The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, April 02, 2019 1:00 am

Deaf actor lives dream

Ex-Norwell student pursues stage career; he'll sing as Snoopy

Blake Sebring | For The Journal Gazette

When he lost hearing in his right ear as a Norwell High School junior in 2015, Gavin Drew didn't tell anyone but his parents and acted his way through. But three years later, he lost 95 percent of the hearing in his left.

“I took four months just to be upset about it,” he said. “It was a grieving-the-loss situation. Everybody says you are brave or whatever, but for me, it's like, 'I don't have a choice. What am I going to do? I'm not going to roll over and die.'”

And that meant continuing his dream of becoming a professional actor, though it may take him longer to learn his lines and the songs.

Drew, 21, will play Snoopy in “You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” the latest Summit City Music Theatre production.

“I'm proud of who I am,” Drew said. “I'm not embarrassed to be a deaf actor. I hope that everybody will just see it, accept it and move on because we have a story to tell. The show is not about being deaf. Charlie Brown is not getting a cochlear implant. That's not the story.”

Drew suffers from Meniere's disease, which attacks the inner ear with fluid buildup, leading to hearing loss and bouts of vertigo. It means he can't use a drive-thru, traditional alarms won't wake him, movies require closed captioning and he can use his phone only to text. He wears a hearing aid for his left ear and reads lips, but can't hear himself when holding an audio conversation.

When vertigo attacks happen, Drew said there's no warning and it feels like an ocular migraine that can take 12 hours to get past. To help control them, he is careful about the salt in his diet and continually drinks water.

Because he started acting at age 5, the hearing loss also creates problems with his career. When he lost hearing in his left ear, he had already been cast in “The Music Man” and had to learn to adjust immediately. Now, after taking diction classes, he's found different tools.

It may take him longer to learn his lines and his musical responsibilities, but he also must understand the other actors' roles to help his own timing and spacing. Someday that will likely help him as a director.

“Gavin is a very create-his-own-opportunities-type of person,” said Mindy Cox, Summit City Music Theatre's co-founder and Drew's longtime voice coach. “I know this kid, and he's going to do something really awesome with this. It's just a different direction than what we thought it was going to be. It's just a gearshift.”

That attitude also led to the current play in a roundabout way.

Summit City Music Theatre and director Shelby Lewis were looking for their next production after presenting “Forever Plaid” in the fall. Around that time, Drew reached out to Cox from Oklahoma City University where he is studying musical theater to say friends were wondering if he could still sing.

Just as discussions began for “You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” American Sign Language teachers Todd and Miki Swing started taking dancing lessons at the Fort Wayne Ballroom Company where they met owner and Summit City Music Theater co-founder Chris Spalding, who had directed “Forever Plaid.”

The Swings' participation changed the format of “Charlie Brown,” as they will provide sign language for the six actors. Instead of signing from the side of the stage throughout the 90-minute presentation, they'll be shadowing the actors on stage, including Drew. That will make it easier for hearing-impaired spectators to follow the action.

There will be no explanation to the audience before the show about the sign language or a deaf actor.

“For us, the hearing audience, I think it's important for us to see how someone who has lost their hearing has to communicate,” Cox said. “I think that is educational for all of us as well. It certainly has been for me.”

Besides his lines, Drew sings seven songs during the play, including two solos. Though he's been nominated for three Fort Wayne Civic Theatre Anthony Awards and won one, it's almost like he's presenting himself as a newcomer, at least locally.

“I feel like I'm proving myself,” he said. “I've done a lot in this area, and I have a lot of friends in this area, so for me, it's important to get it right.”

He understands he may be setting up opportunities for others, a responsibility which is both liberating and a little intimidating. He wants to blend in with the cast, but he also knows he needs to stand out.

“I feel confident that if you saw our show and someone said `Pick out the deaf actor,' no one would be able to tell who it was,” Cox said.

After the play's run is complete, Drew will return to Oklahoma to have a cochlear implant April 22, direct a youth theater and participate in professional theater during the summer. He's got to focus on being Snoopy first.

“I think I can share this story,” he said. “I want to own it.” 

If you go

What: Summit City Music Theatre's “You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown”

When: 6 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday; also, April 12-14

Where: Fort Wayne Ballroom, 1559 W. Dupont Road

Cost: $20, $15 seniors ages 70 and older and $5 for children ages 5 and younger;

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