ACT­ING IN SI­LENCE

Mustafa Alab­ssi has Come A long way since Be­ing A mem­ber of A Regina school’s artis­tic col­lec­tive, where teach­ers quickly spot­ted his tal­ent. The deaf Syr­ian refugee spent his sum­mer in Cal­gary act­ing in the Net­flix Zom­bie se­ries Black Sum­mer.

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - FRONT PAGE - ASH­LEY MARTIN

Three months ago, Mustafa Alab­ssi didn’t know what an au­di­tion was.

Two months ago, he was on a film set in Al­berta, dodg­ing faux zom­bies along­side Jaime King in a new Net­flix se­ries.

The 19-year-old had acted once be­fore, in his high school class play Ap­ple Time, in June. On stage in a small au­di­to­rium in Regina, it was easy to see that Alab­ssi was a nat­u­ral.

“The minute he walks on stage … you could watch from be­hind and see the en­tire au­di­ence’s heads turn­ing and look­ing at him, even if he’s just stand­ing there do­ing noth­ing be­cause he just has that, they call it pres­ence,” said Chrys­tene Ells, a long­time ac­tor, di­rec­tor and theatre coach who has worked with Alab­ssi in the al­most two years since he moved to the city.

“When I first started work­ing with Mustafa as an ac­tor in Ap­ple Time, I told (teach­ers) Joanne (We­ber) and Michelle (Grodecki) within two years, Mustafa will be on the big screen. … And I was off by two years be­cause six weeks later, peo­ple knew who he was and he got in­vited to au­di­tion.”

Ells is an artist-in-res­i­dence in We­ber’s class, the Regina Pub­lic School Divi­sion’s deaf and hard of hear­ing pro­gram, for­merly at Thom Col­le­giate and, since Septem­ber, at Win­ston Knoll. For three years, the class has formed the theatre and arts col­lec­tive the Deaf Crows.

Alab­ssi is deaf, and the char­ac­ter he played in the TV se­ries, Black Sum­mer, is deaf too.

“It was an in­ter­est­ing idea to have a deaf char­ac­ter,” said pro­ducer Jodi Bin­stock. “When you go to the deaf char­ac­ter’s per­spec­tive, the sound drops out for the au­di­ence so you’re as con­scious as he is that there’s no sound.”

We­ber re­ceived an email in early July from a Cal­gary-based cast­ing agency, which was seek­ing a deaf ac­tor, a male aged 20 to 30.

“I wrote back and I said, ‘I re­ally do think I have the right per­son for you,’ ” said We­ber.

She re­cruited her hus­band Mur­ray Vali­aho, Ells, and Deaf Crows col­lab­o­ra­tor Berny Hi, to pre­pare an au­di­tion video.

Alab­ssi needed the help. Although he is, in We­ber’s words, “drip­ping with tal­ent,” he had some chal­lenges to over­come.

Alab­ssi at­tended a deaf school in Syria, where he learned Syr­ian Sign Lan­guage. But then the war started and his fam­ily left their home coun­try for Jor­dan, then Canada.

Here, Alab­ssi is still learn­ing Amer­i­can Sign Lan­guage (ASL) and barely un­der­stands English.

Plus, his act­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is lim­ited to his one school per­for­mance.

“He couldn’t have done this ob­vi­ously. He just didn’t have the re­sources,” said Ells. “For him to un­der­stand even what was hap­pen­ing, it took a lot of ex­plain­ing.”

“I didn’t even un­der­stand the word au­di­tion,” Alab­ssi said, sign­ing in ASL, Grodecki in­ter­pret­ing. “Chrys­tene came out with the word and she goes, ‘It means you’re go­ing to try to be in a show.’

“(The script) was English, right? And I don’t know a lot of English yet, so they would help me take that English and turn it into ASL and then I prac­tised that.

“So then Chrys­tene and Berny helped me make the au­di­tion video, and then I just re­ally hoped that I got it, but re­ally I thought they were go­ing to turn me down.”

Alab­ssi acted a minute-long scene of the char­ac­ter Ryan meet­ing an­other per­son dur­ing a zom­bie apoca­lypse.

We­ber thought the au­di­tion video would be “easy peasy” af­ter in­ter­pret­ing the script, but Ells com­pli­cated the process.

“She just goes the whole nine yards, she comes up with a lo­ca­tion in Regina, in front of a dump,” said We­ber. “She gets the cos­tume to­gether for Mustafa; we’re trans­lat­ing our script. Both Mur­ray and I and Chrys­tene and Berny were out there on the hottest day of the year and dressed up Mustafa and we take shots of him.”

When Alab­ssi passed muster, there was the next hur­dle: a call­back over Skype with the di­rec­tor.

“The di­rec­tor was try­ing to give Mustafa di­rec­tion,” said Ells, “… then he’d have to stop and look at the in­ter­preter, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this isn’t go­ing to work.’ So by the end, both the in­ter­preter and I were be­hind the screen where the di­rec­tor was.”

They mimed ac­tions for Alab­ssi to copy, as the di­rec­tor gave in­struc­tions from cy­berspace.

“It was re­ally a mess, but any­way they al­ready were go­ing to cast him be­fore the call­back, but we didn’t know that,” said Ells.

“It was only a few days later that we found out that Mustafa was the only one they called back,” We­ber added.

“It was just a gen­uine­ness in his per­for­mance. He didn’t try to act,” Bin­stock ex­plained. “He just clearly was em­body­ing the char­ac­ter and what would hap­pen in this sit­u­a­tion. And, quite frankly, I think prob­a­bly his ex­pe­ri­ence as a refugee in­formed his per­for­mance.

“Be­cause this (show) is all about refugees; ev­ery­one is run­ning for their lives. Ev­ery­body is a refugee, no­body is at home, no­body is safe, and I think be­cause he’s been through that, that came across loud and clear in the au­di­tion.”

With a big red nose, Alab­ssi pushes a broom across a stage, clown­ing as he goes. He cu­ri­ously peers into books as peo­ple are read­ing.

Then, mo­ments later, he’s a pi­lot wear­ing gog­gles and a leather cap, mak­ing his way to Canada.

This is Alab­ssi’s scene in Ap­ple Time, a play writ­ten and cre­ated by his high school class. It was Alab­ssi’s take on his im­mi­gra­tion story.

Since his par­ents left Da­m­as­cus due to a war creep­ing ever closer to their home, Alab­ssi couldn’t at­tend school.

“My story is sad, but I want to be happy,” said Alab­ssi. “It was kind of a con­flict where you travel back and forth. Even as you watch my story, you went from happiness to sad­ness, and that was just a nor­mal part of my life.

“And then the clown be­came kind of fun, that was like my metaphor where I was at school and it was bor­ing and ev­ery­thing was scary around me. I tried to be com­i­cal and funny. So that’s where the clown came.”

Be­ing a joker comes so nat­u­rally to Alab­ssi, Ells de­vised a cue to re­mind him to shut it off dur­ing re­hearsal.

“If it’s a zom­bie film, you’re not go­ing ‘wowowowow,’ ” said Ells, do­ing her best zany clown im­pres­sion.

“I’d mime tak­ing off his clown nose and putting it in his pocket. And that means, ‘... you’re re­ally funny, but that all has to go away now be­cause this is a se­ri­ous, re­al­is­tic project.’ ”

How­ever, Alab­ssi’s pen­chant for phys­i­cal theatre helped him in the role and even to win the au­di­tion.

“Most of the time it was also a lot of phys­i­cal theatre, like you’re us­ing your body to con­vey your emo­tions,” We­ber said. “And that was the one thing the di­rec­tor (John Hyams) told me, is that Mustafa is the only deaf ac­tor that au­di­tioned that could use the body as well as his face and hands.”

Af­ter Alab­ssi was cast as Ryan, it meant even more work for We­ber and Ells, who con­tin­ued help­ing him un­der­stand the script and the role.

“He can’t read scripts, so he has to have all that in­ter­preted. He (didn’t) know any­thing about act­ing, tim­ing, cam­era,” said Ells.

He couldn’t just show up on set, added Ells. “He needed to know the world, he needed to un­der­stand his char­ac­ter, he needed to know what was go­ing on in ev­ery script so that he could build his per­for­mance.”

For five days, Ells and We­ber met with Alab­ssi to help him un­der­stand his char­ac­ter arc.

They made a chart to rep­re­sent each scene. Not hav­ing enough words to write the de­tails, Alab­ssi drew stick fig­ures to re­mind him about what hap­pens when, kind of like a story board.

“So then at the end of each day I’d say, ‘OK Mustafa, tell us what hap­pens in this whole episode to your char­ac­ter,’ and he’d go through this chart of stick fig­ures and he would per­form the whole thing,” said Ells. “It was un­be­liev­able be­cause I looked at his chart and I’m like, ‘I don’t know what’s hap­pen­ing in there.’ But it worked for him and it got him to un­der­stand the world and the char­ac­ter.”

And then it was off to Cal­gary, Alab­ssi tak­ing a plane by him­self for the first time, to a city where he stayed in a ho­tel alone for the first time.

There were in­ter­preters on set wait­ing for him, but Bin­stock was sur­prised to learn that “we were go­ing to have an in­ter­preter for the in­ter­preter.”

“The in­ter­preters were qual­i­fied and trained ... they were among the up­per ech­e­lons of in­ter­pret­ing across Canada,” said We­ber. “They were ex­cel­lent. But I had to stand be­side them and say, ‘Hey, no, he won’t un­der­stand that. Do it again.’

“I’m the one that started teach­ing him ASL in the begin­ning, so I know where his gaps are, I know where he needs to do some more work to catch up, to un­der­stand the lin­guis­tic as­pects of ASL. So my role was to work with the in­ter­preter to make sure that the com­mu­ni­ca­tion was go­ing smoothly.”

It did, as far as Alab­ssi is con­cerned.

“The in­ter­preters that I was pro­vided with on set were just per­fect in help­ing me to make sure I un­der­stood ev­ery­thing and it was re­ally good,” he said.

“It was such a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence,” he added. “The di­rec­tor was giv­ing me all this feed­back about the stuff, say­ing, ‘You did a re­ally good job with your act­ing and ev­ery­thing was per­fect.’ I was re­ally lucky.”

Alab­ssi bonded with the rest of the cast and was par­tic­u­larly en­am­oured by King, who played the lead char­ac­ter, Rose.

“She’s just this amaz­ing per­son. There’s lit­tle me, Mustafa, and she’s way up there like Hol­ly­wood, and she just didn’t even care that I was deaf,” said Alab­ssi, who hopes to take King up on her in­vi­ta­tion to visit in Cal­i­for­nia. “She treated me ex­actly the same as ev­ery­body else; she com­mu­ni­cated with me the same as ev­ery­body else. She’s so friendly and … we be­came re­ally good friends.”

King shared that sen­ti­ment with her 1.1 mil­lion In­sta­gram fol­low­ers in Au­gust.

“He is rep­re­sent­ing the deaf com­mu­nity with in­cred­i­ble heart and fear­less act­ing,” wrote King, whose cred­its in­clude the Sin City films and Oceans Eight. “To step onto a set af­ter just learn­ing Amer­i­can Sign Lan­guage and div­ing right in has taught me what true love and un­der­stand­ing means.”

Though Alab­ssi couldn’t elab­o­rate much about his sum­mer job, strictly bound to not re­veal de­tails of the show, We­ber re­flected on the eight days she spent on set.

“They kept call­ing him the oneshot won­der be­cause they could film him once, he could give them ex­actly what they wanted and there was never a prob­lem ever, and that’s very un­usual for a begin­ning ac­tor,” said We­ber, although she ad­mit­ted there were mo­ments when Alab­ssi was bored dur­ing long pe­ri­ods of down­time.

