Arlene Malinowski is a Chicago-based playwright, actor and teacher. She grew up in New Jersey and has spent many years in Los Angeles. She has written and performed several solo plays, which draw on her unique experience growing up in a family where both parents were deaf. Her solo work has earned her an LA Garland award and several other nominations and picks. As an actor, she has appeared in numerous theatre productions around the country. She also teaches solo writing and performing. I caught up with her at the Cafe Selmarie in Chicago’s Lincoln Square, where she gave me some insights into writing and performing in solo plays, as well as what it was like to grow up in a deaf family.
Michael: The first thing I wanted to ask about was: I see that you have two solo plays, What Does the Sun Sound Like
Arlene: and Aiming for Sainthood.
Michael: … and Aiming for Sainthood.
Arlene: Those are the two full-lengths, and I have a few one-acts.
Michael: All right, so let’s talk about What Does the Sun Sound Like first. Is that your oldest play?
Arlene: That’s my oldest full-length. There are the one-acts which came before that. But all my work is autobiographical solo work, and it is autobiographical solo — let me think of the right word — it’s social autobiography, which means telling one’s story in the context of a cultural group.
Arlene: That’s what it is. And so I say “I’m an actor and a performer”.
Michael: And you write the play completely yourself …
Arlene: I live the play first! Then I write the play, and then I perform it.
Michael: So you’re it: you’re the writer, the actor …
Arlene: I’m everything.
Michael: What about the sets and the staging, do you have someone …
Arlene: You know what, it depends on what kind of a venue I have. If I am doing a full length run in a theatre, then I have sound designers and lighting designers and scenic designers. A lot of my work — once I have a couple of full runs — I travel the country with it, and I do it at colleges and universities and theatres for one or two or three nights or a week. So when I travel like that, it’s much more bare-bones. The good thing about solo is you can do a blank stage. You can be in a black box, and it’s my job as the playwright to develop this whole world that people don’t see, but that they make this quantum leap in their head. I play all the characters …
Michael: Oh, so it’s not just you — it’s multiple characters …
Arlene: Yes: they’re multi-character plays. I have a narrator, who narrates the play, and then I write scenes, and I have an internal narrator and an external narrator. And the external narrator is the narrator who is omnipresent, and that narrator knows the past, the present and the future — that narrator knows everything that’s happened. And then there is a narrator that is within the scene, who only knows what’s happening in the scene. So, “when I was twelve years old, I went to a catholic school, and little did I know that this would happen” — that would be the external narrator. The internal would be — “so I’m walking to my mother’s house, and it’s really dark …” — so the internal narrator is speaking from within the scene with no knowledge of what’s going to happen.
Michael: And the action is happening to that narrator.
Michael: This title is very interesting — What Does the Sun Sound Like. What is this play about, and what does the sun sound like?
Arlene: The title of the play came from a conversation I had with my father. I grew up in a deaf family — sign language is my first language — and all of my material up until this point has been about cross-cultural intersections: between hearing and deaf, between men and between women, between classes, um, upper-class and lower-class. Because I grew up in a deaf house, I was my parents’ ears. I listened for them. I was about twelve — and it’s a very natural kind of seamless dance that I had with my parents, and that most children of deaf parents have. There’s a whole group of us, there’s a whole history. There’s a group called CODA, Children of Deaf Adults, it’s going to be twenty-five years old. It was started by a woman who was writing a dissertation in deaf studies. She was a child of deaf parents, and so she started talking to other kids of deaf parents, and found that everybody had remarkably the same story — with these huge threads that wove themselves through the tapestry of their lives. So growing up in a family like that, there were times that I was the parent, and there were times that they were the parent. In situations where a waiter would come by, I would need to speak for them.
Michael: and you were like twelve …
Arlene: Oh no, I was seven …
Arlene: I was five! And it starts very simple, “tell me when the toast pops, because I’m going to be in the other room. When the washing machine turns off, tell me. When the baby cries, come and get me.” So that’s how it starts. So “what does the sun sound like” — I’m twelve. And during my twelfth year I was a real handful. Growing up, I was always treated like an adult, so I thought I was an adult. ( Laughs). So at twelve — plus being an adolescent girl, plus being in a very strict household — there were few times of peace in my home. And I remember that my father — we shared breakfast together — and I’ll just quote a little bit from the play:
“it was another dreary, overcast day in a series of dreary, overcast days that marked that dreary, overcast summer … of trouble.” And it was fight, fight, fight, fight — and then for the first time [in a long time] the sun breaks free from the clouds and the kitchen just floods with this light. And I remember my mother and my father and I just kind of looked out the window because it was just so long since we had seen the sun, and my father turned, and he said “what does the sun sound like?” And I’m like — “the sun has no sound”. And my father thinks, and I still see his expression, and he says “the sun hits the sidewalk. I read that. It has a sound — you can’t fool me.” So I said, “Dad, that’s not true. It’s an idiom.” And then the whole thing is how do you explain an idiom?
So then my father says “You can see the sun, but you can’t hear the sun.”
“You can see the rain, but you can hear the rain, but but but but …”
“You can see the snow but you can’t hear the snow. It’s” and I use his deaf voice (very guttural) “Qui-et!”
“And you can’t see the wind, but you can hear it.”
And then my father looks at me and he says, “You know, sometimes it’s hard for me to understand.”
And it was like my heart just opened. So years later I go back, and I tell my father about this play, and he said “I don’t remember that. That never happened!”
Arlene: And I’m like “Yes it did!” And it was this remarkable turning point. Like for the first time I really understood what it was like to be deaf. Up until that point it resonated with me on a whole different level. So that’s where the title comes from.
