The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts isn’t afraid to bring deafness to the center stage, and that’s thanks in part to two great actors – John McGinty and Dino Nicandros, who together play the role of Quasimodo in the latest production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This production holds true to Hugo’s novel and makes Quasimodo deaf – his character is then played by McGinty, who also happens to be a deaf actor, and Nicanrdos, acting as his voice.
I was able to talk to both McGinty and Nicandros in separate phone interviews, where we discussed exactly what it was like to play a deaf character, how their experience was in a mixed hearing / hard of hearing cast, and what their hopes are for future actors and actresses.
Getting started in musical theatre.
We first spoke about how both actors got started in musical theatre, and how they landed their dual parts of Quasimodo.
McGinty started his musical theatre career with the production company Deaf West Theatre. “Deaf West is a production group – they produced a lot of different performances of musical theatre using joint, mixed deaf and hearing actors” explained McGinty. “Their mission is to allow the audience, hearing and deaf, to have equal access of the experience while enjoying musical production.”
Nicandros’ experience started in high school. “Growing up as a kid my interest wasn’t particularly geared toward musical theatre but I loved movies and I loved making up characters and that seemed like the best outlet,” he explained. “I ended up studying it at college as well, and haven’t stopped since.”
While McGinty and Nicandros both came into musical theatre naturally, their experiences getting the role of Quasimodo differed greatly. McGinty attributed his much of his opportunity to act as Quasimodo to the production’s director, Glen Casale, who he had previously met before. “I realized that Glen will be directing hunchback this past summer and I thought ‘oh my God, I have to get to audition for him.'” Soon after, McGinty was given the part.
Quite unlike McGinty, however, Nicandros got the part of Quasimodo without first knowing that he would be played by two actors. “It was an interesting process,” he explained. “I went in to audition for the role of Quasimodo and that’s kind of all they said. So I went in, memorized lines for it as if i was going to play deaf.” He went on to describe how it was only after the audition that they explained the dual role, to which he responded positively: “I mean wow – it never crossed my mind to actually find an actor who was hard of hearing to actually play the role and that makes perfect sense, going back to the source material, Victor Hugo’s character was deaf. It was really neat when they offered me that.”
Deafness in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
We also talked about the significance of Quasimodo’s character being deaf and split into both a visual character and a voice.
When I asked McGinty about how his performance in the show affects the perception of Quasimodo’s deaf character in the stage production, he replied: “I think people kind of have a picture of what Quasimodo is like. Of course the first thing they think of is the physical appearance, the deformation, the actual hunchback, the facial disfiguration – but I’m not interested in showing that perspective. I’m more interested in showing the inner struggle. What is the actual feeling, what does it actually feel like to be an outcast?”
McGinty then went on to explain the important connection between Quasimodo and his own experiences. “Of course, being deaf alone in the hearing world, that is very desperate for communication, I could showcase that. The human desperation for that community, for that love, oftentimes I feel that in John, myself, I feel more an outcast, more isolated, more desperate in that regard. ” he said. “So i wanted to apply that to this character and really bring that to the stage to show hopefully the audience that experience, or that this is what it’s like as a deaf person going through society, where – I shouldn’t use the word bullying, but you can see it on stage, you see how the other characters bully Quasimodo. Think about how that applies to real life, because I know that in schools bullying happens to somebody who’s an outcast like that. But it is so important to visually see Quasimodo as a human being.”
Nicandros commented that making Quasimodo deaf is vital to the story. “It really changes the way you experience the show in such an important and vital way.”
He also spoke further on having Quasimodo played by two actors: “I think it strengthens the story. Like I said, it never crossed my mind to do that, and I think you need to credit the director Glen Casale and McCoy Rigby [production company] and the folks up at Sacramento [where the show was originally played] for being open to something like that. I think it is so important because in the source material he was deaf, and this wasn’t a gimmick, like a ‘look we have a deaf actor while doing sign language’. It’s so vitally important to the story itself.”
Both actors also acknowledged the importance of the other role as well, Nicandros saying that McGinty is “one of the finest actors I’ve ever gotten to work with” and McGinty affirming, “honestly, I am not Quasimodo. We are Quasimodo, together.”
Deafness in the theatre.
I also asked both actors what it was like to work in a cast that has both actors who can hear and actors who can’t.
McGinty emphasized that all actors – whether or deaf or not – have their own set of challenges. “Each actor, regardless of race, gender, whatever, just the whole gamut, they all have their own challenges as an actor. So I don’t want to be considered as a deaf actor, I mean, I am an actor who happens to be deaf.”
Nicandros spoke on how his initial doubts were quickly quieted: “at first its kind of ‘I wonder how that will work?’ but that concern kind of disappeared the moment I met John.”
“John and I haven’t had any of those issues at all,” he went on to say. “He’s one of the gang, and there have been no kind of hangs ups at all, really.”
Nicandros then explained his biggest challenge in the show: learning American Sign Language. “I think my biggest worry was just making sure, like any other language, that you are accurate as possible with all your hand gestures, I mean it is a full blown language. We owe John and the hard of hearing and the deaf community the same respect we would for somebody who didn’t speak English, or something along those lines. So i think my biggest concern was making sure I was dead on with that, and John was so gracious and so patient as I screwed up through rehearsal. And eventually was able to get it down, but he was great.”
Advice for aspiring actors and actresses.
As we closed out our interview I asked if either of them had any advice for aspiring actors and actresses.
McGinty gave his advice to other actors and actresses who happen to be deaf and hard of hearing: “My advice I often say to many others, which is so so important, is to be yourself. And really show your true colors. I mean, show your skills, show what you can bring to the stage, show what you can bring to the table. And do what you want, do what you love. Don’t worry about what other people are saying, don’t worry about what the reviews say you should be doing. Don’t worry about any of that – just do you.”
Nicandros also had his advice for others wanting to go into theatre: “If this is what makes you happy, do it. and that sounds a little trite, but it can sometimes be hard explaining wanting to go into the arts as a career to parents….If it’s something you really care about, just like any other job, you have to give it everything you have. And there are going to be a lot of people who are gonna tell you why you can’t, just be kind to yourself….And set goals, set roles you want to for out and get. and just – I don’t know, enjoy it, I sure as heck have. I think that would be my advice.”
Where do we go from here?
“It’s one of those life changing moments,” Nicandros said as we finished the interview. “This’ll be one of the ones I look back on, you know – my kids or my grandkids, I’ll tell them about this one.”
It’s evident from productions like La Mirada’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and ABC’s Speechless that visibility is coming to the forefront of Disney media. Perhaps in the future we’ll see more of this – McGinty even expressed interest in “a deaf princess or a deaf prince” – but for now, we get to celebrate the beauty of this production alongside McGinty, Nicandros, and the rest of the cast.
You can see McGinty and Nicandros as Quasimodo yourself at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts from now until October 9th. There will also be an ASL interpreted performance on Saturday, October 8 at 2pm and open-captioned performances on Sunday, September 25, Wednesday, September 28, and Sunday, October 9.
Grab your tickets online now to make sure you get the chance to see this amazing show!
Special thanks to John McGinty and Dino Nicandros for sharing their experiences and thoughts about this show with us.