Updated: Aug 23
MICHELLE MARY SCHAEFER exudes talent, charisma and ambition ~ she is a highly accomplished actor on stage and screen, a screen and play writer, director and master of ASL (American Sign Language). Michelle challenges us to "listen with your eyes", as she takes us on her profoundly moving life journey, from overcoming bullying to her theatrical performance portraying Sarah Norman in "Children of a Lesser God" and her impactful "REAL the tiny film webseries."
Tell us about when you first discovered your love of acting?
As a kid, full of imagination, I discovered that I wanted to be an actor after watching the film, Children of a Lesser God which stars Marlee Matlin. During the film, I realized that Marlee was Deaf, so am I, I told my parents that I wanted to be an actor just like her! Marlee inspired me, and become my role model while growing up in a world of isolation and confusion. My dreams and passions kept me alive and going. During that time at the age of four, I was a dancer which I later quit for soccer. My first stage play was The Song of Hiawatha at the age of 11 or 12 at a community theatre in Baltimore, Maryland.
What was life like for you growing up and at what age did you understand you “happened to be deaf?”
This is a very deep and intimate question which can end up being a book, and/or a film! Growing up it was full of isolation and confusion. I struggled with my identities, and ability to communicate. I was embarrassed to be myself, as I was constantly being bullied by both the Deaf and Hearing children, which made me feel trapped and ashamed. There are so many things I asked myself about my childhood, and even how the heck did I survive? The answer is ART, THEATRE, FILMS, WRITING, BEING CREATIVE and my IMAGINATION saved me.
Which female actor has inspired you the most and why?
Marlee Matlin inspired me the most as an actor, because if it wasn’t for her doing the film, Children of a Lesser God, or even paving the way in the industry, I am not sure if I would have discovered my desire and passion as an actor, writer, and a filmmaker or even answering your questions.
As an actor you have taken on many roles, both on stage and screen, which role have you enjoyed playing the most and which role was the hardest and why?
Every role I have portrayed onstage and onscreen have all impacted me personally in their own individual ways. I had the pleasure and honor to be the first Deaf female actor in history who has played both Sarah Norman in Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God and Nina Raine’s Billy in Tribes numerous of times. I truly enjoyed playing Hannah in Sarah Treem’s play, When We Were Young and Unafraid in Austin, Texas, as the character, the play, the cast, crew, producers, and director were beyond amazing, so passionate about a story that matters. Every role has its challenge, as I would say carrying on the role of Alfa in the US Premiere play, Peeling by Kaite O’Reilly was challenging due to it’s British Accent, it’s the story/writings which made it’s huge difference as it shook Seattle. Like, I said every role/production has its challenge. The most challenging is translating Shakespeare to English and to ASL non-stop, it makes my mind spin! I loved the result when I played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Howie Seago and Teresa Thuman in Seattle, and a scene of Romeo and Juliet, as Juliet at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Gala, under the direction of LeeAnet Noble and Alan Paul.
Can you explain to us how much more work it is preparing for a role when you have to act, talk, lip-read and sign?
As an actor who happens to be Deaf, I always invest 200% of myself in a role. Every production, depending on the role, I am always working extremely hard. When I have to “speak” I find myself constantly practicing my speech, projecting my voices, ensure I don’t “drop” certain constants or vowels. I literally cannot hear myself speak at all as I am profoundly Deaf. It leads me having to “trust” myself and the director and let go, bring the characters out in authentic ways. Now, when it comes to signing, ASL (American Sign Language), there is a translation process which happens, where we have to translate from English to ASL. I am always finding myself playing around with ways to sign a line, and locking down on what fits and feels natural. Unfortunately, people have said to me “How can you be an actor if you are Deaf, you can’t hear.” Yes, I can’t hear but I CAN act, I just have to “memorize” their lines, read lips, listen/train my brain to hear a certain word as a cue, and watch for visual cues such as movements or whatever. All that makes my career so magical.
Do you feel there has been progress made for more roles that portray characters who are deaf/hard of hearing and are there any shows/films that are inclusive that you have particularly enjoyed?
Yes, there has been a huge progress within the industry being more inclusive especially with characters that are Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing. However, we truly need more films/TV written by those who are Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing, like me, who have the ability to share/express their story. I have written several films, a web series, and I'm working re-writing a TV Series.
I enjoyed Marlee Matlin (Jodi) and Deanne Bray (Amy) in The L Word. I want to be on The L Word: Generation Q as I’m ready and many have asked me when they will see me on the show! I loved the late Phyllis Frelich in Love is Never Silence. The talented, Howie Seago and Emmauelle Laborit in Beyond Silence.
We REALLY love REAL, your tiny film web series and how you tackle the complexities of love and deafness with such humor, what gave you the idea for it and what was the hardest part about making it?
Thank you, as I am glad you both loved REAL. I had no idea how much of an impact REAL would have on the viewers. It all began when Maria Forsythe (director/producer/editor) and I met during a project as we knew we wanted to work together again to tell meaningful story. I took one of my old scripts, re-wrote it, allowing my fingers do the typing as I listen to my heart while creating REAL.
The cast and crew were basically blown away with pride and emotions by the reactions from everyone, as they crave for more stories like REAL. People are constantly asking us when is the next episode, which we will resume filming after the pandemic. Waiting to be able to film safely is the hardest part of REAL, all of us have such passion for this project and we cannot wait to get filming again!
You have an all-female cast and crew, tell us about them and how was it working together?
