Louder Than Words
From the underground lair of Beauty & the Beast, actress Terrylene emerges to challenge the world of the hearing.
by Desire’ Gonzales
“Down here, you taught me that I was no different, that I was the same as everyone. Now, you call me handicapped?!”
Those words are passionately signed by the young deaf woman, Laura, in the “Stinks and Stones” episode of Beauty & the Beast, words that Terrylene, the deaf actress who portrays her, takes very seriously indeed. “I never liked that word, ‘disability.’ We have a spirit. We’re human,” she says.
In a cozy, Santa Monica apartment lives Terrylene and her longtime boy friend, Bob Maganelli. Terrylene shares — with the help of Maganelli, who translates — her enthusiasm about the role of Laura.
“I had to work hard in that audition. One audition, then a call back in one hour. I auditioned Thursday. I found out I got the role on Friday. We were shooting on Monday. So, it was last minute.”
Her vocation, on the other hand, has never been a last minute decision. She chose her career at age four but from the beginning, she faced obstacles. “I always told people that I was going to be an actress. But they would say, “Oh, cute little girl.’ No one really believed me. At that time, there weren’t many deaf actors.”
Legitimate roles in theater were few. Most hearing people didn’t know what deaf actors were capable of doing, and it was not until she attended the Model Secondary School for the Deaf at Gallaudet University and enrolled in Theater Arts that she could finally act in “real” theater.
Why were rolls so hard to come by? “Deafness,” Terrylene replies candidly. “Right there, deafness. I find people expect less because I’m deaf. They don’t see me as a person. They write the word ‘DEAF’ across my face.” She pauses thoughtfully, then adds, “The understanding of dead culture still hasn’t been realized by the [hearing] other. We are still trying to wake up everyone and show there’s another dimension to the art form of acting.”
Terrylene has awakened audiences with her work on Beauty & the Beast. In “The Impossible Silence,” her character, Laura, lives in the safety of the Tunnel World but must go above to bring murderers to justice. In “Sticks and Stone,” she meets Vincent and Catherine again after remaining above for a year. It was a role that Terrylene really wanted when “Silence” arose.
“When I read the script, I saw that Laura is a very good person, but she doesn’t know much about herself. She’s like I was when I was younger. I didn’t understand that the world is not deaf. The world is hearing. So, I was naive in a way. Laura is like that. Now, in the second episode, Laura has grown much more. She’s above, facing hearing people, facing many, many more frustrations. It’s much more complicated.”
The first episode was exciting, but there were no real guarantees of a second. Terrylene says, “That week of shooting the first one, they said, ‘You might come back.’ I was excited but I thought, ‘Better not believe it.’ Then, five or six months later, the writers [co-producers Howard Gordon (STARLOG #131) and Alex Gansa wrote both episodes] called and asked, ‘Do you have any ideas?’ Bob and I did, so we had a meeting. Then, the writers’ strike. I thought maybe they would forget me.” Terrylene smiles and says, “But in September, I heard the script is coming. I would be back in Laura’s life again.” And, will Laura return yet gain? “They’ve said yes. But I don’t know. I’ll have to wait.”
From the second script’s early stages, Terrylene and Technical Advisor Lou Fant had a significant input. It was their suggestion to use subtitles during the scenes that dealt solely with the deaf characters. Normally, a speaking actor is written into a scene or voice-overs are used to interpret deaf actors, but CBS approved the nine minutes of “silence” in “Sticks and Stones.”
The subtitles were an important issue to Terrylene. “Finally, our work is not being distorted by voices,” she states. “I think that without the voice, the audience well see the characters more. We’re happy because our work is being ‘seen’ for the first time, not being ‘heard.’ When people remember me, I don’t want them to remember me in another person’s voice. I want them to remember me for what they see.”
In “Sticks and Stones,” Laura has aligned herself with a deaf gang (such a gang does exist in New York). A policeman, Jerry (Ron Marquette), has infiltrated the gang to gather evidence to arrest the leader. One week prior to shooting, Lou Font and Terrylene worked with Marquette to familiarize him with deafness.
“We were very disappointed. When I say ‘we,’ I mean, the deaf. We tried to get an actor who knows deafness, knows at least sign language. This gang is supposed to believe that Jerry is deaf. You can’t have a person who just learned sign act deaf. It’s not believable. But for the producers, it was an ‘artistic’ decision. It hurts me to have the deaf community tell me I didn’t do it right. I know! I care! What I will tell them is at least we moved half a step forward, we got subtitles for the hearing people to view the deaf characters. That’s something to celebrate.”
And while Terrylene generally enjoys working with the cast and crew of Beauty & the Beast, she was at first apprehensive about acting alongside Ron Perlman.
“I was a little worried because Ron has a mask. When I communicate with people, I need to see their face because I can’t hear. A face is like a tone of voice. But when I worked with Ron, I felt it was special because I can communicate with him. Somehow, his eyes, his body, his head movement makes a big difference. I feel it’s easier to work with him [in a mask] than other actors with their faces. Also, he listens and responds. I feel someone is hearing my words and not just speaking lines.”
Perlman himself may have been apprehensive braces he also had to learn sign language. “I thought the first episode was easier because we gestured more,” Terrylene comments. “Vincent can’t go to a PTA meeting to learn sign. Where did we learn sign underground? We haven’t, so we invented out own Home Sign Language. In the second episode, Vincent signs words in real signs because I learned sign. I teach him so we can communicate better. I thought the first episode was easier for him, but Ron said, ‘No, no. Any sign is hard.’”
