T.J. Newton, currently appearing in the regional premiere of The Secret of My Success at Theater Under the Stars (TUTS), was born with microtia and had been deaf in his left ear until recently, when he underwent surgery to receive a bone-anchored hearing aid (BAHA). On September 16, the soon-to-be 30-year-old’s new hearing aid was activated and Newton got to experience the cacophony and joy of our noisy world in stereo for the first time in his life.
“When the pandemic hit and masks came on, it severely affected how I, and so many hard-of-hearing individuals, lived every day,” Newton recalls. “All of a sudden, my one and only working ear was working twice as hard to hear people talking. When the masks began to come off, I noticed my hearing didn’t get any better.” This is what prompted him to see a doctor and eventually get this life-changing surgery.
“I got my hearing aid a week before we started rehearsal [for The Secret of My Success], so this entire process has been overwhelming,” he states. “In the rehearsal studio, it’s been amazing because I can hear in surround-sound for the first time. Also, hearing music at the theater or even at a movie has been such a wonderful, joyous, and overwhelming experience.”
The biggest change Newton has noticed in his hearing is the volume of sounds. “Everything sounds very loud, and I’m able to pick out things in music that I haven’t heard before,” he explains. “Listening to an orchestra, I’m hearing different instruments that I wasn’t fully aware of, and if a piano is on my left side, I can pick that up much stronger than I could before.”
T. J. Newton on Inclusive, Accessible Theater
Recent headlines surrounding Hadestown on Broadway revealed how the theater industry is struggling to be fully inclusive of deaf and hard-of-hearing people. “As a whole, the theater is not as accessible as it should be,” Newton emphasizes. “I will say that Theater Under the Stars’ incredible program, The River, makes theater accessible for kids of all ages and disabilities. This is a hill I’m so happy to die on. Theater should be for everyone, and to be at a theater that celebrates that makes me extremely proud to be here.”
As a queer-identifying artist of color with a hearing disability, Newton recognizes the platform his professional experiences offer him, and this fuels his activism. He looks forward to coming back to Houston and doing a show with the kids for The River program. Also, he has successfully created the Instagram show Kiki’s Closet. “Right now, there are 40 episodes out,” he says. “I’ve interviewed 112 guests, and the majority of them are people of color because the main purpose of the show is to celebrate diversity.” His 41st episode will feature some of his The Secret of My Success colleagues discussing diversity and inclusion in theater, and also focus on the new musical they are working on.
Newton appreciates that TUTS is truly fostering diversity and inclusion in their audiences. “They make sure that ticket prices are accessible for everyone,” he says. And as an artist, he sees how TUTS is also committed to fostering onstage diversity. “Getting to come to TUTS, where they prioritize diversity, has been so wonderful as a person of color,” he adds. “I’ve felt so safe in this space, not only working here last season, but also working here during The Secret of My Success. It’s a beautifully diverse company of performers, both onstage and backstage.”
After performing in last season’s production of Sister Act, Newton is enjoying his role in developing a new musical. “Having the writers here has been so wonderful because we’ve gotten the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, could we try it this way?’ or ‘How about this line?’” he explains. “Having those changes incorporated and just being able to have a conversation, whether the changes work or not, is hugely beneficial and very rare.”
The Secret of My Success
The Secret of My Success is based on a 1987 Michael J. Fox film by the same title. “It’s a wonderful, campy, silly musical about fighting for your dreams,” he says. “In a post-pandemic world, we’ve changed the [definition of] what success is. We’ve acknowledged that success is more than money. Maybe success is falling in love, or more family time—and this show celebrates that.”
Newton is also excited to finally experience an Out@TUTS event. “Because of COVID restrictions, our [Sister Act] cast wasn’t allowed to go, but this year we are allowed to go,” he says. “I love the queer community in Houston. It’s wonderful. So I’m excited to celebrate musical theater with the queer community here.
“My heart’s color today is a bright blue,” Newton concludes, “because the sun is out and I’m just feeling a lot of joy and happiness this week.”
Out@TUTS night is for The Secret of My Success is November 3. Join other LGBTQ musical theatre fans (and friends) for a post-show party with free bites, drink specials, and live music. The fun is hosted by the Broadway Beauty of Texas, Regina Thorne-DuBois. You’ll mingle with the cast and crew members, sing a few show tunes, and celebrate an inclusive Houston.
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