Drama Major Brings Deaf Director to Vassar for Trailblazing Campus Production

Photos Courtesy of Vassar College Drama Department and Grant Miller ’11

A Vassar student broke new ground this fall in addressing the College’s accessibility issues by convincing the Drama Department to engage a Disabled director for their senior project production.

Becca Chin ’23, a drama major with a correlate in education, played the title role in the Stephen Schwartz/Bob Fosse musical Pippin after arranging to have a Deaf actor/director, James “Joey” Caverly, come to campus to direct the show. Other members of the senior project team for Pippin were Alice Downer ’23, Halle Jones ’23, Cameron Long ’23, and Chelsea Zak ’23. Downer and Long also played major roles in the musical; Zak was musical director, and Jones served as stage manager and co-choreographer along with Chin and Kelly Hatfield ’23.

Pippin cast photo
The cast of Pippin. Top, left to right: Chelsea Zak ’23, Cameron Long ’23, Alice Dower ’23, Becca Chin ’23, and Halle Jones ’23. Bottom: Director James “Joey” Caverly.

While Caverly had never directed a student production—and none of the students had ever worked with a Deaf director before—the relationship between director and cast was virtually seamless, Downer said. “The learning curve was pretty short for all of us,” they said. “Joey was gracious and direct, and he was open to our ideas. And he was hilarious.”

Chin and Jones had asked the Drama Department to bring Caverly on board to direct the show. Professor of Drama Christopher Grabowski said he and others in the department worked to secure several accessibility funding sources with the help of Tom Pacio, co-director of College’s Creative Arts Across Disciplines (CAAD) program, for about five weeks of rehearsal. “It was Becca’s passion and trust in the process to see this through that made it happen,” Grabowski said.

Chin, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in Deaf education and become a teacher, said they had been interested in issues of access for Disabled people before they enrolled at Vassar. But they said they became committed to advocating for issues of access on the Vassar campus when they participated in the College’s Creative Arts Across Disciplines (CAAD) program last summer. The program examined issues of access in the arts. “CAAD gave me the opportunity to explore this issue in depth,” they said.

Headshot of Grant Miller
Grant Miller ’11, co-founder of Curiosity Paradox.

Early in the fall, Professor Grabowski arranged to have an alum of the Drama Department, Grant Miller ’11, visit campus to talk about accessibility as a creative practice that goes beyond compliance with the cast of Pippin. Miller is co-founder of the Curiosity Paradox, a Portland, OR-based artistic collaboration that models accessible cultural spaces and engages in consulting work. Their work both nationally and internationally centers Disabled audiences. “We work with the Disability community and others to imagine ways for living that are richer and more beautiful for Disabled people,” Miller said, “and I think the work we did on campus had an impact on the (Pippin) production. I am in awe of what Becca accomplished. While some questioned the dollar cost of this work, I hope the Vassar community demands a future where it budgets not only money but time to further realize the dreams of Disabled students and community members. I see the possibility of Pippin serving as a model that propels the College to purposeful accessibility on campus.”

Grabowski agreed, saying he believed the show would serve as “part of the arc that advances accessibility in the arts here at Vassar. Our immediate goal is to have ASL interpreters at all of our productions and to make whatever other accommodations are necessary to ensure inclusion.”

Chin, who is neurodivergent, said producing Pippin in the way they envisioned had been empowering in several ways. “Pippin was an incredible opportunity to realize this work when some of the structures in place were not on my side. This process has certainly been a labor of love, an exploration into the future we would like to make for ourselves in this industry.”

Editor’s Note: Student Becca Chin ’23 requested that this article be written by a Disabled student journalist. Vassar was unable to locate a Disabled student journalist in time to meet this story’s deadline, so a compromise was reached: The Curiosity Paradox, mentioned above, offered to give a sensitivity reading and revision to this article with Chin. Chin and The Curiosity Paradox hope readers will recognize the need for change to happen both behind the scenes and in front of audiences. Representation matters, they note. Nothing about us without us. #AccessIsLove

January 6, 2023