pretty consecutively for the past five to seven years. I’ve never done a show like this before — I’ve only ever seen it happen. Typically when people decide that they wanna have ASL  interpreters, the interpreter is lucky if we get to watch it once. So we may get to go to a dress rehearsal — and we usually get a script. That’s usually about it. To be able to have an actual run through is almost unheard of. So to go from that type of interpreting to what we’re doing with this show is so different.

I interpret for several cast members, but I interpret mostly for Girl. And in getting to know Girl, getting to know her character, sometimes I go to Lauren and say, ‘Hey, there’s this line. What are you feeling when you say this line?’ Because I wanna make sure that I’m interpreting it in that same way. Which often doesn’t get to happen. When I’m reading a script, I’m making assumptions about the way people are trying to communicate things. With this, myself and Ty Shahan, who’s the other interpreter, we are going to rehearsals two and three times a week to be there to be with the cast to do run throughs. Also, Dayton puts this really unique spin on it because he is also doing it in a way that we’re also cast members.

Versus the way that performance interpreting is often done, which is: ‘here’s your corner over here’ – which means deaf people have to constantly look from stage left to stage, right to stage, left to stage right. Asking themselves ‘Who are they trying to talk for? Oh, they’re talking for this person. Okay.’ To now being able to just watch it on stage and see the story unfold with the language access right there, and with the true intent of what the director is trying to convey, what the actors are trying to convey it’s really beautiful.

Dayton Willison: It’s called shadow interpreting because it actually takes the interpreters and it makes them part of the show so that the deaf community is getting the same picture and the same story with the actors that are also playing the characters. I worked with my wife when Deaf West did American Buffalo in Columbus, so I’ve had this experience and been around a show where ASL was actually part of the show. So after seeing that, I was like, ‘I don’t ever want to see a show again where an interpreter is just stuck on a corner on a side, because that’s not fair to the deaf audience that’s come to see the show. They’re not getting the same story, they’re not getting the same experience. And I’m not okay with that. That’s not right.

Emily Votaw: What are some of the general themes? I mean, without giving anything away of the plot, what do you hope the audience comes away with?

Daniel Cagle: I think it’s very bittersweet. It’s deals very heavily with this idea of being stuck, and seeking and finding hope and love through connection. There’s a line in the show I just remembered, where a character asks: “I wonder how do people come and stay together? How do we make that work?” And there’s not really an answer.

Dayton Willison: So much of life is about what you don’t say and what doesn’t get said between people in relationships. And that is definitely true within this show as well. In Irish culture, there is this great tradition of talking at a pub and talking about your dreams and saying, ‘well, maybe I’ll do that, once,’ or ‘maybe I’ll do it sometime.’ It’s the vacillating between the, ‘maybe I’ll do something’ and ‘maybe I won’t do something.’ And in this play, that theme does play itself out and you do get to see the choices that are made and whether someone will go forward with something or someone will not. So that’s all I’m gonna say.