Kate and Michael are best friends going in opposite directions. Kate just got married, while Michael is still struggling to get over his ex-boyfriend. They’re funny, flawed, and instantly recognizable—people you might know or even be friends with.
Kate and Michael also happen to be deaf.
The Chances, a new five-part web series debuting at Sundance this week, tells the stories of a intersectional community that’s been extremely underrepresented.
Josh Feldman, who plays Michael, started developing the series a year-and-a-half ago with his writing partner, Shoshannah Stern, who plays Kate. The duo wanted to create something that would be “close to home” for them, portraying their real-life friendship authentically.
The duo originally filmed a television pilot, but they had such a great time they decided to adapt it into a web series. Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the project attracted the interest of Super Deluxe, an entertainment company that focusing on amplifying voices outside of the mainstream. (Super Deluxe produces Joanne the Scammer and Turnt Beauty).
The show touched a nerve: Characters like Kate and Michael are rarely portrayed in media, and when they are, it often leaves deaf audiences wanting.
“Usually, deaf characters in film and television have been written by hearing people,” Feldman told NewNowNext. “So they often are written into episodes of shows strictly for that purpose: ‘Let’s make this patient of the week deaf’ or ‘Let’s have our lead fall in love with a deaf man [this week].’ These characters often have their deafness as their defining trait.”
Raymond Luczak, author of the gay-deaf novel Men With Their Hands, says that when he came out 33 years ago, there were few positive portrayals of LGBT people on television, let alone ones who were also deaf. (He cites Marlee Matlin and Deanne Bray, who appeared on The L Word, as early examples.)
There’s been a shift, though, as writers and producers work to recognize the many intersections of the LGBT community—queer and deaf characters have appeared on shows like Switched at Birth and Difficult People.
In the 2016 Where We Are on TV report, GLAAD noted that 4.8% of all series regulars were LGBT, the highest rate since the survey began. That included a notable increase in queer people with disabilities — adding up to 1.7% of all LGBT regulars on broadcast television.
Joshua Castille, who translated and monitored the American Sign Language for The Chances, was also part of Deaf West’s hit Broadway revival of Spring Awakening, which integrated ASL into the beloved musical.
“With The Chances, I think it shows how relationships between deaf people are so close because of how isolating this world can be,” Castille told NewNowNext, a phenomenon not uncommon in the gay world.
Growing up as a “double minority” was difficult for Castille—English is designed to be conveyed through vocal communication, so it can feels like deaf people don’t have the same access to language and mainstream culture that hearing people do.
He’s often had to fight to understand what others take for granted, an experience he describes as alienating. Studies show deaf people experience higher rates of depression and anxiety than the general population, and those struggles can be particularly severe for deaf LGBT youth still coming to terms with their intersecting identities.
“The more you see yourself onscreen, the better you feel and realize that you’re not alone,” says Dickie Hearts, a out deaf writer and actor.
Hearts is the creator and star of Save the World, a web series that sees hi playing a gay barista who gets superpowers from a radioactive cup of coffee. Save the World recently won Project Greenlight’s “See Yourself” competition and Hearts is currently developing the series.
The 29-year-old, who identifies as multiracial, hopes his series will push the conversation forward by adding people of color into the mix. Diverse voices in popular culture, he believes, are more important than ever given the current political atmosphere.
“It’s 2017 and we have a president who [mocked] a disabled reporter on live television become the leader of the free world,” Hearts said. “Media is our best and strongest asset to fight against this type of ignorance. We need everyone else who is marginalized to jump in and to tell their story—whether you’re a woman, a disabled person, or a person of color. That which makes us different is what really makes America strong.”
For Feldman, though, the goal is to show that deaf people are just as complicated and nuanced as everyone else.
“I want deaf characters to be portrayed like anybody else on television, as long as it’s authentic. With an entire backstory and a life to lead outside of the trait of not being able to hear,” he says.
“I’d love to see deaf roles of all kinds—good guys, villains, boring people, messy people. The more deaf people we see on television or in movies, the more familiar we will become to hearing people, which will make inclusivity that much easier.”
The Chances premieres at Sundance on January 23.