An Interview with Tami Lee Santimyer as role ‘Megan’ in Nobody’s Perfect play.
Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences on tour at Poway Center for the Performing arts on February 27, 2010.
Duration: 12:24 minutes
(Translate in English)
JON: I wanted to say thank you for joining me for this interview. It means alot to me and the Deaf community. Now, I’m anixous to get know about you!
Tell us about yourself and what was your childhood like? Are you involved with the Deaf community?
TAMI: Ok…I was born prematurely by three months. My parents did not know I was deaf until they brought me to my grandmother’s house. My grandmother was babysitting me and my cousin, who was the same age as me, when she accidentally dropped a pot that made a loud, clamoring sound. Naturally, of course, my cousin cried and I did not. She immediately knew what this meant. After several doctors’ visits, I was diagnosed with a profound hearing loss. Right away, my parents placed me in a deaf school – Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Edgewood, near Pittsburgh. It was there where I learned the [sign] language. I learned it at the earliest onset and immersed myself completely in the signing community. Even my best friend at the time was from a Deaf family so I was exposed to the language and culture early on. Luckily, my parents, despite not knowing sign language, were already enthusiastic about taking me to Deaf community events and always made sure I was completely involved. For example, they took me to the International Arts Festival in Chicago where I met Bernard Bragg, Marlee Matlin, among many others. Oh, and Ray Parks and Chuck Baird to name some. Through that experience, I maximized my potential thanks to my parents even though they did not have proficient sign language skills.
In fifth grade, I was placed in a public school. It was a shocking change because everyone in this school was hearing (a significant change from an all-Deaf school) and I was the only Deaf kid in the classroom. It was very difficult. But fortunately, I was very pop– immediately popular. All the kids wanted to learn sign language. In fact, we started a sign language class. I remember 200 kids signing up for it. Two-hundred kids! So it was a very positive experience. From 5th to 8th grade – very positive. But it all changed when I got to high school. All the kids I grew up with from 5th grade onwards went to this nearby high school without an interpreting program. I had no choice but go to another high school that provided interpreters even though I did not know anyone. Of course, I felt lonely. I did not know anyone. No one seemed enthusiastic about learning sign language. These kids came from a different background and particularly did not grow up with Deaf peers (which is why there was a great expanse between me and them). It had an enormous impact on me.
Mom noticed how it was affecting me and immediately decided it would be better if I went to a Deaf school. This is when we just moved to Florida. I can now proudly say I went to FSDB (Florida School for the Deaf and Blind). I had the best of both; I attended the Deaf school while also taking classes at the mainstreamed school nearby. It was definitely the best of both worlds – in retrospect because my entire family is hearing and most of the friends I interacted with were Deaf. It was absolutely nice to have both worlds on an equal par.
Eventually, I went to CSUN (California State University, Northridge) from whence I graduated with a BA in English and to Gallaudet University for an MA in Linguistics. Since graduation, I have acted professionally.
Luckily, I was able to find work back to back. It is NOT easy being Deaf, let alone being an actress, but I am enjoying this journey.
JON: Wow, your story is so fascinated about your life experience.
What made you desire to be an actress?
TAMI: Interesting [question]. I was a mere two years old…like any two year old would know what careers exist out there….but it seemed innate…I just knew…I love I-T [acting]. I always went into the closet and made believe I was performing various roles. By the time I was five, I was directing plays with my cousins at my grandmother’s house in the basement. I did a lot of those and continued that by taking dance lessons and theater classes – actually, there weren’t any. For some reason, they were not available. There were many dance classes available….but just not theater. By the time I reached high school, thanks to the wonderful program Jr.NAD, I met C.J. Jones, Bernard Bragg, and a lot of other wonderful Deaf role models who themselves are actors and I learned tremendously from them. I have to say the best high school program I partook in was YSP – the Young Scholars Program based in Washington, DC. It was where I met Rita Corey, Yola Rozynek who is formerly known as a famous dancer in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tim McCarty who founded Quest for Arts, and many others who I’ve learned enormously from. I was able to find more work through these connections. But I should stress that finding work was not an easy feat. I was practically a nobody. “What, who’s Tami? Who? Forget her – we don’t know her.” I had no choice but accept volunteer work involving backstage. This one theater company named Amaryllris – let me spell that again – A-M-A-R-Y-L-L-I-S theater based in Philadelphia – came to Gallaudet University to do an ASL rendition of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, a play with a mix of hearing and Deaf actors. I was their sign prompter meaning I fed lines to the actors [during rehearsals]. Then one fateful day the actor failed to show up to do the matinee show. Most of the actors in this show did not have understudies. The company knew I was the only one that knew their lines, their blockings, everything so they asked me at the last minute. I had only ten minutes to get up from my bed, run to the theater department, and jump into the show.
