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Sam Barlow High School theater students learn sign language for play about connecting amid turmoil

If You Go

What: "Children of a Lesser God"

When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 5-7, 12 and 13; 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7; 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8

Where: Sam Barlow High School, Room 500, 5105 S.E. 302nd Ave., Gresham

Tickets: $10, adults; $8, students 18 and younger, seniors 55 and older; $5, Sam Barlow staff


COURTESY PHOTO: JEFFREY SCHROEDER, SAM BARLOW HIGH SCHOOL  - Seniors Bryce Coverdale and and Kellyann Giorgi rehearse American sign language for their respective roles as James Leeds and Sarah Norman in Children of Lesser God at Sam Barlow High School. When Jeffrey Schroeder assembled his Sam Barlow High School cast for the upcoming production of "Children of a Lesser God," the first order of business had little to do with learning lines or stage blocking, but everything to do with authenticity.

"The bulk of our rehearsal, which has taken about four weeks, is ASL training," said Schroeder, the school's Theatre Department director, referring to American Sign Language. "That's what's really unique about this show."

The Tony Award-winning stage play by Mark Medoff, which was turned into a movie in 1986, is about a New England school for the deaf and hard of hearing. The tale centers on new teacher James Leeds, played by Barlow senior Bryce Coverdale, and a deaf custodian Sarah Norman, portrayed by senior Kellyann Giorgi.

"They meet and start a relationship," Schroeder said of the lead characters. "It's about him very much trying to know her, trying to understand speech and lip reading."

This aspect extends to the teacher character's relationship with the audience.

"Sarah signs all her lines," Schroeder explained. "She is not interested in learning to speak or read lips. James, for the hearing audience, voices all her lines out loud."

The SBHS Theater Department will present "Children of a Lesser God" in seven performances between Dec. 5 and 13 in Room 500 at the school at 5105 S.E. 302nd Ave., Gresham.

And yes, that's CLASSroom 500, not the Sam Barlow auditorium, whose rebuilding wasn't quite complete by rehearsal time — marking another unique aspect to the production.

"I knew going into this fall we were not going to have as many options for performing spaces as I'd hoped," Schroeder said. "So we decided on a temporary classroom as the setting for the play. There's only about 50 seats, and we have seven performances. It's very intimate. You're right there in the classroom."

Yet another unique aspect of the show is that all seven actors in the cast remain in the room even when some of them don't have lines.COURTESY PHOTO: JEFFREY SCHROEDER, SAM BARLOW HIGH SCHOOL  - Bryce Coverdale, Abigail Bethke (as Mrs. Norman) and Kellyann Giorgi rehearse their roles for Children of a Lesser God at Sam Barlow.

"When they're not (speaking), they're sitting in chairs watching the action happening. They're not present, but are still in the scene," Schroeder said. "It works well with this piece, because they're watching (action) from the perspective of their character. They're not necessarily physically responding, but are still engaged in what's going on."

Schroeder was captivated by "Lesser God" when he saw the play at a theater festival 20 years ago as a high school senior.

"All the high schoolers were crying and having a bunch of emotions," he recalled. "It was such a powerful show."

It also introduced Schroeder to the deaf culture.

"Because it's about a hearing man and a deaf person, there's a struggle (even when they technically communicate) and misunderstandings trying to understand their problems. I've always wanted to do it."

Once he committed to taking it on, Schroeder quickly realized sign-language brought a whole other element to the rehearsal and preparation phase.

"What's crazy about it is, (Giorgi, as Sarah Norman) had taken about two years of ASL at Barlow," he said. "Bryce (Coverdale) had not taken any before. It was a lot of work."

Fortunately, Gresham resident Kathay O'Bryant and her daughters Krassi, who is hard of hearing, and Mila, who is deaf, offered to come in and help the students with ASL.

"They talked not just about ASL but offered a lot of perspective (from their experiences)," Schroeder said. "It's probably been the most enriching part of the play for the kids — and for me."

Despite the assistance and encouragement, Schroeder fully credits the students for diving right in and learning a whole new skill all while preparing for emotionally bracing roles.COURTESY PHOTO: JEFFREY SCHROEDER, SAM BARLOW HIGH SCHOOL  - Bryce Coverdale and and Kellyann Giorgi discuss their sign language parts for their seven upcoming performances in Mark Medoffs Lesser God.

"Let me say the kids are amazing and have done the work they needed to get ASL," he said. "I'm not sure I could have done it. They're doing an incredible job."

The takeaway, from the play itself as well as Schroeder's own experience preparing with his students, has universal applications.

"The most important thing we can do is start listening to each other," he said. "Talk less and listen more."

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