Sandra Mae Frank is a trained stage and film actress, best known for her role as Wendla from Deaf West’s Spring Awakening on Broadway. REGIONAL THEATRE: Fun Home at Ground Floor Theatre; Fun Home at Lyric Theatre; Our Town at Pasadena Playhouse; At Home at the Zoo (Assistant Director) at Wallis/Deaf West Theatre; Fiddler on the Roof at Lyric Theatre; Richard III at NextStop Theatre Company. FILM: Season of Love, Entangled, Soul to Keep and The Sound of Fear. TELEVISION: Netflix's Daybreak and Freeform’s Switched at Birth. ADDITIONAL CREDITS: 2015 Breakthrough Matlin Impact Award, 2015 BroadwayWorld LA Award’s Best Leading Actress in a Musical, B.A in Production/Performance from Gallaudet University, Theatre Arts Program.
Click here to listen to our interview with Sandra.
Larkin: Thank you so much for joining us today, Sandra. We would like to start at the beginning. How did you discover your passion for acting?
Sandra: Well, I think I was a little girl playing with a camera—in those days it was one of those old fashioned ones that you have to put a tape into it on your shoulder. And I was at a friend's house and we were playing, acting, but I never thought about it being a job later; it was just something fun for me to do, be creative, do stories. I tended to do horror stories when I was a child. I would show my mom and dad afterwards. I'd put a movie in, my mom would look at it and go, “Uh-huh (affirmative) okay, great Sandra. Why are you doing this?” My parents were excellent that way because they encouraged my movie making and they liked it. Then, in high school I was involved in plays. I never thought of it. Going into college I decided to major in English and so that was my starting point. I was in education. And then after summer, after school, I'd be doing school plays and that was about it. But because at that time when we were thinking of jobs, acting for deaf people, at that time five years ago, was not a viable option. It was not ideal. There were no jobs. It wasn't a stable situation. They didn't pop up or happen that often. So I was going to be in education, in teaching. But the industry was right there. The industry approached me, said, you have to act full-time. I thought, well, an English a major is still writing, an English major would be good... But all of a sudden I just found myself going in a direction of being a full-time actor, and here I am after all those different times of trying to be a teacher.
Jennifer: Do you find a difference in your artistic process while doing film or theater?
Sandra: I'm from a theater background, okay, very strong theater background. I've never thought that I'd be doing film or television at all. It never entered my mind. But theater is a really ... well, at that time. All right? (Laughs) But watching how it's all unfolded, from the beginning to the end, it hasn't stopped. There has been no cut, no redo, no retake. That's my life. It just keeps on going. TV and film, I don't know, you don't see a deaf person on television that often. And then Spring Awakening on Broadway happened and I had to juggle both these worlds. There's background, small roles, I liked it, but then I kept getting more auditions and more involvement and now I love both worlds. So theater, theatrically, it's kind of complicated. It's raw. It's like ... theater's big, but television is different. You can do different roles, deaf roles, if you want to tell a story. But the part about TV and film is that I can get to be my own character, okay, which means that theater for me tends to have, I have a voice actor and it's going to act with me and that's not a bad thing. Okay? But it's just the thing that happens. I have to work with them. I have to make sure that I'm working with them. They understand what I'm doing. So the working with the hearing actor doing my voice is a little difficult. In TV and film I don't have to deal with that. So it's not bad, it's just what it is. But TV and film, I don't know, I just do my thing.
I'm just doing my thing, and that's a cool thing about TV. And everybody, the whole world, can see your work on TV and film, where in theater you got to come within...For example, in a small town, in Oklahoma City, okay ... we're doing a play in Oklahoma City. Okay? Or Austin, Texas. Or you go to New York, you've got to beg people to come and see you. Television, right there. You get your audience, everybody's sitting on their couch, turn you on with their little remote. It's nice. So it's nice to balance the two worlds though.
Larkin: So you went to college at Gallaudet University, the only deaf university, where you mentioned earlier you first studied education and then changed your major to theater arts. What compelled you to change your major to theater and can you tell us about your acting training there?
