“I did not think of myself as an actress,” Tony nominee Lauren Ridloff tells ET.
The Chicago native had been teaching Manhattan public school for nearly 10 years when an unexpected turn of events landed her opposite Joshua Jackson in the current Broadway revival of Children of a Lesser God, Mark Medoff’s 1979 play about the relationship between a deaf student and her hearing teacher. Ridloff, who was born deaf, had been tutoring director Kenny Leon in American Sign Language when he asked her to step into the lead role of Sarah for an early reading of the play.
“After the reading ended, he took me to the side and asked me, ‘If this goes all the way, are you willing to go all the way?’ I was surprised,” Ridloff recalls -- and not just because she hadn’t acted professionally before. “I never thought of Sarah as a woman of color,” she adds.
Though race isn’t explicitly referenced in the script, Kecia Lewis, who plays Sarah’s mother in the revival, is also a woman of color. The additional layer of diversity casts an interesting light on the play’s central themes of overcoming obstacles to listening and understanding. “Communication isn’t just about speaking or signing,” Ridloff says of Children’s lasting resonance. “It doesn’t matter what language is being used -- man to woman, generation to generation. Listening is the biggest part of communication.”
The production began last summer at Berkshire Theatre Group in Massachusetts, where Ridloff’s vividly emotional performance drew critical adoration, which grew to reverent acclaim when the play transferred to New York City’s Studio 54 this spring, culminating in her Tony nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play.
“We perform a duet when we’re in the world of Sarah and James,” Ridloff says of working with Jackson, who, after making his Broadway debut, returns to the fourth season of Showtime’s The Affair next month. The actor, whose character is a speech teacher at a school for the deaf, learned ASL for the production and signs and speaks the majority of his performance. “Together we navigated separate, new and overwhelming experiences. For him it was a foray into the deaf world and learning my language; for me it was a foray into the world of acting and learning the language of theater,” Ridloff says, adding: “Joshua makes the best partner.”
While she is a dazzling, and by all accounts natural performer, it took Ridloff some time to warm up to her character, who is often stubborn to the point of being intractable. “When I first cracked open that script, I thought, Oh, my God -- what a vitriolic, angry woman Sarah is. I couldn’t stand how she treated others.”
Like her character, Ridloff was born to hearing parents, and like Sarah, she made a conscious decision when she was young to communicate solely through sign language. The turning point came after two weeks away at a camp with other deaf children and adults. “I realized how liberated I felt when I signed only, without voice. So I came home and came out to my family about my decision to be different. My family values identity and being true to yourself, so they took it very, very well.”
Sarah’s determination to stay true to that same decision can seem self-defeating by some interpretations, as it does to James, who spends most of the play hopelessly trying to convince her to use her voice. “Kenny saw her decision as an act of rebellion,” Ridloff says. “But I saw it as an act of self-preservation.”
Ridloff, who lives in Williamsburg with her husband, an ASL consultant on A Quiet Place, and two sons, all of whom are also deaf, says her affection for her character grew as she came to understand her on a deeper level. “I fell in love with Sarah Norman Leeds over the period of rehearsals,” she says. “I saw how she was trodden upon and taken advantage of so many times. I began to understand that she was fiercely fighting for a life she knew she could have.”
Might a different kind of life await Ridloff following a stage debut that’s garnered her a Tony nomination and buzz beyond Broadway? Though she dipped her toes in Hollywood with a brief appearance in Todd Haynes’ 2017 Wonderstruck, starring Julianne Moore and deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, Ridloff isn’t looking ahead just yet.
“Right now, I’m laser focused on giving my best in the next show, and the show after that,” she says of Children’s Broadway run, which will close on May 27, two weeks ahead of the Tony Awards on June 10. Whatever her next move, Ridloff is part of a rising wave of deaf representation across film, TV and the stage -- one she hopes will continue to grow.
“As more deaf storytellers come out of the woodwork, as more deaf children see themselves in mainstream media, I just hope that more people listen.”
The 2018 Tony Awards hosted by Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles will be handed out live at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Sunday, June 10, starting at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.