Matilda the Musical plays the Levoy Theatre twice on April 22. It’s the latest incarnation of the Roald Dahl kids’ book about a precocious young girl whose parents are no match for her intellect and her psychic powers. The version of this show comes courtesy of the Hands Up Silent Theatre.
Hands Up Silent Theatre communicates using SIMCOM which is simultaneous community of English and American Sign Language at the same time. “This can be a difficult skill to learn since ASL grammar structure is closer to French than English,” Whilden says.
“ASL is a language that was created with a mixture of French Sign Language, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, and the home signs of the deaf families in Connecticut in 1814. Deaf History fascinates me,” she says.
And for good reason.
In 2014, at age 34,Whilden was a music educator and proprietor of a music school called Trebled Heart Piano Academy. “My students had just won the right to play at Carnegie Hall. I was on top of the world, or so I thought.”
Whilden was diagnosed with progressive sensorineural hearing loss. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, sensorineural loss occurs in the inner ear or in the hearing nerve.
When Whilden received the prognosis, her life went into a tailspin. But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“I’m just lucky enough for it to hit me at 34. I say lucky because it has literally changed my life for the better,” she says.
Her daughter, Hailey, recommended starting a theater company, prompted by an unpleasant experience attending an honor’s society induction ceremony.
Whilden was struggling to see the program’s interpreter, stationed in a corner. She did not register as hard of hearing, which would have provided closer seating and a direct view of the interpreter. And she sat too far away to read the lips of those on stage.
“Everything over the microphone was garbled like they were talking with marbles in their mouth,” she says. “I felt isolated and was crying because I could not understand what they were saying about my beautiful daughter as she walked across the stage.”
If the interpreter would have been on the stage where everyone could see instead of isolated off in the corner it would have helped. The frustration Kristy and Hailey Whilden felt that night led to the birth of Hands Up.
The program has featured more than 500 students in various roles, on stage and behind, and reached thousands more patrons of productions and shows. Since its founding, the theater troupe—based in Millville—has produced three full scale productions and various recitals along with education and community programs.
“My 15-year-old son is autistic. He’s awesome. He runs our digital backdrops. My other son is an actor in our plays and my boyfriend’s daughter is an actress too. It’s a family affair,” Whilden says.
The mission of Hands Up Silent Theatre is to “Encourage the d/Deaf community to be a part of and learn more about the performing arts and encourage the hearing community to learn ASL and interact with d/Deaf peers while breaking down communication barriers.”
Last year, the company put on Beauty and the Beast Jr. and Little Shop of Horrors, but Matilda will be the only production this year…for now.
“We do however run a summer camp which puts on their own mini recital of just a few songs they learn at camp,” says Whilden.
Hands Up Silent Theatre also changes the lives of those on the stage by building confidence and life skills, since most of the students have never signed, acted or danced a day in their lives until joining Hands Up Silent Theatre; in a very short time they are performing. The program today has six students including Kristy with varying degrees of hearing loss; the goal is to reach an equal number of Deaf and hearing participants.
“The Levoy Theatre is our home theater. They are so accommodating. They are basically our neighbors, and we just walk our props down the street,” Whilden says.
The Community Foundation of South Jersey (CFSJ) awarded Hands Up a $5,000 grant this year, one of 20 for nonprofit organizations during a seventh round of grants from the South Jersey COVID-19 Response Fund. With these awards, 173 grants totaling $1,169,500 have been distributed from the foundation to organizations serving Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Ocean, and Salem counties.
“To date, nearly 300 funding requests from nonprofit partners across the region have been received totaling more than $4,000,000,” said CFSJ Executive Director Andy Fraizer. “From that total, the review committee has considered 235 submissions for funding. The majority of these grants are funded to supplement lost revenue due to closures, cancellations, or other business model changes resulting from the pandemic. But across all seven rounds of funding, far more went to immediate response to meet basic needs for families and to support nonprofits to continue serving families during the pandemic.”
Whilden welcomes the funding.
“We are super grateful for this $5,000 grant. We will use this to ease the burden of costs for our upcoming production on April 22nd. As per the grant budget we will be spreading this money across indirect and direct costs, as well as personnel and purchased services,” she says.
In addition to the Hands Up troupe, Whilden teaches American Sign Language to High School as a second language while integrating music and theater in the process.
She holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Rutgers University, a degree in Deaf Studies/ ASL from Rowan College at Burlington County and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts at Southern New Hampshire University and a Master’s Degree in Business from Western Governors University. She is hoping to study for a Master’s in Deaf Culture at Gallaudet University in the future.
“I was catapulted into the Deaf world by two of the most amazing teachers Celeste Bonfanti (Teacher of the Deaf) and Elias Papazis (Deaf Professor). They certainly helped me embrace the new me and made me realize that my life was not over.”
“We officially became a non-profit in November of 2021.”
If You Go:
- Matilda will play the Levoy Theatre April 22 at 2 and 6 p.m.
- Tickets go on sale March 1.
- For more information, visit handsup-theatre.org