Sandra: Oh, certainly. Well, I owe it all to a professor named Monique Holt, a deaf woman. She's an actor, an amazing actor, incredible. Not recognized enough in this world for my taste. She's the one who spent an hour with me after class every day explaining what theater is: “Why do I want to do theater? What is it all about?” I mean, that's the same person that gave me an internship. So I did an internship in New York in summer. We picked several things that we love from Shakespeare, okay, and then we just mixed them all together and we all did the work. It was a fun internship and I loved doing it, and after that it empowered me to do what I did after. So when I went to Gallaudet theater, the theater department there, they're all deaf, the students, the staff. Sometimes you get a hearing teacher that's brought in, like a lighting designer, a set designer, or whatever, to get you a taste of what's going out in the world.
We learned so much from these people. The workshops ... we had theater workshops. We had summer classes. We had daytime, nighttime classes, rehearsals, so much work that we learned from. We analyzed sign language skills and being able to take English and put it into ASL. And how exactly is that done? Sometimes the content we were doing ... you get straight English. When you're signing straight English off the page ... we don't do that. We have to translate it into American Sign Language, which is another language. At Gallaudet theater department, we did a lot of that. Character development, just the regular actor training everybody does, but it was an amazing process. Now that I've graduated, I'm still learning things from every class I can take, every acting coach, with a one-on-one. I still do that. I don't think you ever stop learning about acting.
Right now I'm learning about deaf actors. Before I was just an actor, training background and all that kind of thing, voice training, sign language training and everything. But now, today, it's more and more. You see more and more deaf actors coming out. So I'm about that. We need more training. We need more ... Before it was just every once in a while you go to workshops, somebody deaf is brought in. Yay! It's not like that anymore. More and more deaf actors on TV and film now, and on the stage now. And there are, by the way, bad deaf actors. (Laughs) There’s good deaf actors just like hearing people, right? I mean and that's okay. I mean there's time for us to start criticizing each other so we can learn how to improve what we do, instead of, “Oh, it's broken.”
Bring a hearing person in, a deaf person in. We want to move this thing further together. And for example, in the theater, we usually use the same deaf actors all the time. They bring in a hearing person. Okay? And the audience loves it. That's great. But they're trying to be different. That's the point of art. So you're trying to be different. So I'm hoping to do more with people today. I want to be different. I want some different collaborations, not what's already done that so traditional with theater. You know?
Jennifer: So speaking of Spring Awakening, we both saw the production, the Deaf West production, in L.A., and then it went on to Broadway, and blown away by the production and especially your performance. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen. In an interview you did for Spring Awakening, you said that breath and breathing guide you in your acting and performance with others, and is what you use to help you find the beat in the music. Can you tell us about this process, and is this something you developed naturally or is it something you learned in your training?
Sandra: Well, it's a technique. I studied breathing from the same person that got me involved in theater, Monique, Monique Holt. She's the one who taught me about, the first thing about acting is the breath, breathing. And so there's happy breath, there's sad breath, there's breathing, there's listening to each other breathing. So breathing to me as an actor is the key. I can't just throw it all out there. I have to take my time and breath. I've got to take a moment. I have to connect with the music.
There is a ... how do I explain this. If there's a moment in the music, there's a gap in the music ... there's a moment in the song that you can hook into. For example, in sign language, the beauty of ASL with music is that ... well, I don't know about hearing people, but when deaf people ... when you can see somebody singing you can see the vocal chords, but with signing it's not that way. It's the expression on the face. It's the hands. It's the body. It's the breath. It's everything about the human body that's singing, especially in Spring Awakening.
How me and Katie Boeck, we worked together, collaborated together, because I told her, “Breathing for me, what it did, how it raised moments for me in the song.” I said, “Don't kill me. Don't touch me. And the next line ... with the next line is ... but it's more about breathing together, breathing, becoming one together. “ And that's what we did. So for me, the breathing represents a sync, a connection. Without that, there's no passion, there's no emotion. It's not about the words. It's not about the lines. Breathing, as odd as it sounds, breathing, breathing, that's it for me. Does it make any sense what I'm saying? Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's life, you know.
Jennifer: One other question with that, just like concrete with the breathing. Are you picking up on the vibrations? Is it a physical manifestation of feeling the beat and then that's what drives the breathing, or it's really just kind of experiencing the whole thing?