It was Terrylene’s suggestion to use Home Sign Language in the first episode because that segment’s technical advisor, not being a professional interpreter, was thinking of teaching Perlman SEE2 (Signing Exact English). SEE2 is the “academic” sign language and is seldom used outside of educational institutions. American Sign Language (ASL) is the more commonly used sign even though it’s grammatically different from spoken English. Home Sign is the “made-up” language used in the home environment.
“Now, when the Beast and I speak to each other, we use half Home Sign and half ASL Sign. It’s a nice mixture. One thing I really respect about the Beauty & the Beast people is that they listen. They try their best to do what is real. I appreciate that.”
Making a TV show does have its pitfalls. During “Sticks and Stones,” she recalls smiling, “The camera was close. I couldn’t see the interpreter. I couldn’t see anyone. The director [Bruce Malmuth] kept on talking, even though I couldn’t hear him. Maybe he would say, ‘Now, untie the rope. Look up at the helicopter. Sign help. Look at the actor.’ It was funny because I was doing exactly what the director was telling me to do and I couldn’t even see him.”
However, Terrylene always takes precautions so such incidents don’t become expensive mistakes. “If I can, I will keep an interpreter in my vision. When he says, ‘Stop,’ then I know the scene’s over. But I prefer to continue acting instead of having someone jump out and tap my shoulder. I don’t want to stop at the wrong time.”
The interpreter was Bill Pugent whose organization is SCRIPT, Southern California Registry of Interpreters for Professional Theater. They’re familiar with the film business and know the signs related to it. “It is important that we have professional interpreters in a professional working situation,” says Terrylene. “There’s less burden on deaf actors and the director.”
She’s always sharpening her skills, but does Terrylene wish to only portray deaf characters?
“I have no desire to play a ‘hearing’ role,” she maintains. “I have a desire to play interesting characters. When a character is being written, suddenly we expect that character to speak to act. Who said that a voice is part of acting? Who said? I have many questions for those people in the industry, people in the audience, or actors who think that. There needs to be a new definition of acting.
“Some deaf actors are fighting to speak. That is a different battle from mine. I’m fighting to act, to be ‘seen’ for my work. But I understand them. They want to speak. That’s OK, but that doesn’t help what we want to accomplish. It helps the other [hearing] people to expect us to speak or to make that character speaking.”
She points to a scene from her first Beauty & the Beast episode, a poignant moment where Laura stares at herself in the mirror and actually speaks the words, “I am normal.” “At first,” Terrylene notes, “When I saw that scene, I said, ‘No way.’ I talked with the director [Christopher Leitch] and he had a good point. His point was [that Laura was thinking] ‘I’m sacred to go up there. Who’s up there? They all speak.’ Laura is a naive person and thinks that she will have to change to the hearing way, like we’ve done in the past. Today, deaf people are more like, ‘No. I’m not going to speak for you. I’m not changing myself. You accept me.’ That’s today. I’m like that. I wanted Laura to be like that, but Laura wasn’t where we are. I accepted it and did the character as best I could. Now, I see Laura as we deaf people being ourselves.”
Prior to Terrylene’s Beauty & the Beast appearance, she guest-starred on Cagney & Lacey in an episode entitled “The Right to Remain Silent.” She enjoyed that role because of its twists. The character played on Lacey’s sympathy when arrested for murder. Terrylene notes that “some deaf people do allow hearing people to pity us.” Released thanks to Lacey’s help, “She laughs and says, ‘I killed that man.’ At the end, it was shocking that I was arrested again because I killed another man. At first, the audience related, then they find out that they were wrong for relating. It taught them that just because we’re deaf doesn’t mean we’re angels.”
Born Terrylene Sachetti in Chicago, she was raised in both California and Texas. She is but one of five children, and except for the youngest child, all of her family is dead. Now, known simply as Terrylene, she lives in California where, as she say, she is “acttively pursuing my career.”
She toured Europe in the musical Godspell, where she and her co-stars were able to explore the art of communication. “We sand with out hands. We tried many, many different ways of communicating to the audience.”
Currently, she’s working on an avant-garde one-woman show, “which I hope to bring to the First International Conference on Deaf Culture. The working title is Jesse/Me Reigns. It’s about a soul that is torn.” The conference, “The Deaf Way,” is set for July in Washington, D.C. It’s the first time that the international dead community will assemble to exchange history, culture, art and language.
Her desire to explore has also led her to Star Trek, which she didn’t like at first because, “if you watch it without sound everytihng is monotone. It’s boring. I never understood why Bob loved it. Finally, I asked him to explain it. Wow! The more he explained, the more fascinated I became. Now, I really love the series. I hope someday to be invovled in the movies. I could be Spock’s cousin.
“I have always loved books full of imagination. Someday I will write for — hard to say ‘writing’ because I’m most creative when I sign. There’s not a word for every sign I come up with. Maybe, I will make videotape sotries for both deaf and hearing children. I love children. I did my first children’s show with the L.A. Children’s Theater [‘Twas the Night Before Christmas] and I loved it. I want to do more. They spend all their days in school learning about facts. Nothing is left for their imagination. That’s were theater comes in, especially with deaf children. It’s a good role model for them. Today, many mainstream school programs have hearing teachers. Everything, everybody is hearing. They feel that they are alone. So, when they see a deaf actor performing they say, ‘Wow! Deaf, Adult, I can imagine myself in the future now, because I see someone like me.’ Mostly deaf children become teachers. Now, deaf children see someone with a different profession. They can imagine themselves as maybe a senator or even President of the United States.”
And what advice does Terrylene have for children?
“I always say there’s nothing we can’t do. If people say you can’t do it, you know they’re the ones who’ve listened to that. Follow your dreams.”