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TV’s first deaf showrunners want to change the conversation around people with disabilities

“It’s a visually based life, that often is overlooked by the general public,” says Shoshannah Stern, co-creator of This Close.

This Close
Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman created This Close, as well as starring in it and writing all six episodes.
Sundance Now
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

How many times have you watched a TV show or movie that depicts what it’s like to be a deaf person through the audio completely dropping out when the story enters a deaf character’s point-of-view? How many stories of this sort convey deafness through silence? A lot of them, right?

To be honest, that was the sort of thing I had never once questioned until I checked out the new Sundance Now TV series This Close, a six-episode show about Michael and Kate, two best friends who also happen to be deaf. The two are played by Josh Feldman and Shoshannah Stern, who also created the series, wrote all six episodes, and served as its showrunners. And the more we talked during the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, the more I realized that thinking about deafness as silence is entirely a construct of people who can hear.

“You don’t know what silence is if you can’t hear,” Stern told me at one point, before explaining that her experience — as someone who can read lips fairly well — would be very different from someone who can’t read lips at all. Similarly, sound still exists for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, but often as vibrations. Stern noted, for example, that she can always feel her blood flowing, or her heart pumping, the sorts of things we all can feel but maybe don’t experience as “sound” in the way Stern might.

That was just part of my fascinating discussion with Feldman, Stern, and This Close director Andrew Ahn, who helmed all six episodes and found new ways to depict deafness onscreen for those of us who can hear (a number that includes Ahn).

In particular, I wanted to get the actors’ take on an argument that several characters have in one episode about whether characters with disabilities should always be played by actors with disabilities, instead of casting more famous people to play those roles. The discussion that followed was terrific, so I’m excerpting it below, lightly edited for length and clarity. (Both Stern and Feldman spoke with me via the assistance of American Sign Language interpreters.) To read a full transcript of the entire conversation, go here.

Emily VanDerWerff

This Close is not a political show, but it’s going to be read sort of in those terms because people often read shows about underrepresented communities in terms of politics. There is one moment in the season, for example, when you’re talking about actors who don’t have disabilities playing characters who do.

There’s a whole discussion about this question, and whether only actors with disabilities should be cast in those sorts of parts. How much of this comes from your own experiences? How close is that question to your own views?

Shoshannah Stern

It has everything to do with it. I would like to say it’s a work of fiction, but it’s not, that everything doesn’t really happen that way, but it does happen. And I can see why it does. Often, [producers] need a name. They need a marquee name to sell a film. I think that’s the number one reason. “We’ve gotta get so and so in here. We need this particular name in order to sell the film.”

But at the same time, there aren’t that many roles out there [for actors with disabilities]. So I don’t think it’s possible for almost any disabled actor to become a name with the amount of roles that are out there for them. So it’s really a Catch-22.

Right now, people are trying to normalize what we see on television. They’re trying to represent the world that we actually see and live in, but I think often disability is seen as a different conversation than the rest of diversity. They’re basically the same conversation, and I’m hoping that the way that we see diversity — which I think is getting better in Hollywood — I’m hoping that the perception of disability follows in that vein.

Twenty percent of the population has some sort or form of disability, but actors with disabilities make up 2 percent of what we see on screen and stage. So there’s a huge disparity there.

At the same time, though, how do we expect people to see what’s not even there for them to see? We experience so much with people, this idea that, “Oh, gosh, I never thought about this particular thing before.” And I say, “How could you! It would be impossible for you to come up with this on your own. It’s not a part of your lived experience if you’re not a deaf person, if you’re not a gay person, if you’re not a woman.”

It’s hard to realize, “Oh, gosh, the way that I see the world isn’t the way that everybody sees the world.” It’s a very personal thing.

Josh Feldman

I also think another reason why we don’t see enough representation in terms of our disabled community is you’re going to need us to tell those stories, just like communities of color need to tell those stories.

There’s just not enough disabled people writing these stories or working behind the camera. When we reach the equivalent number of disabled writers, I’m hoping the number of disabled stories starts to increase as well.

This Close Sundance Now

Emily VanDerWerff

We’ve talked a lot, in general, about transgender performers, and when a cisgender performer plays a transgender character, the story is almost always about the character’s transition.

I think about when we see stories about people with disabilities, it’s almost always someone who is not disabled playing a character who becomes disabled and then has to persevere and be inspiring to the rest of us, and it’s often based on a true story. Some of those movies and TV shows are very good, but I’m wondering, since a lot of them are written and directed by people without disabilities, what are they missing?

Josh Feldman

Oftentimes, those stories are told by able-bodied individuals, so it’s all about the journey. It’s all about the transformation. The learning curve.

Shoshannah Stern

The loss! The loss of something.

Josh Feldman

Right. For us, it’s so much more than that. In our everyday life, being deaf people, deafness is just one of my everyday experiences. But my story being told by somebody else, it becomes my only lived experience. So every minute of my life when it’s told by an able-bodied person, and that’s not the whole story about me.

Shoshannah Stern

I think that’s what happens with actors too. Sure, you’re a brilliant actor. There are many brilliant actors out there who are amazing at what they do, but if you’re playing something that’s so far out of your experience, like being deaf, you have to think about it, like, “How would I respond to this if I were deaf?” In every moment. How would I fall in love with someone if I were deaf? How would I do this, or that, or other things? It’s not how you live your life with any sort of disability, with any sort of specific experience.

For example, transgender people, it’s not about the loss. It’s the gain of something there. With deaf people, it’s not about the loss of sound. It’s the gain. It’s a kind of life, a visually based life, that often is overlooked by the general public.

And even with sound design, focusing on the loss of sound is so often the choice that is made by the sound designers, when there are so many other things you could use visually to display how the language itself is a visual media.

For much more with Feldman, Stern, and Ahn, including a discussion of how they turned a bunch of web shorts into a full-fledged TV show and Ahn’s thoughts on how he spent more time thinking about sound design for This Close than just about anything else, listen to the full episode.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

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