Sandra: Yeah. Well, it's more about the whole thing. I've got an instinct. Okay? People tease me about this, especially with music, but I'm deaf. I cannot hear a thing, nothing. But I've got this music in my gut. Okay?
Now maybe in a previous life I was a singer. I don't know. I don't know. But when I learn a music piece, like I can learn it in a day or whatever my process is, I've got it in my body. And so then how, I don't know, I don't know, but it's just in there and ... anyway. So breathing is a big part of that. It's more of a instinct. It's not a visual thing so much as a breathing together with the music. It's in me, and so that's what it is.
Larkin: We're curious. How has being deaf influenced your creativity?
Sandra: Well, if I wasn't deaf, I wouldn't be an actor. I have no idea what I would do. I think because I picked something I like to find challenging, a project I like to accomplish. I did want to be a singer of course, but my mom was like, “Sandra you're deaf, but you can, we'll have speech therapy someday, maybe.” But there are deaf who can sing. They're out there. They're here and there. They’re out there but that's not for me. I just ... it's in my hands. It's in my expression. But how did ... well, I'm a visual person so if it affects me in any way, my creativity ... I love art. I love pictures. I love expressing it and giving people what they like in the audience because it's just cathartic. I like to impact the world in an artistic way.
I mean you can do a two hour presentation. You can preach. You can do whatever you want. But ... you can expose people to my ideas, to my culture. They won't listen to that. That's what makes Spring Awakening such an awesome, special experience, because I met so many parents. Hearing parents of deaf children would come up to me and say, wow, I've been forcing my child to speak. Am I wrong doing that? Maybe I should have them do what you're doing. I told them not to sign. I go, listen, it's fine. There's no wrong answer, right answer. You can do whatever you choose to do with your child, but don't neglect their deaf culture. Without that, they're missing a part of their own language.
I come from a hearing family but my parents made sure that I had the best of both worlds. I went to a mainstream school. I had deaf friends. I had hearing friends. My parents signed. I had speech therapy. I can lip read. But signing keeps ... that's my identity. That's my culture. American Sign Language. So many, many, many deaf children, hearing families, are missing that. They're being denied that. It's not the parent's fault. That's just the way society is right now. I'm not trying to give a lecture here, but I'm about art. Spring Awakening, Gallaudet ... there's things out there. I've had so many opportunities. I've had the best of both worlds. This is just the beginning, but art is my life.
And if I wasn't deaf, what would it be? A teacher or something? I don't know, but I wouldn't be doing acting that's for sure. I would not be doing acting.
Jennifer: What was your experience like as the assistant director for At Home at the Zoo with the Wallace and Deaf West? Do you see yourself directing for theater and or film in the future?
Sandra: Yes and yes and yes. Yes, I love ... I'm still trying to find my way because I'm an actor first, director second, I guess. I've had my first directing for, I haven't had a full production yet. I do want to do a full production as a director. I would be blessed to have that experience. I was blessed to have that assistant director. I mean, I understand the craft and everything, but what I see is not just what's beautiful. I don't care what's beautiful. I'm not here to tell you what looks good on stage. I'm here to direct. Even if there's hearing and deaf on stage I really want to direct a big show. That's my dream. I want to do Rent. I really want to do Rent. I want to do that show so bad. I've been working on it for two years. I'm still working on it. But that's the show. That's my show. I just want to be the director to do a musical and tell everybody, I can still direct a musical, okay.
I just hired a person, another director here, the assistant here, but I'm surely ... I really want to do that. I know it sounds absurd or something, but in George Orwell's 1984 ... I love that. I want to direct that. I mean there's so many projects in my mind. I'm still finding where I stand and how I stand in this, the directing world, but I definitely see it in my future. That's definite.
Larkin: So you recently starred in the horror film Soul to Keep. Can you tell us about that experience?
Sandra: Yes. That was a wonderful experience, filmed right after Broadway closed, about three years ago. Well, maybe four years ago now. Oh boy. Three years ago, okay. But it was great. That was my first full feature film. And I've done short films but this is my first full-length feature. I learned a lot through that experience. It was a wonderful experience because the film, many of the hearing actors in the film had to learn sign language and that's not normal in film. They tend to have a deaf character who can lip read, or a deaf character who has one friend who interprets everything for the deaf person. Oddly enough in the film that tends to be what happens and you see the same thing over and over again with deaf characters.
