Customized hearing is believing for actress

From: The Denver Post, CO – Jul 28, 2003
By John Moore , Denver Post Theater Critic

A year ago, as lifelong actress Ali Zimmerman of Broomfield waited in a hallway for her first audition for a disabled theater company, she dropped to the floor and cried. Her despair was rooted not only in the random events that had led her to this point in her life. It also was because all around her, she saw people in wheelchairs, or using walking canes, or with physical deformities she couldn’t even identify.

“I was looking around and thinking, ‘These people are freaks. Disabled freaks. I don’t belong here,”‘ she recalled of the actors who would make up the cast of the Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors League’s 2002 production of “Once Upon a Mattress.”

It was a sad but telling reaction, considering Zimmerman was now profoundly deaf herself and with Crohn’s disease – and she was sitting in judgment of others.

“You don’t know what stereotypes you have until you face them,” Zimmerman said. “I didn’t realize I had any stereotypes of disabled people at all. Apparently I did. But by the end of that show, I loved every single person there. PHAMALy totally saved my life.”

A year later, Zimmerman has returned to PHAMALy, which has given actors with disabilities the opportunity to perform in paid, professional productions since 1989. She has been cast as Babe Williams (the Doris Day role) in “The Pajama Game,” the 1954 classic opening Friday at the Space Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex.

Casting a deaf actor is one thing, but casting a deaf actor in the lead of a musical might seem absurd or impossible – that is, until you hear Zimmerman hit every note in a crystal-clear pitch. That’s thanks in part to natural talent she developed long before she began to lose her hearing four years ago.

But the only reason she can even try wearing Doris Day’s pajama top is her revolutionary technological collaboration with sound designer Matt Swartz, which could serve as a prototype for deaf actors around the country.

Crohn’s diagnosis at 11

Zimmerman, 27, grew up in the small farming town of Vermillion, S.D., where at age 11 she was diagnosed with Crohn’s, an incurable disease that makes the body’s immune system attack its own intestines.

Zimmerman has mostly held the upper hand on the disease, but she can’t help but think there is some connection between it and the sudden ringing she felt in her right ear during a dress rehearsal for a 1999 production of “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Boulder Arts Academy. The ringing and the dizziness stopped after five minutes, but the episodes kept happening, and within two months, she was completely deaf in her right ear.

“No one really knows for sure why this is happening to me,” she said. “But the foremost doctor in the world for cochlear implants told me it was most likely an auto-immune inner-ear disease.”

That sounds a lot like Crohn’s, so Zimmerman figures it was her immune system that wiped out the hair cells in the cochlea of her right ear.

Two years later, it started happening again in her left ear. The day after the best audition of her life landed her the role of Ms. Scarlet in “Clue the Musical” at Coal Creek Community Theatre, her life irreversibly changed.

“I mark that moment as my last performance as a hearing person,” she said. “Literally, I woke up, and my hearing (in my one good ear) was nearly gone.”

That was August 2001, but it would be two months before she would be fitted for a hearing aid. In the meantime, she could only hear sounds louder than a lawn mower. She was frantic for information, but simple tasks such as talking to a doctor on the phone now had to be done through her rock of a boyfriend, Barry Bradford. She sat up at night wondering if a fire alarm went off, whether she would even hear it.

“It was just terrifying,” she said.

So was watching but not hearing the world as we know it come to an end on Sept. 11, 2001. Zimmerman runs the website for Boulder’s Globe Program, a federal science and education program for students.

“I remember so clearly my system administrator coming in and saying, ‘You’ve got to leave the building.’ That was one of the first phrases I understood anybody say after it happened. I didn’t know what had happened, but I knew it had to be something horrible.”

Distortion big problem

Zimmerman remains permanently deaf in her right ear. With her hearing aid she has about 60 percent of speech recognition in her left ear, but deafness is not only a problem of amplification. It also concerns distortion. She can hear men’s deep voices just fine but struggles to hear women’s. “It’s treble versus bass,” she said. “Bass I can hear; treble not so much.”

She returned to the theater last year with her small part in “Once Upon a Mattress.” This year, she’s the star of “The Pajama Game” opposite a blind Sid (Don Mauck). PHAMALy director Steve Wilson has never let details like blindness or deafness get in the way of his casting decisions.

“Ali was cast because she was the best,” he said. “She sang it the best, she acted the best, and so she deserves the role. Have we had to deal with some adversity? Yes, but that doesn’t mean that we ever will give up on someone.”

Still, the uneducated can’t help but wonder: How can a deaf actress follow the dialogue and music around her? More pointedly, if a deaf singer cannot hear her own voice in an undistorted way, how can she find ever the correct note?

“Singing is not actually about hearing – it’s about feeling,” Zimmerman said. “My voice teacher says that’s true for every singer, whether they are deaf or not. It’s the way you place your head, your tongue, your mouth and how you breathe. She’s actually teaching me not to listen to myself.”

But she could not pull off a lead without Swartz, the Denver Center Theatre Company’s year-round sound designer, who was first recruited to help Zimmerman last summer.

“My goal is that whenever and wherever she is on stage, she can hear, and hear clearly,” said Swartz, who was brought back for “The Pajama Game” three weeks ago. A severe ear attack watching fireworks in Frisco had temporarily robbed Zimmerman of nearly all hearing in her good ear.

He started with a personal-monitor system, the kind many rock stars now use when they perform. A receiver fits in Zimmerman’s back pocket, with a cord that wraps around her neck. Through it, Swartz can send a sound mixture designed specifically for Zimmerman directly into her hearing aid.

“Basically, every wireless microphone that we have on stage or for the band is sent into my mixer,” Swartz said. “From there, I combine those signals and create a mix according to what she needs most to hear without distortion. We can set the sound of the women louder than the men. Same with the band. It’s like her own personal speaker but without making her carry a big box on her shoulder.”

Zimmerman compares the device to the infrared receivers cinemas provide for the hearing impaired. “But the mix is the same for everyone. The step that’s missing is him,” she said of Swartz.

Zimmerman and Swartz developed a special rapport last year, so much so that Zimmerman didn’t even know until last week what Swartz did with the thank-you card she sent him.

“I have kept that on the visor of my car ever since, because it’s a daily reminder of why I do theater,” Swartz said. “Working with PHAMALy is the reason you do it. My other work here is rewarding in its own small way, but working with PHAMALy? Forget about it. People talk about baseball players and movie stars as heroes, but to me, these guys who have what they call disabilities, and then overcome them and put on these great shows, that is a hero.”

The feeling is mutual. “If I ever win the lottery, I am going to buy him to follow me around,” Zimmerman said, because Swartz, and PHAMALy, have allowed her to fulfill a need to perform she has had since she was 6.

“For me, to be alive is to be on stage in front of an audience,” she said. “When this first happened I didn’t think I was going to be able to sing again, and if that happened, I would have to rethink my whole life – everything I have done, everything I want to do. This is what I live for.”

Upbeat troupe
What :’The Pajama Game’
Directed by :Steve Wilson
Starring:Ali Zimmerman, Don Mauck, Jim Hubbard and Kathleen Traylor
Presented by :Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors League
Where :Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets
When:Preview 8 p.m. Thursday; opens Friday; showtimes are 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (except Aug. 3); through Aug. 17
Tickets:$25 through the Denver Center box office (303-893-4100)
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