Tribes' actors work in two languages

Tracey Maloney (Sylvia) and John McGinty (Billy) in Tribes.
Tracey Maloney (Sylvia) and John McGinty (Billy) in Tribes.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Actor John McGinty faces a number of challenges in the Guthrie's current production of Tribes, including communicating with the audience is two distinct languages.

Like his character, Billy, McGinty is deaf. The character communicates both through spoken word and sign language. Talking in both offers plenty of challenges for the actor.

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"I need to speak clearly and give the audience access. The process has been a long one to just get to the point where I can speak clearly. I have a wonderful vocal coach who has helped me to project my voice and develop the character of Billy," he says through an interpreter.

McGinty's background includes a mixture of productions, from acting with the Deaf West Theatre in California to working with hearing and deaf actors in New York.

"I was very familiar with the storyline of a deaf person coming from a hearing family. There were a lot of parallels between his journey and my journey," McGinty says. "Some of the parallels were missing out on information while other people are having a conversation. Also, trying to find the right communication for each person, and all of the things that go into a person's identity."

For director Wendy Goldberg, Tribes is her first experience with working with a deaf actor. "I think it is a little bit different. Different for the better. There is an awareness on my behalf and everyone's behalf that we have to think about how we phrase things and the meaning of our words. We have to think about the best way to convey the direction," she says.

There is also a shift in the rehearsal room, as McGinty works with a team of interpreters throughout the process. "There's more inclusiveness in the room than many people are used to. I think these things are for the good," Goldberg says. "It took a couple of days for people to acclimate to the way it will work. We have an incredible group of actors, and people understood things early on."

The plot centers on a deaf man who has grown up in a hearing family. He connects with a woman who is in the process of going deaf. The production has moved McGinty to work on both his voice and signing, to make sure that they can be understood in the McGuire Proscenium house. 

"The play is about how we connect or how we disconnect. Our work in the room has really mirrored the themes of the play," Goldberg says.

McGinty was mainly an athlete as a youth. "My confidence level was really low. I was told to do the drama club. I got so into it. From there on out I was sold," he says.

He went on to study finance at Northeastern, and performing arts administration at New York University. His performance training came via work with the National Theatre for the Deaf and Deaf West.

During the original New York run of Tribes, McGinty was one of the actors who had been seen for the role. That casting director was the same for the Guthrie. "She really thought John was the one. A few days later, I saw John in an audition room in New York. It's not easy to find the right exact person for the role," Goldberg says.


Through Nov. 10
Guthrie Theater
818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis
For tickets and more information, call 612.377.2224 or visit online.

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Guthrie Theater

818 S. 2nd St.
Minneapolis, MN 55415


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