Soot & Spit

Deaf actor Robert DeMayo portrays deaf artist James Castle in “Soot and Spit,” a play that also features actors with Down syndrome, at Paul V. Galvin Playhouse on the Tempe campus of Arizona State University.

Photo courtesy ASU School of Theatre and Film

Using nothing more than the soot from a wood burning stove mixed with his own saliva, deaf artist James Castle used this homemade ink to communicate with the world.

Castle is the subject of the ASU School of Theatre and Film’s newest play, “Soot and Spit,” and his life story is brought to the stage in a way that MainStage guest director Kim Weild has never seen done before.

“The idea is... to give the audience an experience of a world that for some will be disorienting, which would not be too far from some of James’ experience in the world,” says Weild. “(The play’s goal is) to give the audience a glimpse at a life from James’ perspective that is not about describing James, but rather expressing.”

Castle was born profoundly deaf in 1899 in rural Idaho to a family of poor farmers. While he never learned to speak or sign, he found art to be a good method of communication after his mother gave him paper to keep him busy during his days at home. He created his own ink, whittled sticks for paintbrushes and narrated his life through his sketches. Weild says Castle created more than 20,000 works of art, and today, his pieces have been exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Reina Sofia National Art Museum in Madrid, among others.

“When you look at a Picasso, you know it’s a Picasso, (and) when you look at a James Castle work of art, you know it’s a James Castle work of art,” says Weild. “It’s extraordinary, (and) this was a man who had no formal training as an artist.”

Castle’s works will be projected onto the stage walls during the performance, so audiences will be able to experience his art in an intimate setting. “Soot and Spit” also features live performances by a bluegrass band and the songs of well-known folk musicians like John Hartford.

But Weild says that the most unique aspect of the play is its actors. Robert DeMayo plays the lead and is not only deaf, but an artist himself. Many of the drawings that are projected during the show are drawn live by DeMayo.

Charles Mee’s script also calls for a chorus of performers with Down syndrome. These actors were hired through Detour Company Theatre, a Phoenix-based troupe that offers acting opportunities for adults with developmental challenges.

“My hope is that people will come away having had a good time, (and) also thinking differently — (not only) how they are experiencing the world, but how they see the world,” says Weild. “The way Castle saw things is extraordinary, and his ability to translate what he saw into these drawings is very rich. I hope people also come away with a sense of wonder that exists in every moment.”

If you go

What: ASU School of Theatre and Film’s Mainstage performs a play about the life of James Castle, a deaf artist.

When: 7:30 p.m. April 5-6, 2 p.m. April 7, 7:30 p.m., April 11-13, and 2 p.m. April 14

Where: Paul V. Galvin Playhouse at the ASU Tempe campus, 51 E. 10th St.

Cost: $8-$16

Information: (480) 965-6447 or


• Ellen, a junior at Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is an intern for the East Valley Tribune. Contact her at (480) 898-6514 or

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