Lauren Ridloff glows. It’s the luminescence numerous critics were drawn to after witnessing her now Tony-nominated performance in the Kenny Leon-directed revival of Children of a Lesser God, which closes May 27 at Studio 54. While the play about a young deaf woman who falls in love with her speech professor is closing earlier than its planned limited engagement, Ridloff never expected to be here at all.
Her story is becoming a bit of modern-day theatre lore: The deaf woman Leon met weekly for a year to learn American Sign Language in preparation for directing Children of a Lesser God who (despite no history in theatre) was asked to do the initial reading when they had trouble finding a leading lady, wowed a room full of industry professionals and investors, bowed in the out-of-town tryout, made her Broadway debut opposite Joshua Jackson in the play, earned rave reviews and the industry’s top recognition. But as is the case with lore, the details have muddled.
“Kenny wasn’t specifically looking for an ASL teacher,” says Ridloff, rewinding a bit. “He wanted to meet a deaf person. He thought he should learn a little bit of ASL, a little bit about Deaf culture, about the Deaf community today. This friend of his recommended two names. I was the second name.” Leon didn’t know of Ridloff, a former Miss Deaf America; he chose at random, but clearly fate had intervened.
Ridloff was all too happy to dust off her ambassadorial skills; she had just had her second baby and the stay-at-home mom thought, “‘That’s a good excuse to get out of the house once a week,’” Ridloff recalls. “He really got me out of the house.”
Throughout their year of meetups in cafés and over FaceTime when Leon was working with his theatre company in Atlanta, or directing The Wiz Live!, or Hairspray Live, Ridloff always thought she would be involved with the production as a consultant to ensure authenticity with the signing or cultural references. “Kenny kept saying, ‘I want you to be involved maybe as a consultant, maybe as my assistant,’” Ridloff says. “Never once did he say ‘Maybe as an actress.’” And it wasn’t at the back of her mind either. “I thought I was too old for the role, and I am a woman of color and Sarah has always been portrayed as a white woman. I was a mom. I had two little boys. It never even entered my imagination that I could be performing on Broadway.”
For all her surprise, Ridloff comes from an artistic family. Her mother teaches art and is an artist, her father is a musician, her sister is a dancer and a choreographer. “For the longest time people just assumed I would be in theatre,” Ridloff says. But Ridloff says she was painfully shy.
Her timidity was a barrier to the stage more than anything else, but she still saw herself as a storyteller and found her gateway in writing. She wrote as a teenager, then as a college professor’s assistant. “I enjoyed writing speeches,” she says. She even began a mommy blog and developed a following after the birth of her first son. “That was my thing. That was my strength. Presentation…was okay, but I felt good about telling a story.”
That all changed when she was crowned Miss Deaf America in 2000. “I had to spend two years speaking on the stage, giving presentations, talking to people. That really forced me to expand my comfort zone.”
Still, starring in Children of a Lesser God wasn’t her plan. Leon asked her to meet with casting director Bernie Telsey “under the guise that I would help him put together auditions for deaf talent for the reading.” Telsey asked Ridloff instead. “I wasn’t even sure what that meant—a ‘reading,’” she confesses. “I knew they were going to get together and read the script, but I had no idea what that leads to. I didn’t understand the purposes, so I wasn’t really prepared or excited.”
In fact, excitement is the opposite of what Ridloff felt the day she showed up to read. A near-terror set in when she realized she would have to use the sound of her voice at the emotional climax of the play, when Sarah screams and sobs in frustration. Ridloff had not used her vocal chords since she was 13 years old. “Honestly, I don’t think I got into Sarah in that reading at all,” she says. “I was so focused on the fact—it was really huge for me that I had to use my voice. I cried before I went to the reading.”
As distracted as she was (she felt “didn’t get into Sarah in that reading at all”), Ridloff’s power was palpable to that audience. She moved the entire room to tears—Jackson included. Leon pulled her aside immediately and asked her to take the role. “I still didn’t truly understand that we would actually go to Broadway,” says Ridloff. “I think I was in denial.”
Part of her process was also making peace with performance. “I was worried that using my voice would be at my own expense. I felt, ‘Is this going to be like Bojangles? I’m doing it for the audience?’” she says. “I knew I would have to trust Kenny and trust Josh and trust myself.”
Since then, Ridloff put in the work. As she talks about her process, she sounds like any number of her peers who have been in the business for years. She explored Sarah’s motivations, most importantly her reason for falling in love with her professor. “In the beginning, I didn’t really understand why Sarah would go for James. He’s arrogant, he keeps trying to push his way into Sarah’s life, he’s telling her what to do, and telling her what she should be like… I would give him the bird,” Ridloff says pointedly. “Then one day, I looked at my stage mother, Kecia [Lewis] as Mrs. Norman and there is no father in the picture. I thought, ‘That’s why Sarah goes for James. He fills a void in her life and there’s something about him that must remind Sarah of her father.’”
She dug her heels into building stamina for the physicality of her performance (“I’m signing from my spine. I’m out of breath sometimes,” she says) and the emotional strength (understanding Sarah’s innate “resistance”).
She found a way to love Sarah. And though it may be exhausting, the mother-of-two-turned-Tony-nominee says she has “found her passion.”
“I have reclaimed my body in its entirety, specifically my voice,” she says. “I still don’t see myself using my voice for everyday conversations; but, for a long time, I felt that my voice had no place in my life.
“I don’t sound like you, like people out there. But that doesn’t matter to me. My voice still has power.”
This interview was conducted with the assistance of ASL-interpreter Candace Penn.
Photos shot at Gabriel Kreuther Restaurant in Manhattan (41 W 42nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues).