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Phyllis Frelich, Actress

2/2/2005:

We wanted to air this story on Phyllis Frelich’s birthday, but she’s is a leap year baby, so we decided to run it today. It was on this date in 1981 that she was awarded the Teddy Roosevelt Rough Rider Award.

Last week we talked about Steve Blehm, a basketball star at the Devils Lake School for the Deaf. That’s Phyllis Frelich’s alma mater, too. Frelich was the first of nine children born to deaf parents; all nine were non-hearing, and all attended the School for the Deaf. Mr. Frelich worked as a printer for a local newspaper and Mrs. Frelich stayed home to care for her large family.

Phyllis raduated from high school in 1962 and went to Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., where she majored in library science. Last year, Simi Horwitz interviewed Ms. Frelich for a New York magazine called Back Stage. Phyllis told Horwitz, “The professional options for deaf women in those days were education, home economics, and library science. There was no professional theatre for the deaf at that time or, for that matter, a theatre major offered at Gallaudet University. But I appeared in many school productions (and) I loved it.”

In 1967, a set designer named David Hays (who was not deaf) was trying to form the National Theatre of the Deaf and came to Gallaudet to find talent. Frelich impressed Hays, and she soon became the company’s co-founder.

An immediate problem was lack of plays written for the deaf, a problem that in large part still exists. Playwright Mark Medoff became intrigued by Frelich’s difficulties in finding suitable roles and decided to write a play for her. It was the first to address not only the problems faced by deaf people in a hearing world, and also the difficulty of all human communication. The play was called Children of a Lesser God and garnered Phyllis the 1980 Tony Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Sarah, a spirited young deaf woman who struggles with her relationship with a speech therapist at a school for the deaf.

The play also won Tonies for Best Play and Best Actor, and Medoff has since written four more plays for Frelich. She has also received an Emmy nomination for a Hallmark Hall of Fame film, Love Is Never Silent. Still, she struggles with the second-class status attributed to sign language users and resents it.

“There are fewer stereotypes about deaf people than there used to be,” she says, “but Hollywood still tends to believe that deaf characters are either angry and bitter and/or victims; maybe that’s why deaf actresses work more than deaf actors, at least on TV. They’re women, they’re deaf – they’re victims. What we need are more deaf writers writing about our experiences truthfully.”

Frelich has been married to Robert Steinberg, a set designer, for 32 years. They have two grown sons, a cinematographer and a musician. Steinberg, who can hear, says they have a running joke about the son who’s a musician. “Phyllis says he must have gotten the musical talent from her. (I know) he certainly didn’t get it from me.”

Frelich also teaches and warns that some people assume sign language practitioners have a “gift” for acting. “Sign language has a physical component,” she says, “but sign language doesn’t make you an actor. And there are deaf actors who sign very boringly. Signing has many different practitioners. Acting is an inner language, and it will come out regardless of your voice.”

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm