Off-Broadway hit ‘Tribes’ showcases talent of alumnus
Michael Tolaydo, Nancy Robinette, James Caverly, Annie Funke, and Helen Cespedes in Tribes at Studio Theatre. Photo: Teddy Wolff

Actor Joey Caverly, ’11, from Royal Oak, Mich., has generated a great deal of attention in his role as ‘Billy’ in Nina Raine’s off-Broadway hit Tribes, which has been performed to date during a recent tour on stages in Boston, Mass., Washington, D.C., and Berkeley, Calif.

Tribes, which premiered in London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2010, offers an introspective look at the life of a hearing family with a deaf son, Billy, who is raised orally until he meets a woman, “Sylvia,” a child of deaf adults, who is losing her hearing. Sylvia is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) and teaches it to Billy. Learning ASL empowers Billy and makes him realize that he belongs in the deaf community.

Caverly said he enjoys performing in plays like Tribes that cover social justice issues and give audience members something to ponder and discuss. Acting comes naturally to him, he said. “When I was born, I was already an actor,” said Caverly, who has hearing parents and a deaf sister, Colleen, who graduated from Gallaudet in 2010. As a child, Caverly performed in school plays, church productions, and summer camps. At Gallaudet, he directed the Theatre Arts Department’s fall 2012 production of Noises Off—the University’s first theatre major in two decades to direct a major production. The play went on as an entry in the prestigious American College Theatre Festival regional competition at Towson University in Maryland. The same year, Caverly performed and co-directed a short independent film, “Red Line,” that earned him an award in the World Deaf Cinema Festival.


James Caverly in Tribes at Studio Theatre. Photo: Teddy Wolff.

“Joey (Caverly) has distinguished himself as one of our most accomplished students, setting an amazing standard to which all our theatre majors—his peers—should aspire in terms of passion, commitment, and work ethic,” said Theater Program Director Ethan Sinnott. “He is a deep thinker blessed with an even keel, empathy, and tremendous emotional intelligence, an asset almost every successful actor must have.” Caverly’s success directing Noises Off “was not lost on our other students, at that time in their first or second years, and paved the way for another milestone in 2013, which marked the first time in our program's history that we accomplished a full season of four productions, all directed by senior theatre majors.” he said. Sinnott added that giving theatre majors every opportunity to cultivate their artistic abilities is the mission of the Theatre Arts Department. “Gallaudet has a responsibility and obligation to trail-blaze and set artistic and theatrical standards,” he said.

Caverly acknowledged that studying under talented deaf theatre professionals such as Sinnott, Cheryl Lindquist, Willy Conley, and Monique Holt gave him the solid foundation he needed for a successful career. “I learned how to develop chemistry with other actors, and I mostly learned from being in the show itself, so I play and learn,” Caverly said. “Gallaudet is the best university for deaf actors, because I got to do many things in theatre: acting, directing, building sets, painting, handling lighting, costuming, and set designing.”

Gallaudet’s Washington, D.C. location has also proven advantageous to Caverly and other theatre majors, since the city--home to more than 80 theatrical companies—has been ranked next to New York City for theatre patronage. “Gallaudet also has networking and workshops that provided me opportunities to interact with theatrical companies in the D.C. area,” he said. Living and learning in Washington enabled Caverly to engage in internships and other training opportunities to develop his craft, such as performing for two summers with Gallaudet’s new company-in-residence, Faction of Fools, and attending workshops with Quest4Arts. He also had an internship as a technical director at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and took an acting internship in the Capital Fringe Festival. In addition, he trained with specialists in various acting techniques: Casey Kaleba for fight choreography, Drew Richardson on clowning, and Lars Otterstedt on character development. In his free time, he took advantage of the city’s burgeoning theatre scene by watching as many plays as possible.

Caverly decided when he was in high school that he wanted to pursue acting as a profession. When it came time to choose a university, he enrolled at Gallaudet and immediately became involved in theatre. During his freshman year, he was cast in Agamemnon, an ASL adaptation of Aeschylus’ The Oresteia Trilogy, and in Urinetown the following spring. He was also cast in a lead role for the revival of play that enjoyed a successful run in 19th century Paris, L'Abbe de L'Epee: A Satire

As he neared graduation, Caverly had a moment of doubt about his career choice. He was worried about finding work in theatre, knowing that acting is a tough business. “Ethan (Sinnott) said people who fail in theatre are those who give up. I did not give up,” he said. “I cannot imagine myself sitting at an office desk or doing anything else other than acting. That is when I feel freedom to create and expand what I can do on stage in front of an audience.”


Helen Cespedes and James Caverly in Tribes at Studio Theatre. Photo: Teddy Wolff.

It cannot be denied, however, that timing and luck come into play for an actor to succeed in show business. To an extent, it happened for Caverly with Tribes, but his networking put the odds in his favor. “My advice to students who want to pursue acting is that theatre is a tough industry,” he said, “but if you have the passion, then do not let anything stop you.”
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