Joshua Castille is an intimidating actor to interview. He’s fearless, innovative and has more energy than any other actor I have ever met. He can speak lines with a Louisiana accent (where he was raised) or take on the intonations of a Britisher, as he does in the family drama Tribes playing through tomorrow at the Boyd-Quinson Stage at Barrington Stage Company (BSC). The Friday and Saturday performances will be signed as well as spoken and captioned. It is a phenomenal theatrical experience which you experience both intellectually and viscerally.
As a theatre-goer for more than a half century watching 21-year-old Castille go through his paces as both an actor and someone who signs made the little grey cells in my brain quiver with astonishment. There is acting, but when American Sign Language and its own rich vocabulary is added to the arsenal of tricks in any actor’s toolbox, it opens up a depth of communication that suggests new possibilities. Fresh from the sung/signed revival of Spring Awakening on Broadway, the ASL community is opening up new possibilities for the theatre of the future. We wanted to know a lot more, and figured you might as well, so here is our extensive and probing interview with someone who has a vision for the future of theatre.
“Be technicolor in a monochromatic moment” – Joshua Castille
Larry Murray, Berkshire on Stage: Do you think you were spared a lot of bullying that goes on while growing up because you went to a Performing Arts High School?
Joshua Castille: Yes, for sure. I was supported all the way, the teachers kept reminding me to do my homework, and if anyone messes with you, let them know. In the classroom nobody looked at me askance, we were all there to learn.
Larry: I understand that you had to be encouraged to try out for Spring Awakening.
Joshua: I was in college at the time, and was a little hesitant about leaving school at that moment, but the teachers told me I had talent, and to “go, go, go.” So I did. “Just come back when you are done,” they said.
Larry: Did you have to adapt to what your trainers were teaching, or did they have to adapt to you?
Joshua: I think it went both ways. I do think it could be improved, it could be better. But I had a pretty good education, and with my hearing aid I could actually hear a lot. But I think it was more concerned about the experience of my friends who are deaf, and how they suffered far more than me. Fortunately, the teachers spent more time with those students.
Larry: Learning lines can be difficult, was that the case for you?
Joshua: (laughing) No, I’m a theatre nerd. So you could send me a musical and I could tell you what the lyrics are, like I could memorize everything. I have a weird instinct and sense of memory when it comes to theatre.
Larry: Living as a deaf person in a hearing household is one thing; but then being a gay person in that same household is another thing, which was more difficult?
Joshua: Oh, that’s a hard one to answer. Because I had three journeys actually. I had my gay journey first, and my deaf journey second. That’s how it played out. It’s interesting because I came out when I was eight, then closeted myself until I was ten, and came out again, and then hid that part until I was twelve when I said, “Listen I’m not bi, I’m not confused, I am gay.” I came to that conclusion which was interesting since some of my family members asked me not tell “that” person or “this” person, or “what would the church do, why are you doing that…”
I had to fight for my own equal rights as a human. If I wanted to bring a guy home I wouldn’t want to lie. I had magazine clippings of handsome men like Zac Efron that I had cut out and my mother took it from me. Yet my cousin was allowed to have images on her binder so I went and took my picture back from her. I said “If my cousin can have it, so can I.”
Larry: My father took and burned my pictures when I was fourteen, so you are not alone.
Joshua: I am so grateful for the generations before me. The amount of resistance my family – they were strict Catholic, Republican, Caucasian – and they only focused on abilities. So when I started my deaf journey at Gallaudet University (The world’s only university designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard of hearing students) they talked about deaf identity and deaf culture, how deafness and gay life almost parallel each other. That’s because we are born to parents that don’t understand our lives. So we are constantly fighting for our own identity, our own equality. That’s why we have to develop our own family within that community. My biological family didn’t understand why I wanted to socialize more with my chosen family.
Larry: Blood relatives just don’t get it, do they. But our adopted families do.
Joshua: My deaf friends loved me. We spent time talking about love. We talked about education, we kept an open mind, we wanted to learn more about different people.
My biological family just spent their time picking on me. “Why do deaf people get so angry when people can’t sign? Why do you gay people have to get married?”
I would answer that they should just accept me. Yet, while the parents were not understanding me, the deaf community did.
So I have to agree with you, Larry, growing up as a deaf gay person was a completely different experience because I had to fight for every inch of my identity.
Larry: And when you said you wanted to be an actor…
Joshua: I remember when Spring Awakening moved to Broadway their reaction was “Well, what about school?” I told them that school would still be there but they argued that Broadway would always be there, that I had to go to school first. Ultimately we had a conversation about jobs, and how picking something like what I was doing could ultimately affect society. It was a bit of “make believe” to them, but once they saw Spring Awakening they realized I was not looking for fame, but to make art.
Larry: You are also on the crest of a wave as the deaf community is getting some long overdue recognition as the creators of an art form. And it is only fifty years since the first ASL play – Arsenic and Old Lace was done by students at Gallaudet University for two performances during its hit Broadway run. Later came Children of a Lesser God which was so groundbreaking. What will the future hold?
Joshua: Right now I am forming a company called The Deaf Gang, to help fight the cuts that constantly happen in education for deaf people. The Deaf Gang will write and develop theatre. For example we have developed a contract for when I join a show that all social media must be captioned. All performances, including the actor, must be captioned. It’s good to have all of the performances captioned because it not only benefits the deaf community, it benefits everybody. Even the hard of hearing can have difficulty keeping up with the dialogue on stage, so the captions can help them to better see and understand the play. So in essence if they want me in a play because I am a selling point, then you have to provide access to my audience. We are in our infancy, just twelve members and growing.
Larry: So I hear that being a Louisiana native that you make a hell of a roux. But you also love Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese. Those are two completely different poles. Explain yourself, young man.
Joshua: Yeah, I like diversity. I like to cook and eat food, and it’s tough to make a good roux for a gumbo without scorching it. How do you know so much about Louisiana food?
Larry: Years of not getting to New Orleans often enough. But back to the subject, how to maximize the appeal of a signed play so that it appeals to both the deaf and hearing communities.
Joshua: I have talked to so many people involved with the National Theatre of the Deaf, Deaf West, Gallaudet University and we haven’t come to that resolution yet. It’s not that we haven’t made progress, but we do not yet have enough documentation. Or experimentation. Because when you think about “hearing” theatre, you have so many years of cultivation, while in America the deaf theatre has just begun. Again, another reason for developing The Deaf Gang, to have a way to try new things. In the next year we hope to do several shows and they have to allow us to tape the performances since we need that documentation. And that goes for both successful shows and those that don’t succeed. We have to make up for the lack of research and fresh thinking to advance deaf theatre. Right now we are looking at doing this in LA and perhaps finding cohorts in Chicago, New York and elsewhere.
I don’t want to be a the boss, the dictator, but rather to start a virus so to speak, be that seed, and let it flourish and develop on its own.
Larry: Who knows, perhaps there is a forward thinking Berkshire theatre company which might find The Deaf Gang some living space, sustenance and a stage for you to play with next summer. I am pretty sure a savvy fundraiser could hit both the usual suspects and some new ones to help find you funding for the basics. But whatever happens, we will be watching developments with great interest from this point on.