Q&A: Tribes

Performer Stephen Drabicki on life as a hard-of-hearing actor, introducing audiences to different experiences and playing the lead in Canadian Stage’s latest production

Presented by Canadian Stage in association with Theatrefront and Theatre Aquarius


Stephen Drabicki and Dylan Trowbridge in Tribes. Photo by David Hou.

Nina Raine’s Tribes made its debut in 2010 at London’s Royal Court Theatre and its North American premiere Off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre in 2012. This month, Canadian Stage presents the Canadian premiere of the award-winning playdirected by Daryl Cloran and featuring Stephen Drabicki, Patricia Fagan, Holly Lewis, Nancy Palk, Dylan Trowbridge and Joseph Zieglerin co-production with Theatrefront and Theatre Aquarius at the Berkeley Street Theatre (opens Thursday, Feb 6).

Exploring themes of belonging and the limitations of communication, Tribes tells the story of Billy (played by Drabicki, a hard-of-hearing actor) who is deaf from birth but raised as part of his family’s highly intellectual hearing world. It’s not until he meets Sylvia (Lewis), a young woman who is becoming deaf herself, that he begins to question his identity and rebel against his family. Told in English and American Sign Language, Tribes is accessible to both hearing and deaf audiences, allowing all viewers to share in this unique piece of theatre.

We caught up with Drabicki to find out more about his experience working on the show.

Theatromania: How would you describe Canadian Stage's production of Tribes in a few sentences?

SD: Tribes is one of those unique theatrical experiences that provokes laughter and tears all at once, and like all good plays, is difficult to summarize due to its scope and content. Playwright Nina Raine has crafted a play that is brilliantly sharp, bitingly hilarious, and emotionally honest. The play revolves around the family, who, for better or for worse, use their fierce intellect to support each other while simultaneously tearing each other down. For them, arguments are an expression of love, providing an interesting context that is both hilarious and heartbreaking.

Theatromania: Tell us about your character Billy. Have you learned anything from this role?

SD: Billy, the youngest sibling, is deaf but hasn’t had much exposure to the Deaf community, and relies on his hearing aids, lip-reading, and constant requests for the hearing to repeat themselves. He is continually at war to communicate and understand the verbal sparring his family lives for. While an intellectual match for his parents’ and siblings’ rhetoric, their insensitive attitudes towards his communication needs drive him to his breaking point and must demand the family meet him on his terms. As a hard-of-hearing person, I identify with Billy in so many ways. At the age of three my family discovered I had severe bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, meaning that my left ear is almost profoundly deaf, while my right ear hears "enough to get by." Like Billy, I grew up relying on my hearing aids and reading lips to survive the hearing world, but am constantly mishearing and misunderstanding, and have to work twice as hard to communicate. If I can’t see someone’s face when they are talking to me, more often than not I’ll only hear jargon that will take me a moment to translate into words for myself, and hopefully I’ll guess correctly.

Theatromania: What are some of the challenges you've experience during this process?

SD: From experience I know the most challenging part of the process is during technical rehearsals when I’m onstage blinded by lights and directors try to communicate from a distance away in the audience, or backstage when whispers in the dark fail to communicate. I was fortunate in this experience to have ASL interpreters on hand to ease the process for me, but that isn’t always the case with other theatres who may lack funding for interpretation services.

Theatromania: What has been the best part of this experience for you personally?

SD: The best part of playing this role is that it closely resembles my own life experiences. So often in acting I feel pressured to pretend to be hearing; casting directors don’t seem to want actors with hearing aids, or actors with noticeably “deaf” voices. I grew up thinking that in order to be an actor I needed to have little hearing aids that audiences couldn’t see, rather than the larger, more powerful, and more visible behind-the-ear models that I need. I also grew up thinking that I needed to “fix” my voice with speech therapy and voice and diction classes to make my voice as “hearing” as possible. It’s great that I don’t have to worry about any of that with Billy, and I can just be myself. It’s also personally rewarding to play this role because I’ve had a history of auditioning for the play since I first heard about it when it was still in London in 2010. Tribes is a hot show right now! Theatre companies from all over have come out of the woodwork to ask me to audition for them, even some that I auditioned for eight or nine years ago remembered me once they decided to produce it. There’s a small pool of deaf and hard-of-hearing actors in New York, and it’s great to see myself and my friends booking this show and getting a chance to work when the odds are more often than not stacked against us. In an industry that has its own ideal of “perfection” and 99% of the work goes to triple threats, it’s refreshing to see diversity. Hopefully more plays will start being written not only for deaf characters, but also characters that show the full breadth of the human experience. It breaks my heart to see some theatre companies cast hearing actors in deaf and hard-of-hearing roles, not only in Tribes, but other plays as well, defeating the message of the story.

Theatromania: What do you hope audiences take away from this performance?

SD: I certainly hope hearing audiences leave with their eyes and minds more open to the Deaf community, and their world expanded just a little more. Human beings are so quick to form our own little tribes, and so quick to exclude those who don’t fit our own mold. Perhaps hearing audiences will leave inspired to be more inclusive and sensitive to the Deaf and hard-of-hearing, and perhaps be more in tune to their communication needs. I hope the play challenges all of us: the deaf (medically), the Deaf (culturally), the hard-of-hearing, and the hearing, to take a look at our own prejudices, and perhaps expand our own respective tribes to include those we once excluded.

See Stephen Drabicki in Tribes until Mar 2 at the Berkeley Street Theatre. Visit canadianstage.com for more information and to buy tickets.

Show Dates: 
Sun, 2014-02-02 - Sun, 2014-03-02


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