Hi, my name is Michelle Mary Schaefer. I’m an actress. You guys asked me to share my experience - my journey of how I became an actress. Sure. I always dreamt of becoming an actress - since the time I was four when I watched the “Children of a Lesser God” film with Marlee Matlin. I was fascinated, amazed that she was Deaf. I am Deaf as well. I knew in that moment that I wanted to be an actress, just like her. I wanted and always dreamt of acting with her. I still to this day dream of acting with Marlee. I hope to one day! I told my family, who are hearing, that I wanted to be an actress. I wanted to be on Full House. I dreamt about acting my entire life. I became involved in community theatre, children's theatre, dinner theatre, college theatre, professional theatre… And theatres all over.
I occasionally auditioned for hearing theatre, and the actors and directors would look at me and say, “You are deaf, you can’t act… Deaf people can’t act.” What? What? Did I just hear that? Umm whatever, I didn’t hear that. So I went on with the auditions. Sometimes after the auditions, they opened their minds and were amazed. Sometimes they become speechless, and cast me for their next productions. I NEVER allowed my Deafness to stop me from achieving my dreams.
One time I auditioned for Deaf Theatre, not even one time… Several times... A long time ago. They laughed at me, they told me that I was not Deaf enough. My heart was broken and my Deaf identity vanished. But again, what is not Deaf enough? I am profoundly Deaf. I don’t allow those negative comments to affect me or my passions, or heart. Even comments such as, “You are ugly.” “You are not beautiful enough for Hollywood, for the stage, "for Broadway.” Whatever, there are many, many beautiful actors and actresses, different sizes, different looks. They are gorgeous. They represent authenticity, within themselves and become the characters and express it. That’s beautiful, that’s the beauty of theatre, films… ART.
I always dreamt of attending NYU, UCLA, Yale… I still do. My parents told me no, my Vocational Rehabilitation counselor told me no… Everyone told me no. At that time, I accepted the no's. I went to the Community College of Baltimore County, CCBC-Essex. I was only sixteen, taking their theatre courses. I will never forget my first day of class, Acting 101 with Professor Carl. At that time, I looked really young, shy, and awkward. He came up to me and said, “Can I help you?” I showed him my schedule with my interpreter by my side. He was concerned about me being Deaf, and how to work the class out, so I told him to work with me. After that moment, we hit off, became friends, he became my role model and I look up to him as my inspiration. He really helped me become engaged with acting. I learned a lot, and my passions were set on fire. A lot of my acting techniques were from him. I learned from his teaching. Thanks, Carl… Not just him, another professor, Donald, as well. He taught me how to project my voice. Those professors are my mentors, my subconscious and my reasons for continuing my passion of being an actress.
Yet, it might sound like I never gave up. No, I actually gave up for a couple years, because I auditioned for Children of a Lesser God for a big production and I was offered the lead role of Sarah Norman. I had previously played that same role, but later on after accepting the offer, the director told me that I was not Deaf enough. Again, I was heartbroken. I cannot tell you how many times I heard that. It needs to stop. But again, those negative words really pushed me forward toward my dreams. That moment, a long time ago, when I actually gave up and I did not want to act anymore, I was devastated.
I... I ate my emotions away. I kept eating as my weight increased to 230 lbs, maybe more. But again, one day when I noticed the scale, I was shocked - I was killing myself slowly within my soul. I wasn’t myself, so I decided to change and this led me to lose weight, become healthy, shift my life back into acting. In that moment, my eyes shone and my heart sung, and I became happy. Then one day, a challenge came my way as a friend dared me to audition for “Tribes” by Nina Raine. They were looking for someone for the role of Billy, a Deaf guy. I was puzzled, because I am Deaf, and a female, how can I pass as a guy? But I went forward with the audition, not thinking I would be offered the role. They auditioned several other Deaf guys, but they decided to choose me. I was like “WHAT!?”
My life changed January 1st, 2016, when I flew to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to play Billy. I was terrified when I announced the role, as I received some support by other Deaf actors, but also some harsh, negative, backstabbing comments, but overall more positive ones. I even received support from Marlee herself. I felt beyond proud. When I cut my hair and became a guy, walked like a guy, even stood and sat like a guy... But I didn't use the restroom like a guy. But again, overall I embodied the role of Billy. That was an amazing journey, and it led me to be Billy again a total of three times in 2016, with no regrets. Looking back, I was like whoa, when I realized that Billy and Sarah, Sarah from Children of a Lesser God, are both similar. I felt honored to have the ability to portray both roles in an authentic way. That is the beautiful thing about art. Beautiful.
My journey really shifted, when I became Ash in SKIN in Seattle, Washington with the Deaf Spotlight. It was my first first really Deaf Theatre. I was very nervous working with Alexandria Wailes, Amelia Hensley, Rhonda Cochran, Kalen Feeney. I learned so much from those amazing, wonderful Deaf talents. It was so beautiful. I had the ability to portray Ash in a very authentic way, which was a real challenge. I cut my hair into a Mohawk, and revealed myself, which I felt extremely proud of. After that moment, I felt like whoa, wow, I did it! Which was a huge accomplishment! My life just kept going, I was smiling even more and knowing that I wanted to work with other Deaf talents and also other Deaf theatres, other theatres, even films and tv. I have even been working on my script, a TV show, since 2016. It was my 2010 film script that became a TV show that I completed, but I am currently in a re-writing process. I am writing short scripts making projects happen, while I continue to audition.
I never stop following my passions, even though I have encountered so many rejections lately. Which is fine, it's a normal process as one day I will know that those rejections are the key to the next project. Again, a lot of people have told me that I am like Johnny Depp, the Deaf version of him, because every time I take on a role, my looks always change and the roles are very versatile. That is what makes a great actor/actress - when you look different every time you perform and when your characters have so much variety. As I’m sitting here I realize that when you give your heart out, it is the passion, it is the dream to just follow it. Now, you have dreams, right? Don't allow anyone, your friends, your family, your teacher… NO-ONE should stop you from following your dreams. They didn’t stop me. I believe in you. You are worth it. Good luck!