So, Soul to Keep …It's a horror film. It's young kids at a party and it's nighttime, you know, the same old horror film. But however, what makes this one a little bit different is that they're all signing, because there's a ... and it sounds simple but not every movie does that. So if I was in the room everybody would sign because that's how they do it in real life, and so it was more authentic. And there was one actor who is actually an interpreter in real life so he was in the movie, and so fine.
So his character signed very well and other people didn't sign very well, so we had ... that character wouldn't sign very much. And honestly ... and authenticity ... he would not sign anyway in situations, so it was interesting. And I didn't have to lip read, or memorize the things or, act like a deaf character in the movie that's just a one, so it made movie kind of a special experience language-wise, sign language wise.
So what happens to my character was also great. I can't tell you the end but the character was really great. It was really great, awesome. I can't tell you but it was awesome. But it would be wonderful to do another film. It's out right now so you can rent it or you can buy it online, anywhere.
Jennifer: You already talked a little bit about the differences and similarities with TV and theater, TV and film and theater, but what are the differences and similarities in working on a project with majority deaf actors, such as Deaf West, and one in which you might be the only one or one of a few deaf actors, such as a TV show like Switched at Birth?
Sandra: Well, there's not much difference other than the language access. Okay, that’s an issue. However, with theater ... I'm an actor. I'm just an actor. I'm not translating lines. You have an ASL team for that. You have coaches. So I'm not telling a director what to do or suggesting how to take care of the language. I'm just there with the other actors. That's all. That's my job.
Now, when you go to television ... I had to switch my leg over here. (Laughs) But, now, on the other hand, with TV oftentimes ... and it shouldn't be like this, but often there's no ASL consultant. There's no ASL coach behind the scenes watching, making sure all the signs are clear, like they do in theater. Now in some cases there are and Switched at Birth did that. They did that. They had consultants. But often if you're a deaf person, as an actor, I don't want to step over the line and say, “Mr. Director, can I just tell you something? That sign you're using there is a ... I have to look in the script. That's not really how a deaf person would say this.”
I'm not that kind of an actor. I'm not going to ... I can't sign that line the way it is in the script. I've got to ... I'll find a writer. I'll say, “Hello Mr. Writer, can you come over here? Can I just have a word with you?” And that's how you really do it. And most of the time they go, oh my God, oh sure. They want to make sure they're doing it right. But if you go up to somebody and tell them how to do it it's not going to work.
So that's something that TV and film has to improve on, but it's something you have to be very political with. But I don't mind going through the process again with having more and more deaf ... There's more and more deaf people involved now. So, first of all, you have to have interpreters on set. You have to an ASL consultant. And I'm a deaf actor. See, that's what I do. And so sometimes you have to educate a little bit in TV and film so they can catch up to where we are in theater.
Jennifer: Following up on that, curious, so when you're reading the script and you're like, oh, a deaf person wouldn't say it that way, is it a language? Is it a usage? Is it a word choice? What clues you in to be like, I don't say it that way?
Sandra: Well, sometimes the English is like a joke, like a hearing joke. It doesn't translate well in the ASL. You could sign it straight forward. I like English jokes but if you translate in ASL they don't make sense. See, they’re two different languages. Why would a character say that? So I can't think of a good example right now, but there are some lines where you try to ... they're hearing based or it's not natural for a deaf person to say that.
I have one. I just thought of one. I'm not going to mention what it was from, but I'm just going to ... but anyway. There was one project I was working on. In the script it said, when people come in, the light will flash, the light flickers. So it says, when the person enters, the light flickers. I looked at it, I said, why does it say flicker? Well, you're deaf, when you come in the light ... No, no, no. That's the doorbell! That's the door. When somebody hits the doorbell the light was going on. That's all. It's not the light flickers or flicks. So they had to make adjustments.
At the time they were editing or cutting, you look at it, they're going to find out that that's not how it goes. That's a deaf doorbell, that's when the light goes on and off.
