Lauren Ridloff’s Broadway Cinderella Story
The story is like a fairytale: A woman takes a job working as a sign language tutor for director Kenny Leon. Leon puts together a reading of “Children of a Lesser God,” and needs a Deaf actor to play the pivotal role of Sarah. He casts his former tutor alongside A-lister Joshua Jackson. She blows them all away, lands the role, and makes her Broadway and professional debut in the play.
That woman is Lauren Ridloff, the effortlessly charming actor who is making waves across the theater industry. The New York Times called her performance “blistering,” “a knockout professional debut,” and Variety said she’s “continuing the tradition of deaf actresses who come out of nowhere and knock us off our feet.”
On May 1, Ridloff, 40, earned a Tony Award nomination for her performance, and at the nominee reception, she was the star. Everyone wanted to meet her. This former teacher and stay-at-home mom has certainly come a long way. At our photoshoot, she said she hates having her photo taken, but that it’s just part of the job now. Ask any photographer who has worked with her: She’s a total natural. The camera and the spotlights love her.
On a sunny Thursday morning, Ridloff walks into Le Pain Quotidien wearing jeans, a white wrap blouse, and oxfords. I’ve learned a few phrases in American Sign Language for the interview, and as soon as she arrives, I immediately want to showcase my skills, asking her how she’s doing and telling her I saw the show, and she’s an amazing actor.
She immediately responds, and for a brief moment, it feels amazing to be speaking the same language. She makes you want to listen and learn, and she has inspired several people to start learning ASL, including the theater’s doorman. Ridloff’s star power is undeniable, but a life on the stage was never in her plans.
“It feels surreal,” she says. “I can’t believe all of this is happening. People ask me if it’s a dream come true, and I have to say, it wasn’t even a dream I had. So I can’t even say it was a dream come true. I never dreamt it.”
Ridloff isn’t a total stranger to the public eye. She was Miss Deaf America in 2000, and someone who saw her take the crown connected her with Leon. She also grew up dancing – her lithe-like moves onstage prove this fact – as her great aunt was a show girl. She says it was a “rite of passage” to take dance classes at a studio her aunt founded with Sammy Davis Jr. (Her sister is a professional dancer and choreographer, but Ridloff decided early on it wasn’t for her.) She also had a small role in the film “Wonderstruck.”
When Leon called her about the “Children of a Lesser God” reading, she thought she was going in as a consultant for Deaf talent. “I wasn’t familiar with the theater world. I didn’t really understand what a reading involved. I couldn’t even begin to be excited about it,” she says.
After the reading, her co-star Joshua Jackson remembers walking with Leon amazed at Ridloff’s word. “We were both were like, if she can do that on the stage that’s the whole thing,” Jackson says. “She gets it just inherently.”
Ridloff describes herself as “simple,” and in fact, the word lends itself to her sign name. In Deaf culture, sign names are a method of conveying a person’s name without finger-spelling, and the name usually says something about the individual’s personality. Ridloff is all about being simple, so her current sign name looks like ringing a small bell with the thumb and forefinger, half of the sign for “simple.” “I overuse that word,” she says, “so eventually, that movement then became the sign for my name.”
Ridloff assumes she was born Deaf, though has no way to know for sure. She grew up in Chicago, and her parents, a musician and an artist, learned she was Deaf when she was 2 and then her family began learning sign language.
Watching the film “Children of a Lesser God” was actually her first introduction to seeing American Sign Language when she was 8, because up until that point, she had been signing with her parents in a sequential way not with the unique grammatical rules of ASL. (She learned ASL in high school.)
While she hasn’t looked at the film again since that time because she doesn’t want to be influenced, seeing the movie was a formative experience for her as a young girl.
“My parents are very culturally proud people. My father is a first-generation Mexican. My mother is African-American. And my mother knew that Deaf culture was a thing, so she was concerned about my sense of identity. Because she knew I was not exposed to a lot of deaf role models, in my life,” Ridloff says. “They wanted to take me and see this strong independent deaf woman, on the big screen doing what she does naturally. And that stayed with me for a very long time.”
Ridloff relates to Sarah in many ways. The crux of the play hinges on the fact that Sarah has refused to use her voice, and Professor Leeds specializes in getting Deaf people to speak and lip read to pass for hearing. Ridloff had a series of teachers when she was growing up, many of whom encouraged her to use her voice. While she says many were wonderful, some would laugh at her because they thought she sounded funny.
“I experienced pressure, encouragement to use my voice, but not in the same way that Sarah does. I think it is traumatic what happens in our story. I think I would experience PTSD if that had actually happened to me,” she says. “The pressure is much more subtle. I would get rewards in school from the teacher if I used my voice. I never would get recognition for doing something in sign. I felt like I was valued more if I used my voice and spoke. And that hurts actually.”
Ridloff made the choice for herself after two weeks at a sleepaway camp with Deaf kids and counselors, realizing that she was most herself when she was signing. Stepping into “Children of a Lesser God” is the first time in 20 years that Ridloff has used her voice. When Leon and Ridloff first spoke about Sarah’s choice, Leon framed it as an “act of rebellion,” but Ridloff explained that it was much more personal choice.
“People were judging me, solely based on my speaking ability, not what I am capable of,” Ridloff says. “And I knew I was an intelligent person and had things to say, and I had my own thoughts and my own voice. And the speaking ability was not a reflection of that.”
Now, using her voice eight times a week is a “self-affirming experience. “I feel like I’m having an opportunity to reclaim my own voice, on my own terms,” she explains. “And I am using my own voice not to please anyone. I’m using my voice to make a point. Yeah. So now, it is the young Lauren in me, that finally feels I don’t have to worry about being judged. I’m just using my voice and I don’t care anymore.”
Performing onstage has also led a different dimension to her signing. Her grand stage presence belies her petite frame, but the large movements required for performance have taken a toll on her body.
“I’ve never thought about signing as a physical activity,” Ridloff says, adding that she now eats four to five meals a day for the athleticism the show requires. “Onstage, you need to project from your back. You are projecting your signs out to the back of the audience. So I am using my shoulders, my back, my elbows, my arms.”
While Ridloff relates to Sarah, she recognizes that her own life resembles Sarah’s ideal. “In the play Sarah talks about wanting a home, a house, a car, a garden, a microwave, a food processor, and Deaf children,” Ridloff says. “And I realized, ‘Oh my god, I have all of that. I have everything Sarah has dreamed of, except for the microwave. I don’t have a microwave.”
However, Ridloff initially had trouble understanding the motivation for the love story in “Children of a Lesser God.” James Leeds immediately starts pressuring her to do something she doesn’t want to do. “I think any woman would be turned off by that in a way,” she says.
She credits the color-conscious casting with lending her a reasoning behind their relationship. “I’m a mixed-race person, and so, when I think about my mother Mrs. Norman in the play [played by Kecia Lewis], she’s black so obviously, I’m mixed-race, which means my father might have been white, or Mexican, but is out the picture. There’s a void. And James then fills in that void for Sarah.”
Ridloff lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Douglas, and her two sons. She grew up in Chicago, but she moved to New York for school to become a teacher, a job she held for a long time before being plucked for stardom. She met her husband through mutual friends while she was in school. She didn’t feel like going out that night, but she’s glad she did. “I fell in love with him right away. I saw his eyes, and I saw home.”
In her spare time, she loves to knit, an activity I also enjoy, and we immediately swap our favorite knitwear designers. She shows me a picture of a gorgeous cardigan she made for her husband, and I feel like I could pick up a dozen tricks from her. She also loves to run and read, and lately, she’s been on a kick of children’s books. She recommends “Island Born,” Junot Diaz’s first kid’s book.
Ridloff says she always wanted Deaf children when she was young, like Sarah, but as she got older, the distinction didn’t matter anymore, saying that all children are wonderful.
“A lot of Deaf people dream of having a Deaf family, where there’s no communication limitation,” she says. “My husband and I were so sure that we would have children who could hear, because the percentage of Deaf people who have Deaf children is so tiny. So imagine our surprise.”
She facetimes with kids every night before a show, but neither of them have seen it yet. Her oldest son is 6, and while he’s still a little immature for the adult themes, he’s been begging to see it. Though the sex and cursing is not the only things that worry Ridloff about her son seeing the show; the play presents a very dated view of how Deaf people interact with the world and she’s not sure she’s ready for her sons to absorb those ideas.
“My boys are growing up with a strong sense of identity, and that’s different than my own upbringing. So I’m really happy about that,” she says. “I really want my boys to have an opportunity to develop their own sense of identity first, before really exposing them to ideas that might not be their own.”
Ridloff is hopeful for the next generation of Deaf people. While she is part of the generation after Sarah’s story in the 1970s, her sons are part of the next, and she’s excited about the change they will help usher in.
“I feel that I’m able to achieve so much more now, and I live in a world and a time where people are more open,” she says. “We’re not there. I’m not saying that. But I feel like the door has opened. So it’s so exciting for me, to see my boys and wonder what the future will be like for them.”