NEW YORK (AP) — Actors usually have all sorts of special skills they've picked up along the way — sword-fighting, judo, a Scandinavian accent. Camryn Manheim has American Sign Language.
The former "The Practice" star is currently showcasing that skill in a crackling Broadway revival of "Spring Awakening," which mixes hearing and deaf performers.
It turns out that a hole in her transcript, a car accident and some inspiration led Manheim to become fluent in sign language.
THE LANGUAGE REQUIREMENT
Manheim, whose family is academically inclined, initially had trouble getting into college. She needed to pass two languages, but struggled beyond English.
She failed French and Spanish twice before deciding to enroll at Cabrillo Community College and study American Sign Language. Something about the fluidity and choreography of the movements appealed to her.
She didn't plan on a future with it, and she didn't know any deaf people. "I just needed to get to university so my parents wouldn't cut me out of the will," she said.
Manheim took two semesters of ASL, got into the University of California at Santa Cruz and graduated four years later in 1984.
She had retained only about 15 signs and the alphabet. She could ask "Are you deaf?" and "Could you slow down and sign that again?"
Manheim was soon accepted to New York University to get her master's in acting. But before she left, she suddenly needed ASL badly.
A few days before she left Santa Cruz, Manheim was walking down the street when she saw a pedestrian hit by a car. She knocked on the nearest door and asked the homeowner to call an ambulance.
She went back to the accident scene. The man who had been hit was motionless on his back, breathing but not moving. His eyes were open.
Police and medics surrounded the man, asking his name and phone number. He was silent. They soon grew impatient trying to communicate with him.
"I don't know why it dawned on me but it hit me. I thought, 'Maybe he's deaf?' So I walked over to the police officer and I said, 'Is it possible he's deaf?'" Manheim said.
"He said, 'Do you know sign language?' I said, 'I know 10 signs.' He said, 'Ask him if he's deaf.' That was one of the signs I knew."
She asked him and he said yes. The police officers quickly asked her to come to the hospital with them to help translate.
"I said, 'I don't know sign language.' And he said, 'You know more than we do.' I remember thinking, 'I have never been asked so nicely to get in the back of a police car before.'"
Manheim got the man's phone number and called his family, who were all deaf. Over the next five hours, she used a mixture of charades, Pictionary and finger spelling to communicate with them.
"I felt terrible that I didn't know more."
A SIGN TO SIGN
In New York, just a few days into her graduate school life, Manheim passed a sign on a building that would change her career: New York Society for the Deaf.
"I walked in and said, 'Do you have any beginning classes on Monday nights? That's my only night off.' They said, 'That's the only night we teach beginning classes.'"
She took them, then intermediate classes, then advanced ones over the next three years. She became so fluent that she was qualified as an ASL interpreter.
As she leapt into the often brutal life of an unknown actor, Manheim kept up with ASL both as a backup career and a source of helping her community.
"It gave me something that made me feel like I mattered and that I could do some good," she said. "For a staunch atheist as I am, it was really a gift from the gods."
Sandra Mae Frank, a deaf actress who plays Manheim's daughter in "Spring Awakening," said she met the older actress in Los Angeles during the show's initial run.
"I was so excited because I know her work from 'The Tenth Kingdom' and 'Ghost Whisperer.' Imagine my surprise when she started communicating with me in ASL!" she wrote in an email. "She brings a new perspective to the show; her energy is so raw on the stage."