I care about making sure things are ... I want to make sure that the deaf audience ... I don't want them to say, I don't like the deaf character. I don't like that choice. I want the deaf to say, oh, this is not the way we're portrayed, being portrayed. I mean you guys didn't do your homework, you didn't do your due diligence on how deaf culture works. So when if I see something in a script naturally I'm going to say something about it so we can make some strides forward.
Or some lines will make me sound like I'm being pitied, like another project I did for example. I'll give you one line. They would say, I lost the only ... No. What was the line I said? Oh, the line where I said, “Now I have no one to talk to.” And I looked at it and I went, eww. I mean let's just say something happened. This is the only person that used to sign with me is gone or something. I mean that's what I would say, my friend I cared about so much. I didn't care about this person ... it's not that she could sign to me. And they went ... in other words, now I have nobody to do sign language with.
I said, oh jeez. And they went, oh my God. Okay. We didn't want to be offensive. I mean it's like I was playing victim: “now I have nobody to do sign language with me.” I said, “Hey Mr. Director, there might be a better line we can put in there.” So I'm thinking that's what influences me as a director. I'm a director inside also. And so I'm thinking ... whatever'll help me grow. I'm always thinking about things I could throw ... and if he's a good director he's going to be open to that. Right? And so I want more and more out there so we look good, so we're portrayed the proper way out there. That's why it's important to have an ASL deaf consultant on a project before you start casting, before you start the process.
A deaf person should never be telling the casting director or the director what to do, making adjustments. Hearing people don't do that with directors. Why should I have to do that with a director, hearing director? Because I care that's why I do it, but I mean a hearing actor would be unheard of. But you put in there to be ... If you bring a deaf consultant in from the beginning, to work from the very start, then ... and the writer and everybody, hey look, this is better. They ask the deaf consultant, is this a yay or a nay? And pay the deaf consultant by the way, and pay them and give them credit and say, thank you Mr. deaf consultant, and then move on with your production, okay, so that I could just be an actor in other words. All right?
Sandra: There, good.
Larkin: What makes you excited to sign on to a project, and what kind of opportunities in film and television or theater are you hoping to pursue?
Sandra: Well, I always get excited about a project that has good writing. So far I haven't turned a project down that I didn't like. A job is a job obviously when you're an actor, but if I get a project I do read it to make sure the character's written well, that I match it, that I can show what's involved in the character, and then move forward with it. So I like that. And I get very excited when I see signing. Often if I get a project there is lot of speaking or I'll have a cochlear implant ... and not that that's a bad thing. All right? But, you see signing, I get excited.
With a theater I always say yes. Theater I always say yes, because ... especially if there's music involved. I want to do more music and theater. It's always a big yes. I mean half the cast is going to be deaf, or there's going to be one deaf, there's going to be a voice with me, or maybe there'll be no voice. I did Fun Home twice, and twice there was no voice for me. There were captions above me, on a screen above. They call it the supertitles for a production. It's a tech term. Okay? Supertitles. So that was good and that was a new thing.
I was looking for a new way, how to produce this thing, and so we had supertitles or subtitles but hearing people are not used to that. They're not used to looking above for the supertitles then down to the actor for the emotion but it was good because we tried it. Look, we were experimenting. We tried something. Okay? Theater is cool. You can always experiment and try things so that's why I love theater so much.
Now, film, television, I'm always excited because, again, I realize that there is not many deaf characters being portrayed in TV and film for an audience. But any person watching, or a deaf person seeing somebody deaf for signing on television, that gets them totally thinking. Maybe we can show more, more exposure on TV. Maybe parents of deaf children, or brothers and sisters that are out in the audience also that are watching this, that this satisfies ... It's a simple thing and people see it on TV or film, they go, oh, this normalizes being deaf almost. It's like normalizing deaf culture. So those projects, those are what I think of. How is it going to affect the audience? How is it going to impact the world? So that's my response to that, that issue for us.
Jennifer: What is your vision for the future with deaf actors and representing your community in the arts?