“I think that be­cause he’s in­ex­pe­ri­enced, he was a wet sponge,” Bin­stock said. “He was just wait­ing to ab­sorb any­thing that he could, and he re­ally con­nected with the di­rec­tor very strongly. John would show him what he wanted him to do, sort of demon­strate it, and then Mustafa would ask some ques­tions through his in­ter­preter and he just nailed it.

“Some peo­ple are and some peo­ple aren’t, whether you’re deaf or hear­ing or oth­er­wise, and he’s a nat­u­ral.”

Af­ter film­ing a pin­na­cle mo­ment of the story, We­ber re­calls cast and crew rush­ing to con­grat­u­late Alab­ssi.

“If they could they would have lifted him up on their shoul­ders. It was such a mo­ment of tri­umph,” said We­ber.

“The di­rec­tor just jumped up and down and said, ‘F--- yeah! F--yeah! That’s it!’ Ev­ery­body was so ju­bi­lant and it was an amaz­ing mo­ment.”

In and out of char­ac­ter, Alab­ssi was a hit, said We­ber.

“He had them in his pocket the first day. He was for­ever teas­ing and jok­ing and hug­ging, and (ev­ery­one) wanted to learn sign lan­guage so they could com­mu­ni­cate with him,” she said. “He is so gre­gar­i­ous and ap­proach­able and funny and kind and sup­port­ive. It was an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for him.”

It was an ex­pe­ri­ence he might not have had with­out the Deaf Crows.

Ells is grate­ful to the Saskatchewan Arts Board, which has fi­nan­cially sup­ported the pro­gram.

“That’s why Mustafa got this op­por­tu­nity,” she said. “It’s huge; they’ve given thou­sands of dollars to this pro­gram. … That al­lows me to be here where I can work with the stu­dents, and when one of them has some kind of ap­ti­tude, I’m in the po­si­tion where I can help fa­cil­i­tate their go­ing to the next level, out­side of this pro­gram.”

Alab­ssi isn’t the only stu­dent from his class with film ex­pe­ri­ence.

Richard Pang­man spent a week­end last month work­ing on a film crew. Sable Fink fea­tured in Der Glock­ner, a film Ells and Hi made in 2016 for The Cali­gari Project artis­tic fes­ti­val in Regina.

Since begin­ning to act last school year, Alab­ssi has fallen in love with the craft and hopes to keep act­ing.

Bin­stock is not sure that will be pos­si­ble.

“The truth is, the parts for deaf ac­tors are few and far be­tween. But I could see him be­com­ing a per­for­mance artist,” she said. “There are theatre com­pa­nies and stuff in the United States for deaf ac­tors, but film roles not that much.”

Alab­ssi is op­ti­mistic that will change. He is on a mis­sion to share his story to help ef­fect that change.

“I hope when peo­ple see us on TV, they’re go­ing to re­ally be im­pressed, and we’ll see more and more deaf peo­ple in movies,” said Alab­ssi. “And maybe that will change peo­ple’s hearts and minds about how they cast roles.”

Ells is “1,000-per-cent sure” that act­ing is what Alab­ssi is meant to do: “He is des­tined to be an ac­tor. … With ev­ery bone in my body, I know it.”

Black Sum­mer, a Z Na­tion spinoff, is due out on Net­flix in spring 2019.

They kept call­ing him the one-shot won­der be­cause they could film him once, he could give them ex­actly what they wanted.

BRAN­DON HARDER

TROY FLEECE

Mustafa Alab­ssi, a Syr­ian refugee who is also deaf, spent part of his sum­mer va­ca­tion in Cal­gary on the set of Black Sum­mer, a Net­flix zom­bie se­ries.

MICHAEL BELL

Deaf Crows group mem­bers Sable Fink, left, Fa­tima Nafisa, and Mustafa Alab­ssi prac­tise jug­gling suit­cases, as artist-in-res­i­dence Chrys­tene Ells, cen­tre left, looks on.

TROY FLEECE

Mustafa Alab­ssi mimes fly­ing an air­plane to Canada dur­ing his story in the Deaf Crows’ pro­duc­tion of Ap­ple Time.

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