Working with an all-female cast and crew truly empowers each of us and, because of our passions, REAL happened. All of us are PROUD of this project. Maria and I have been friends since working on a past project. We keep supporting each other bloom as filmmakers. Then, I met the lovely talented, Tatiana Roberts who made a perfect Emma. Rajinee Buguing and Brittany Marsh make sure sounds are smooth. Production Design is by Cassady Spruiell, she gave me several olives to choose from for my character to eat (you MUST watch REAL to get the full appreciation for the olive's). Prior REAL, I hated Olives but I was willing to eat them just for the film and at the end, ohhh Olive Juice! (winks) I cannot wait to see, work and hug them again. I miss them all terribly but we do keep in touch.
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What do you hope people will appreciate from watching REAL and what are your hopes for the web series in the future?
I hope that the audience will appreciate its meaningful human stories, that navigate through Lauren’s life, relationships and connection in a world of complex communication. Allow them to feel and connect with the characters. We look forward to resume filming after the pandemic, do some fundraising to complete Season One, submit to Film Festivals as well as share more episodes with all of you.
We have often seen the backlash over roles portraying LGBTQ characters being played by straight actors, how do you feel about roles portraying someone deaf/hard of hearing being played by someone with hearing?
It is not authentic, especially when it comes to a hearing person taking on roles that are specifically written for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing. It has happened way too often within the film and theatre world, as we are always constantly educating the industry about its authenticity and sharing that there are many talented actors who are perfect for the role. Also, it’s like a hearing actor playing Sarah Norman in Children of a Lesser God, which is a huge disrespect to Mark Medoff and those who have previously carried on the role such as Phyllis, Marlee and myself. There is a poem, “You have to be Deaf to Understand,” which applies to the roles that are written for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing.
People have challenged me saying that I cannot play a hearing role. What hearing role? Did the script specifically say that? Juliet, Hannah, Puck, Chloe, etc. are all not “Hearing” roles they all are “HUMAN” roles, or a “FAIRY” in Puck’s case, because I happen to be Deaf brings another perspective to its character and story. It doesn’t truly change anything. I even auditioned for a horror film, Made of These, which I blew the director, Ven Scott, producers, Tracee Beebe and Brandon Torres’ minds with my video and I was cast! I truly thank them, and many others, who open their mind and heart to many possibilities creating magic onscreen and onstage which makes my heart warm.
Now, instead of me sitting around waiting for auditions and roles, I create them giving myself and others opportunities. I believe in the strong impact of working and blooming together by telling stories in a very authentic way.
Tell us about your passion for American Sign Language (ASL) and why more people should have at least a basic understanding of it?
ASL, is my language where I can truly rest my brain, enjoy a conversation and its meaningful connections. While lip-reading, I get exhausted focusing, putting the words and clues together just like the way Lauren explains in Episode Two of REAL.
It truly would be nice if everyone knew basic ASL which will allow all of us to communicate, and connect. Now, with the pandemic, with the mask and social distance we lose our ability to communicate with others. When we gesture often people freak out and ignore us, leading them to continue to “speak” with their mask on. We try again to gesture in a different way and it still happens, I've noticed not everyone listens with their eyes. Which ASL will allow more human connections, we use our eyes, bodies and facial expression to communicate. I have heard people including my family and friends say “I wish I knew sign language,” which is often an excuse as no one is stopping them. I urge you to learn ASL and make a difference in other peoples lives and I promise you will make someone’s day as they smile.
Michelle explains perfectly why there's even more reason for everyone to learn ASL!
If you could work with any woman either in front of, or behind the camera, who would you choose and why?
It’s clearly Marlee Matlin as it’s my dream to act with her. I also want her to direct me and one of my scripts, as I believe in her.
However, I would love to work with all of the beautiful creative passionate woman who care about bringing a story alive onscreen and onstage. Working together, and empowering each other.
You are very inspiring with all your accomplishments, what would you say to other young women hoping to break into acting or filmmaking, especially to those who feel underrepresented?
Follow your dreams, passions and believe in yourself. I live by Thomas Edison’s quote, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
"I almost gave up my passions, but I didn’t instead I fall, rest and rise up again!"
What helps you stay motivated when you’ve received setbacks?
With thousands of rejections, I rest and rise up again. I basically put my hands on my heart, look in the mirror and know I must keep going. I am so determined and have the will power to continue. I have been in this industry since I was a kid, working hard constantly non-stop, brainstorming, networking, auditioning, writing, which leads me to have many stories and memories of this journey this makes me feel beyond rich with experience. I smile and feel blessed.
How can anyone help support your work?
Let’s work together on new scripts, new projects on stage and on screen, and make magic happen.
YOU can also help Michelle by watching and sharing her REAL tiny film webseries.
What’s next for you, more acting, writing or directing?
I’m currently developing and completing my rewrites of a TV Series I wrote. As well as working with a wonderful producer, Stephanie Moore while we prepare to take it to the networks and investors. Also, next up I’ll be playing Hamlet in a unique digital production with Past is Prologue Productions, directed by Jennifer Sturley and Rosalind Faires! This COVID-safe concept will blend theatre, film, and social media to create an immersive and timely digital adaptation that explores themes of isolation, connection, gender, queerness, and accessibility. I’m also working with an amazing screenwriter, Tasha Hardy on her project I Love You So Much where I’m playing a lead. As soon we get investors then it will be a green light. At the same time, I am ready for projects on film, television and even Broadway to check that off my list and accomplish my Senior High School yearbook quote where I wrote, “See you on Broadway. Never forget YOUR dreams!”
If you want to learn more about Michelle's work or contact her, please visit her website
For more informational NAD (The National Association of the Deaf ), the nation’s premier civil rights organization of, by and for deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the United States of America please visit their website.
Photographs courtesy of Michelle Schaefer
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