Sandra: Well, normalizing, normalizing what we ... it's a very simple answer: normalize us, normalize us. I mean put a deaf person and a hearing person on stage and let us just be together. I think there's three TV shows right now that have some deaf people involved in it right now, and there will be one more with me coming up in the fall of course. I'm excited about that project. It makes me really excited. So just normalizing deaf people, more people being aware of what's going on. When I go to coffee ... if I go to Starbucks people aren't afraid of me anymore. Five years ago they would be kind of afraid of me. I could feel it. So that's a future I want to see, that deaf people are just regular folk.
Be nice people if we could have one or two deaf folk in every show if possible. I mean it doesn't have to be a big role but a deaf person there. Hey look, they exist. I mean you walk outside, you see deaf people talking all the time, don't you? There's one over there. There's one over there. There's one in the coffee shop. I mean there might be one in a wheelchair. There might be somebody, more cerebral palsy people. Let's see more people with disabilities so students at school go, oh, the world is full of these kinds of people. It's not just us able-bodied people.
Because children watch television. They don't see deaf people. They see everybody looks just like them. They don't see disabilities on television. Then you go to school. Oh, there's a girl in a wheelchair. There's two deaf people, students, talking over there. They're chatting over ... Oh my goodness, what is that? And they make fun of them. They get bullied. It's psychology, man, it's psychology. So you just want to see more and more on TV so it gets normalized for the kids that are growing up today, and not just acting, but there's also what's behind that, writing.
Switched at Birth was a great show but there were no deaf writers on that show. So what's up with that? What's up with that?
Jennifer: Yeah, what is up with that?
Sandra: Well, that's ... I'm saying ... honestly, I wish I knew. I wish I knew. Again, I'm happy that they opened the door for this kind of thing. Open a door and more and more is happening. Now, because of that ... all of these projects I told you about, but if they're listening to this, I love you guys at Switched at Birth. I really do. Thank you for all the stuff that you've provided, but seriously, what happened to the deaf writers? And that's the key. And that's the key. Bring in a deaf writer. And there are so many great stories out there.
And like This Close ... at Sundance, written by Shoshannah Stern, okay, and Josh Feldman. The name of the show. This Close, the name of his show is. Okay? This Close it's called. Now it's in its second season and I think it starts this week or next week. However I saw season one. It was beautiful, wonderful work. The leading characters in the show are both deaf and they also wrote the show and they play the lead in the show. It's brilliant. It's great. Why? Because deaf writers.
They're deaf writers see, and they're not just people writing about deaf people. They have the experience. I mean, oh my God. And usually it's a deaf person being saved by a hearing person. Oh my God, the hearing person broke up with me. I need the hearing person to save me. That's the kind of things we see. Hearing people writing about deaf people.. But deaf writers, deaf writers are more like real problems, what we go through every day, life things connected to my life, my job, so much more meat and content, the funny things about sign language, the content.
I mean ... if I can think of one now. Like the TV show that I'm doing. It would be oncoming this fall, right? It's called Daybreak.
The new TV show, Daybreak. Okay. It's coming out in the fall. So there's a line in the show, it's a very simple word. I can't say this on film. Or can I say ... but the point is that the English they want to translate it, but now there are some lines where the line were ... if you did it in English it wasn't too funny, but if you did it in ASL, it was even funnier. They made it funnier. But if everybody, all the hearing people and production team don't know that, and if I don't say anything about it and just sign it the way they wanted me to, darn, we missed an opportunity there. If deaf people would be adding things to it ... so that's what I see for the ... You asked me about the future? As the titles go up and the film closes, that's what I see. That's what I see: more opportunities.
Jennifer: Well, we end every interview with our rapid response segment, three, two, one action. So three, what is your favorite or most influential film?
Larkin: Two, dream person you would like to work with?
Sandra: Jennifer Lawrence.
Jennifer: One, best advice you've ever received.
Sandra: Find happiness in everything.
Larkin: Action. What are you most looking forward to right now?
Sandra: My TV show coming out this fall, Daybreak. Yay.
Jennifer: It's coming out on Netflix, is that correct?
Sandra: You've heard of it. Yay!
Larkin: And lastly, really quick, where can people follow you on social media?
Sandra: Sandy, two one M-A-E.
Larkin: Great. Awesome.
Jennifer: And thank you.
Sandra: Thank you.