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A Conversation With Sweet Nothing In My Ear Writer Stephen Sachs

Stephen Sachs wrote the play Sweet Nothing in My Ear and then adapted it for television.  It will premiere as a Hallmark Hall Fame production Sunday, April 20, 2008 on CBS.  In the play and film, Dan Miller (Jeff Daniels) and his wife Laura (Marlee Matlin) have a healthy and happy eight-year-old son, Adam (Noah Valencia), who’s been deaf since age four.  Laura, who is deaf, opposes the idea of cochlear implant surgery for Adam, which might enable him to hear.  She doesn’t consider deafness a “disability,” and believes an operation – regardless of the outcome – would make Adam feel that something is wrong with him, something that needs “fixing.”  Dan, who is hearing, misses talking and listening to his son.  He believes an operation – if successful – would make life richer for Adam.

Q:  As a hearing person, how did you first become acquainted with the deaf community, and with deaf issues?

It all started 20 years ago when I was directing a play at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, a play I adapted from an Italo Calvino novel, The Baron in the Trees. 

The producers decided to do one ASL [American Sign Language]-interpreted performance of the play, and they hired an interpreter to stand at the side of the stage with a little spotlight on him.  During the one rehearsal we did with the interpreter I was trying to watch my actors, but I was fixated by this powerful, beautiful sign language thing that was going on off to the side.  Finally, I stopped the rehearsal, and I took the interpreter and put him into the play.  Literally.  He began to work with the actors and improvise things.  They began to ask questions, like ‘How do you sign this?’ ‘What’s the sign for that?’  We all got so excited by the process.

And that was really how it started.  That’s when my eyes opened up to what sign language could be onstage.

Q:  Is that when you began learning it?

Yes.  Prior to getting involved in all of this I didn’t know sign language.  But I quickly learned it is so beautiful and powerful and theatrical – I got very excited about it.   

The average hearing person has no idea how intricate and subtle sign language is.  They think it’s just a straight translation into body language of what you and I are saying to each other in English.

Wrong!   

It’s an entirely different language.  Incredibly subtle.  Incredibly complex.  It has its own syntax, its own sentence structure, the word order is different than it is in spoken English.  If you ask an actor to speak English and sign at the same time, which is what Jeff Daniels has to do as ‘Dan’ — it’s like asking him to speak and juggle — simultaneously.

You may be saying, ‘I want to go to the store,’ while at the same time you’re signing, ‘Me, me store go fast.’  It’s just incredibly difficult.

Q:  If Jeff Daniels was sitting here instead of me, what would you say to him?

I’m so sorry!  I’m so sorry to have done this to you!   

Q:  And when did you learn about the issue of cochlear implants?

I actually read a story in the newspaper about it.  There was a photograph of a little boy with this space age-y little device protruding from his head.  To put it mildly, that grabbed my attention.  And when I learned what a controversial subject implants are in the deaf community I thought, ‘Wow, that would make a fascinating play…’

Q:  How did you come up with the title?

It just came to me, and it seemed like the right title because of its different meanings. 

The play and the film are really about family, about caring for your child, struggling to do what’s right.  It’s also about feelings and love, and the idea of whispering sweet nothings — words of love – struck me as important.  Then there’s the idea that having nothing in your ear, having no sound in your ear, could be sweet.  That intrigued me.

As a hearing person, when I was first doing research on implants, I was surprised and even shocked that there was any controversy about this.  I thought to myself, ‘Hold on a minute.  If a deaf person had the chance to have a medical procedure that would enable them to hear – not perfectly, but at least to hear sounds again – then surely that’s a no-brainer!’

But as I got deeper and deeper into the research, and talked to more and more of my deaf friends, I realized just how sensitive, delicate and controversial the issue really is.  I started to realize how fears and prejudices can lie dormant and hidden within all of us.  It enabled me to explore the question of what is ‘normal,’ and what is not – and who decides that. 

It really comes down to personal choice.  I think if you were to speak to ten different deaf parents about implants you’d get ten different opinions.  It’s very personal and individual.

Q:  So it’s by design neither play nor movie takes a position on this…

The fundamental question for any parent — ‘How do I decide what is best for my child?’ – is something that all of us struggle with as parents, whether we’re hearing or deaf.  

“One of the things about this story is that the audience can care for both Dan and Laura, and understand the position each one of them takes.

When we’re with Dan, and he’s trying to convince Laura to agree to an implant for Adam, our understanding and sympathy goes with him and you think, ‘Of course.  I understand.  That makes sense to me.  Why shouldn’t Adam be given the ability to hear?’

And then with Laura we flip to the other side and appreciate her point of view, understand where she’s coming from.  As a member of the audience, we’re torn.

Q:  Of course, someone might say, ‘Why not just let the child grow up and then make the decision himself or herself?

Well, that’s part of the complexity of the story.  Research indicates that because a child’s brain is still forming and is able to adapt to suddenly taking in sound where before there was none, the earlier the better, in terms of implant surgery.  

But that places a huge responsibility on parents, because you’re having to make a life choice, a life decision, for your child, at a very early age.  It would be so much easier to be able to say, ‘I’ll just wait until my child is 18 or 21, and let her or him decide then.’  You can do that – and some parents do – but doctors say it’s best to make the decision as early as possible, to get the maximum benefit from this device.

It’s agonizing for any parent to have to make these kinds of decisions, but as parents we must.  We do this all the time.  Every day.  And it’s hard.  It’s hard.

Q:  How has the deaf community reacted to your play?

It’s been staged throughout the country, and deaf audiences have flocked to see it.  They’re very passionate about it.  We have long discussions after the play is performed about the issues it raises.  

I’ve had so many deaf kids bring their hearing parents to see the play.  And those kids all report they say the same thing to their parents:  ‘Adam is me.  That’s who I am.’  And hundreds of hearing parents of deaf children have spoken to me after the play is over and said, ‘By seeing this play I better understand now what it is my child has been trying to get me to understand.’  [Editors note:  90 percent of deaf children have hearing parents.]

So it’s wonderful when a piece of theater, a piece of art, a film, can open people’s eyes, open their hearts, and get them to look at each other differently. 

If anyone who sees this film goes out on the street and sees a deaf person differently, maybe understands them a little bit better, then I think we’ve done a very important thing.

 

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