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Christa Lawler, Forum Communications, Published December 25 2012

Duluth man lands role on TV show highlighting deaf culture

DULUTH, Minn. - A Duluth-raised actor who was born deaf has landed a principal role on a popular ABC Family TV show that stars a deaf lead actor and puts deaf culture in the spotlight.

Daniel Durant will play Matthew, an egotistical character who really has a way with the ladies on “Switched at Birth.” He will be featured in at least episodes 3, 5 and 6 of the series that starts up again Jan. 7. Durant was an extra on the show during the first season.

“I felt this big door open for me,” Durant said while home from Los Angeles during a break in filming. Doug Bowen-Bailey provided American Sign Language interpretation. “I feel like I’m in a dream right now; it’s such a great feeling.”

It’s a major career boost in a hard-to-navigate field for Durant, whose own background could be the plot of a dramatic series: He was raised by an aunt who now legally is his mother, and he has turned a bit of YouTube fame into a recurring role on a much buzzed-about series.

“Switched at Birth”

“Switched at Birth” is an hourlong drama that not only stars deaf actress Katie Leclerc, it also employs supporting characters and extras who are deaf — a rarity in showbiz. A more typical scenario in the entertainment industry:

“If there is a deaf role, all the deaf actors in the world try out,” Durant said.

“Switched at Birth” centers on Daphne Vasquez, a wholesome and cheerful basketball player who lives with her alcoholic mother, who is eking out a living, and her grandmother.

Daphne lost her hearing to meningitis as a toddler. She is able to speak and read lips. In scenes that feature Daphne and her friends — usually her longtime bestie Emmett — scenes include signing and subtitles. The silence of the characters becomes more noticeable because the ambient background noise is more prominent.

Daphne was switched at birth with Bay Kennish, an artistic teen who lives in an upscale neighborhood and feels increasingly disconnected and different from her mother, father and brother.

It’s Bay who discovers the switch while working on a school project.

The two families end up coming together, which results in all sorts of complicated relationships, feelings and actions.

For the audience, the show offers a rarely seen perspective — not to mention ASL 101.

Durant’s beginnings

Durant, 23, was born in Michigan to deaf parents who both struggled with drug and alcohol addictions. His deafness is genetic and was passed on by his father. Hearing aids would do nothing; he has never heard a sound. When Durant was an infant, his mother dropped him off with her friend to baby-sit — and didn’t come back for nine months. The friend tracked down Durant’s father, but he was unable to care for the baby.

Lori Durant is biologically Daniel’s aunt but legally and emotionally his mother. She began raising him when he was 18 months old. She knew a bit of sign language from growing up with a deaf brother, but her knowledge was limited. There was a stigma attached to signing when they were kids.

“The education at the time was, if you wanted to make it you had to learn to talk,” she said.

Daniel Durant hadn’t been exposed to signing either at this point in his life.

“That’s one of the miracles to me,” Lori Durant said. “He really had no language. (The friend who watched him) knew ‘no’ and ‘stop.’ He became a beautiful signer and so competent.”

They attended family camps and clubs, and Daniel Durant worked with interpreters. He attended mainstream schools — first Lakewood Elementary School then Marshall, where Lori Durant teaches English — but he was alienated by his inability to communicate with his peers and the awkwardness of having an adult interpreter who always was at his side. He eventually coaxed his mother into sending him to Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault, Minn., where he was able to play sports and test out the theater scene.

Always the actor

Lori Durant can trace Daniel’s theatrical aspirations back to when he was a toddler and thrilled with policemen and ambulances and catching bad guys. She would hear him, well past bedtime, telling himself stories.

“I’d have to get the story out there before I could go to sleep,” he said.

When Daniel Durant began to lean toward becoming a professional actor, his mother had a different idea.

“I said, ‘Get your education,’” she said.

He tried the mainstream route, attending Rochester Institute of Technology and majoring in applied computer science. But Durant said he couldn’t imagine spending his life sitting at a desk.

There was one big fight: Daniel Durant bought a video camera so he could make videos to post for his long-distance girlfriend on YouTube. Lori Durant thought that was money better spent on school books.

But Daniel’s videos, which feature him signing stories, attracted a fan base and fan letters and eventually the attention of YouTube. He became a YouTube partner and started earning money every time a viewer clicked on one of his videos, which are preceded with commercials. Three or four months later, his mom said, he got a check from the website that covered the cost of the camera.

It also was through YouTube that Durant was discovered by Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood, where he landed a role in a successful production of “Cyrano” that mixed hearing and deaf actors, English and ASL. Variety said of the production: “(It) cuts deeper, exploring the nature of being deaf — and in a larger sense, being just plain different — in a majority culture. (It) isn’t seamless, but hits a nerve, and buzz is proving an irresistible magnet to the L.A. theater community, making for sellout biz.”

After “Cyrano,” Durant starred in “Police Deaf Near Far” in Michigan. His mom and her partner, Mary Engels, have supported him and flown out to see him perform.

“It’s very emotional to see him on stage,” Engels said.

He was an extra on “Switched at Birth” during its first season. And, despite a short resume, he was asked to play a more significant role.

“It’s all happened so fast,” Lori Durant said.

The future

How a deaf actor signs is as important in an actor as voice is to a hearing actor. Daniel Durant is regularly credited with being a beautiful signer, which is revealed in the way he crafts his space and conveys things.

“If people knew the language, they would understand the poetry in motion,” Lori Durant said.

Daniel Durant said he hopes the future brings more acting, and he would like to try directing. He also would like to finish school, he said. But right now his priority is “Switched at Birth” and the hope that he will get called back for more episodes.

It’s been fun to watch Durant’s progress, said Bowen-Bailey, who has worked with Durant since he was knee-high and full of ambulance stories.

“For him to become famous … it’s really cool,” Bowen-Bailey said, first checking with Durant to see if it was OK to dish. “It’s cool for him, and it’s cool for the world to see what Daniel can do and what deaf people can do.”