For this month’s UIL one-act play competition, Lake Highlands High School theater teacher Michael Stephens chose an ambitious project — “Sweet Nothing in My Ear,” a play about a multigenerational family’s struggle between the deaf and hearing worlds. Lucky for him, Stephens has the help of neighbor MELISSA ALLOWAY, who has taught deaf education at Stonewall Jackson Elementary for 30 years.

How did your interest in deaf education begin?
It’s kind of corny. When I was 14 or 15, I saw “The Miracle Worker” with Patty Duke, and I was intrigued by the fact that she was highly intelligent, but it was a matter of finding out how to communicate with her. I was interested in the blind and the deaf, but when I learned how the deaf have their own language, and the challenge of connecting with the children and communicating with them and teaching them to communicate, I was more fascinated with that.

How do you teach them?
They learn sign language the way hearing children learn new vocabulary. We use a lot of visuals, actually — pick up an orange and point to it and sign “orange.” It has to be highly visual to introduce the new vocabulary and concepts.

How did you get involved in this play?
Somehow, Mr. Stevens learned that my daughter, Meredith, had gone to school at Stonewall Jackson and that she had learned sign language, and he said he had seen this play and always wanted to do it, but never had any connection to anybody who knew sign language. He talked to Meredith, and she said she could refresh her memory to play the deaf mother, then he asked me: “Would you mind helping with the play?”

What all does that entail?
Initially, I read through the script to change it from the original. The play was written to be done in American Sign Language (ASL), which has its own grammar and syntax, so I had to spend some time going through the script, translating it from written English to ASL and figuring out how to have them sign it. It’s difficult for people with their English word order brains to learn pure ASL, so I’m going to teach them a kind of combination of ASL and English because the cast, aside from Meredith, has never learned sign language. So it’s interesting — the ones who are playing a deaf person can’t use their speech; they have to turn off thinking about spoken language and think solely about communicating through the air.

How do you see the play?
It’s very real-life about a controversial issue that occurs between the deaf and the hearing world over cochlear implants, the device that’s surgically implanted and replaces the cochlea (in the inner ear) and enables deaf people to “hear,” but not the way we hear. The deaf have a really strong culture, and they do not feel disabled. They feel they’re all right, and there’s no reason to have to go to the extreme of surgery to try to make a deaf person into a hearing person. The other side, from the hearing world, is to make the deaf person hearing so they can communicate with the hearing world. I have seen that in my own career, and between my deaf and hearing friends, that it is truly a controversial issue. The play brings up points of view that people probably have never even thought about, so I think it can really challenge people to think about deaf people as whole: secure, happy individuals who don’t think they need to be changed to fit into the hearing world.

What’s your daughter’s role in this play?
Meredith is playing the mother who was born deaf to deaf parents, so she has hereditary deafness, and she’s married to a hearing man, so Meredith’s challenge is going to be, without any spoken words, to convey the strong feeling she has using just her sign language and her body and her facial expressions. And Anthony Abdo, who’s playing her husband, his challenge will have to be to speak and sign at the same time.

Is it meaningful for you to be part of it?
I hope to teach the students to really respect the language of the deaf … So often, people say, ‘Oh, sign language is so pretty,’ but it’s so much more than pretty. Linguists study it now. So I hope, more than just teaching them sign language, to teach them about the culture of deaf people and why they are proud of their culture.