Yes…it was a blessing…because the director was impressed and started to get the word out. Slowly, of course. From this experience alone, I found more professional work. I am really grateful for that. Point is…you always have to be ready. If you’re passionate about something, you have to also be ready.
JON: Keep up with your destination!
Does the ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ play impact your life and world?
TAMI: YES….it’s nice to see a positive portrayal of a deaf character because historically, there hasn’t been much positive regard. To be Megan (the character in Nobody’s Perfect) is an honor in itself because I am now participating in a positive period where people are now seeking for betterment. I am a part of that movement (a paradigm shift, if you will).
It impacts me in many ways intrinsically because…the character’s nine years old even though I am much older…my age (I’m sorry to say) is not disclosed (laughs)….the character Megan is Deaf like me…our backgrounds are similar in that her parents are hearing and her brother’s hearing, and my parents and siblings are hearing. Her family signs, whereas, my family – not so much. They fingerspell mostly and use home signs. Do they consider themselves fluent in sign language? No. We’re different in that respect, but similar in that we both experience frustrations when interacting with hearing people who may not understand deaf people or know sign. I think through her [Megan], my journey from childhood to now is made manifested to me and I can now connect the dots and make sense of things – and understand why things occurred the way they did. I am now making peace with myself as a Deaf person living in a hearing world and in my hearing family as well.
How [the play] impacts globally? Many ways. I think most importantly is that sign language is a language in its own right, a language as good as any other language. Also, having a strong Deaf person (referring to Megan) who leads the pack comprised of hearing friends lets us know that in the same way young Deaf children can have the same opportunity. That being Deaf is not sad like it has always been regarded as….that it is not about loneliness or pity…but rather, Deaf children can take the initiative and stand out in a crowd. They can if, only if, the people surrounding them have a positive attitude about it. If they have a positive mindset towards the language…I guarantee you that any Deaf child in that kind of environment will potentially grow, will flourish. Yes. I believe that [the play] will teach the world, mind you, that it is okay to be Deaf.
JON: Now you had a lot of experience in the past. What would you like to see the changes in the future?
TAMI: Marlee Matlin, a big name in the industry, a lot of people know her….having her write the book (Nobody’s Perfect) and share the message is a wonderful thing. The book has now gone international…for example, it is now being distributed in Japan. A lot of people are becoming familiar with it. Then having this story translated into a play format, thanks to Doug Cooney who is her co-author, is a great thing, also, because it is in a different medium. Rather than read the text, you can see the actual…visual, live performance. This is always good for young children to see. I believe the play will instill in the thought that sign language is a full-fledged language and that being Deaf is actually extraordinary. And third, people can learn the language to communicate with a Deaf child. I believe that [the play] will create a huge sign language revolution.
JON: Good! I look forward to see you by making a lot changes in the world.
What you would like to do in the next 5 years?
TAMI: This is a tough question because there are so many things I want to do. I definitely want to continue acting…but I want to seek more professional opportunities that will allow me to work alongside professional actors. I really want to take on this challenge. I believe, you know as a Deaf person, I can make a positive impact through that medium – acting. I want to continue that for sure. But I also want to do more volunteer work focusing elsewhere…like in other countries, more particularly the underdeveloped countries where a lot of Deaf people lack the access to education or medical services, among other things. A lot of them DO NOT have the access to these things. This is sad…a very unfortunate situation. This needs to be changed. I would love to…maybe get together with other people who are passionate about that and maybe implement a program in which we can train Deaf people to go overseas and find deaf locals, and provide them the services they so direly need. They deserve the same opportunities as their hearing counterparts…
JON: I do enjoy it very much. I want to say thank you for joining the interview with me. I hope your journey will be more triumphant!