In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Liysa Callsen performs her one-woman show "codadiva" at the Vox Box

In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Marilyn White pulls her wagon in "Mother Courage" at Off the Wall Theatre.

Two strong women on two small stages

It's a busy week in Milwaukee theater, and I want to focus attention on two small-venue productions that are in danger of being overlooked. Although wildly different, the shows share a common thread -- each is about an unusually strong woman.

Off the Wall Theatre opens Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage" in its tiny Wells Street space tonight. The 1939 classic hasn't been professionally staged here in 31 years.

Manitowoc actress Liysa Callsen is bringing her original one-woman show "codadiva" to the Vox Box at the Marian Center for Nonprofits in Bay View Saturday night. The performance will be repeated the following Saturday, April 2.

Callsen is a coda, the term for hearing children of deaf parents, and her monolog consists of stories about her learning as a child how to simultaneously navigate through the hearing and deaf communities. By the time she reached kindergarten, Callsen, who grew up in Detroit, was her parents' connection to the hearing world.

While other kids returned home from school to a late afternoon of playing with friends or watching TV, she was greeted by a daily list of adult tasks -- discuss car problems with the mechanic, talk to the insurance agent, make an appointment with the dentist. At 12, Callsen was her mother's interpreter in a critical meeting with a physician, and she had to tell her mom the doctor said she needed brain surgery.

The girl shouldered responsibilities and the emotional burdens of an adult, and she learned to manipulate her voice to sound older on the phone. "People were hanging up on me when I called," she recently said at a Third Ward coffee shop. "I was always working as a child."

Callsen experienced a slice of life that few do. "I was an advocate from birth, although I didn't know it," she said. As a hearing child, she heard people make patronizing and sometimes ignorant comments about her parents. She was also asked amazingly stupid questions.

"Can deaf people have children, can they drive a car, do they live in separate communities, can they read braille? I've gotten those questions," the Manitowoc woman said.

Callsen said she was the model of a nice girl in the face of bad behavior from hearing adults, but she developed an attitude in her 20s. "If they were obnoxious in their gawking, I became more obnoxious with my signing," she recalled, referring to her functioning as an interpreter.

"Was I scarred for life? No. Am I better for it? Yes."

Even after moving away from her home and parents, Callsen remained connected with deaf culture and fondly attached to American Sign Language. She married a deaf man; their children are hearing.

Attracted to acting, she studied improv at Second City in Chicago and operated with a partner the small Bubbler Theatre in Manitowoc for a while. "My entire life has been improv," she said.

"My show is definitely a statement. It is all of the things I have wanted to say for so long. I'm telling the story of my parents, how they met, how they created a deaf family, and how I was always working."

In an interesting twist, Callsen will silently perform in American Sign Language. The 75-minute piece is primarily intended for a hearing audience, and an interpreter will speak the actress' words.

Explaining her decision to do that, Callsen said, "ASL is my first language. It's the one I'm most comfortable with, the language I'm most open with."

Tickets, priced at $12, can be ordered in advance on the codadiva Web site. The Vox Box is a voice studio and performance space in Suite 423 at the Marian Center, 3211 S. Superior St. Capacity is slightly more than 50.

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