Michael: What about the next solo play, Aiming for Sainthood. Does this kind of take your family life further …
Arlene: It’s the second in a trilogy. The first play, this is my blurb: “totally true tales of a hearing daughter who grows up in a deaf family and culture.” Aiming for Sainthood is “when her deaf mother gets cancer, her middle-aged daughter moves back into her childhood room with two questions: “where is God?”, and “who moved my Springsteen poster?”
Arlene: My plays are different than other disability-oriented work, because I refuse to treat … (pauses). How about this: I have a very funny view of life. Things are funny to me. So, even horrible things are funny to me. So there’s a lot of funny in my life, especially around the deafness. So, my parents’ life is not precious, do you know what I mean? It’s not that precious kind of writing. But the stories, the stories, the stories! My husband is meeting my parents for the first time. We had just been dating, but I knew he was the one. I was really careful about who I was going to introduce them to. So we’re meeting my parents in a restaurant, and all of a sudden it hits me — oh my God, I need to teach him some signs so it will be nice for my parents! So, I’m like: “I know you love me, and I love you, but the time has come. I need to teach you sign language before you meet my parents in the next few minutes!” And he’s like: “Okay, just calm down, everything’s all right”. So I teach him to say “very good, thank you.” And the sign is (makes the signs) “very” from the center out, “good”, your palm facing heaven, “thank you”, from your chin. He meets my parents, and my father says (in a guttural deaf voice) “How … are … you.” And he signs it. And Dan – he looks at me, he looks at my parents. And he signs “fucking is good, thank you.” (laughs). Instead of this (sign for very good), he does this (sign for fucking). The stories go on and on. Like my mother, who orders a penis colana, because that’s what it looks like on people’s lips. “No, it’s a pina colada.” “That’s what I said, penis colana.” So the stories go on and on. Cross-cultural intersections …
Michael: So it’s not — sad — but it’s like: here were are, we’re deaf, okay …
Arlene: And here’s the culture …
Michael: And here’s the culture, and this is funny. Yeah.
Arlene: These are some of the things that we’ve been through.
Michael: So it’s a trilogy, though. Have you finished the third, uh …
Arlene: I haven’t started the third. The third comes later. I think in the next two or three years. The third one is going to be a look at disability and the [American] culture. While the story is about my parents, the story is really about me. And, I think I look at the culture now — and you know, we are fast becoming disabled culture people – you know, baby boomers are all getting old — and to really explore how the culture deals with disability. As we get old, my parents, when they get to that next level. That will be part of it. And then there is me, and I had some disabilities that are not spoken about, because I went crazy for a little while, and how families are much more willing to discuss, you know, hysterectomies [than that]. And I talk about as “losing my kibbles and bits.”
Arlene: So it’s going to me an interesting look at how disability runs us and how we run disability. So that’s my next play — I don’t know what it’s called and I don’t know when I’ll start it.
Michael: How long are these plays? One hour?
Arlene: One thirty.
Michael: An hour and a half?
Arlene:. One twenty-five is what I like to keep them to, because at one thirty people start looking at their watch. And the one-acts are probably thirty minutes.
Michael: So you have some other things that you wrote that are short, one-act, again — solo …
Arlene: One is called Kicking the Habit. I grew up in a Catholic school, and that story is about a mean nun, a Catholic school girl and her timid mother, who saves the day. And I was getting bullied by a nun, and my mother, she went in and read the nun the riot act. For the first time, and she was very timid of authority …
Michael: Plus she was deaf …
Arlene: And of course [she was going up against] the Catholic Church.
Michael: Those nuns are tough …
Arlene: You know, the nuns were great. They taught me how to read, but Sister Mary Concepta, Sister Mary Concepta, you know, I have a little blurb about her: “Sister Mary Concepta is a hundred and ten years old and has been dying of cancer for decades but everyone says she’s going to live forever, because she’s so mean not even God wants her.”
Arlene: And I swear … you know, I went on one of those internet sites where you find your classmates, and they have chat rooms. I went back to St. Brendan’s in Patterson, New Jersey, and the chat rooms were full of: “do you remember Sister Mary Concepta?”
[ … ]
Arlene: My personal mission statement is … there’s this solo Artist named Claudia … I can’t remember her full name … but she said, “Everybody has a story that will stop your heart.” And so I take that as the major premise of my mission statement and I changed it to “everyone has a story that will stop your heart, but we’ve stopped telling them because people have stopped listening.” And so, my goal is to help people find their voice and find the voice of their story, and help them always — always — listen to the story. So I look at this solo autobiographical thing, you know, spoken word salons, it’s all about people sharing their stories. I think that we’ve gotten really insular — and I know what it’s like to be in a place where people don’t hear you — literally!
Arlene: Where people do not hear you. And you know, we know Oprah and we know “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”, we know all those people intimately, but you know, I know very little about my neighbors. “The Second Story” (a performance venue) also is a place where people work a lot. So what happens is, you tell a story, and then you come off stage, and someone says “Oh, my God! Sister Mary Concepta! I so had a nun!” So I then get an opportunity to listen to your story, and it connects us: story by story by story. It connects us to who we are. And connects us to each other. Part of the reason this is so important to me: in the deaf community storytelling is a revered art form. And the story is not a punch line — the story is in the telling! Because deaf people use their faces and their bodies and sign language. So the story is in the telling, and I grew up around amazing storytellers. At deaf club — there is such a thing as deaf club — my parents belonged to the North Jersey Silent Club — people would talk, and there would always be one or two storytellers that when they started telling a story, everybody would crowd around, and watch. And they would tell the story, they would take on the characteristics of the person, and they would know how to build the story, and know how to tell a story-within-a-story. And that’s what I always come back to.
Michael: Thank you.