Signing, singing and soundscapes are intermingled on a late-January afternoon at Signature Theatre’s Arlington, Va., rehearsal studio, where the cast of “Private Jones” is marching through the world-premiere musical’s opening scene.
Loosely inspired by Gomer Jones, a deaf sniper who fought in World War I, the show opens in rural Wales with an 8-year-old Jones getting a lesson from his gruff father in sharpshooting and hard truths. As the only scene before Jones loses his hearing, it uses radio-play-like foley effects to create the sounds that will echo in the character’s head through the rest of his life — and give deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences visual cues to associate with those sounds.
When Johnny Link, the heard-of-hearing actor playing Jones, raises a prop rifle, another performer flaps an umbrella to conjure the sound of birds fluttering overhead. A ratchet replicates a rifle cocking. A snare drum stands in for a gunshot. All the while, two actors narrate — one in spoken English, one in American Sign Language — and writer-director Marshall Pailet reminds his cast to be aware of the open captions that will flank the stage at every show.
“We’re teaching everyone the rules with the foley and the captions right away,” Link says during an interview. “I’m sure a lot of this audience has never met a deaf or hard-of-hearing person in their life. So to establish that and invite them in right from the top helps them dive in and to feel invited to participate in this story.”
Accessibility is a guiding principle for Pailet, the hearing playwright and composer who wrote the book, music and lyrics for “Private Jones.” Stationed at Signature through March 10, the musical features a cast of hearing, hard-of-hearing and deaf actors performing dialogue in three languages — English, ASL and British Sign Language — while also delivering Pailet’s Celtic-inspired score. To Pailet and Alexandria Wailes, the show’s director of artistic sign language, no scene should be staged without careful consideration of how narrative intent is both seen and heard.
“If the piano does something that is supposed to evoke an emotion and there’s not a visual equivalent of that, we haven’t done our job,” Pailet says. “Theater is taking psychology and turning it into behavior. So everything is visual, everything is behavioral, and it’s also therefore a perfect medium for sign language, which is a visual language. It exists to be seen.”
Pailet acknowledges that the origins of “Private Jones” are fairly mundane: He was interested in writing a World War I trench warfare story — specifically exploring how being asked to commit violence can reorient a person’s worldview — when he came across an article with a couple of sentences about the deaf Welsh sniper.
“How do you theatricalize from the perspective of a deaf soldier a combat scene where you can’t hear the bullets and you can’t hear the explosions?” Pailet recalls asking himself. “It seemed impossible, which was exciting to me.”
After traveling to Wales on his honeymoon (“My wife was very kind to me,” he notes) and tracking down war records he believes belonged to Jones, Pailet took an early iteration of the show to Connecticut’s Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals in January 2020. He subsequently connected with Wailes, the ASL master on the Oscar-winning film “CODA,” and the duo began swapping ideas during the pandemic on how to better integrate deaf and hard-of-hearing perspectives.
While the show features a narrator performing in ASL, Wailes pitched the idea of also incorporating British Sign Language during dialogue exchanges between characters who would have spoken in that wholly different dialect. “It just felt right to be able to really tell this story at its core, because of who the character is at that time, what his journey looks like and what the world is in ‘Private Jones,’” Wailes says through an ASL interpreter. “It’s been a really exciting journey to just lean into that.”
Finding the right actor to enlist as Jones — a deaf character who tricks his fellow soldiers into thinking he’s hearing and carries much of the show’s vocals — also proved critical. As a musical theater performer who has used hearing aids since childhood, Link came with connections to the hearing and deaf worlds that the character bridges. Looking back on his upbringing, when he attended a deaf preschool but was subsequently “mainstreamed” into the hearing world, the actor says he deeply relates to Jones’s outsider experience.
“I have never felt so seen in a character,” Link says. “Truly, this is one of the most special projects I’ve ever worked on because it pulls from different parts of my life. I feel a lot of the things that Gomer feels. I just knew I had to do it.”
Pailet says unfamiliar perspectives are at the core of “Private Jones,” which uses its innovative soundscapes to place the audience in Jones’s shoes while interrogating how people empathize with or dehumanize those they don’t understand.
After the National Alliance for Musical Theatre hosted a New York presentation of the show in 2021 and Goodspeed mounted a workshop production this past fall, the Signature staging marks the official premiere of “Private Jones.” Having spent the better part of five years developing the show, Pailet hopes this isn’t his last shot at envisioning Jones’s journey onstage.
“I don’t get to control whether or not that happens — I mean, other than making it as good a show as possible and making the room as positive as possible,” Pailet says. “Do I think about that? Yeah, I think about it — I think about it a lot. I hope that there’s a future.”
Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. sigtheatre.org.
Dates: Through March 10.