Note: This story was updated on Sept. 25, 2018 to include Ridloff’s new role on The Walking Dead.
It has been one of Broadway’s most incredible and inspirational stories of recent time.
California State University, Northridge alumna Lauren Ridloff ’01 (English – Creative Writing), a deaf former elementary school teacher with no prior professional stage experience, took on the iconic role of Sarah Norman in the Broadway production of Children of a Lesser God, and earned a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play.
To perform on a Broadway stage already shows a level of confidence. To do what Ridloff has done is beyond that — it’s courageous.
She cultivated one of these qualities while earning her degree at CSUN.
“CSUN is where I became very close friends with one of my teachers,” Ridloff said. “I became her assistant for one of her public speaking classes, and that teacher, Barbara Boyd, encouraged me to try out for the Miss Deaf America pageant. I was crowned Miss Deaf America in 2000, and I feel that experience gave me the confidence I needed to begin my acting career.”
Ridloff said that experience triggered a series of events that led her to Broadway and the Tony nomination.
Originally from Chicago, Ridloff attended Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington, D.C., before coming to CSUN. She traveled cross-country for higher education because of the support services CSUN offered and Los Angeles’ reputation for creativity.
When she first arrived at CSUN, the university was still recovering from the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and many of her classes were held in trailers. The intimate setting, Ridloff said, eased her into a sense of comfort at CSUN. Dorm life gave her further sense of belonging.
“CSUN gave me a strong sense of independence and a fresh start,” she said. “I had attended a residential school before going to CSUN, so the notion of living away from home was not new. So for the first time, I was literally on my own — but never alone or lonely. The dorm I lived in was called ‘Talking Hands,’ and it welcomed all people who signed or were interested in signing. I made friends who continue to be a big part of my life today.”
Shortly after graduating, Ridloff was crowned Miss Deaf America for 2000-02. She succeeded fellow CSUN alumna Amy Wong, who held the title from 1998-2000. After she moved to New York she pursued a teaching career. Later, she stopped teaching to care for her two sons at home.
About this time, Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon was working on bringing Children of a Lesser God (which also stars CSUN alumna Treshelle Edmond) back to Broadway, where it originally had a successful run in 1980 and won a Tony for Best Play. Marlee Matlin took home an Academy Award in 1986 for her portrayal of Sarah Norman in the film version.
“[Leon] realized he did not know much about the world of the Deaf, so he wanted to meet someone from whom he could learn some sign language, learn a bit of culture and so forth,” Ridloff said. “He reached out to an acquaintance who is an interpreter. That interpreter happened to see me at the Miss Deaf America pageant years ago and knew I was living in NYC, so he recommended me.”
Ridloff and Leon met weekly for nearly a year. The director kept telling her he wanted to increase her involvement with the show, possibly as a consultant.
“Things came to a stop when Kenny started working on a few other projects, but then he circled back to me after a year and asked if I could do a reading as Sarah because they hadn’t found an actress yet,” Ridloff said. “After the first reading, Kenny pulled me to the side and asked me if I was willing to go all the way if this went all the way.”
Ridloff was offered the role of Sarah Norman. She was surprised, but accepted it. When the show opened, audiences — and critics — responded.
The New York Times called her performance “a knockout professional debut” and “blistering.” Variety called her a “stunning performer.” New York Magazine said she performed with “instinctive brilliance.”
The biggest challenge of the role, Ridloff said, was using her voice — something she hadn’t done in 26 years — as part of her performance.
“The idea of using my voice initially terrified me. I actually cried at the first reading because I was afraid of what would come out,” she said. “But by the end of the run, I felt as if I reclaimed my voice and therefore myself in its entirety.”
In preparation for the role, she said, she watched old clips of Soul Train to learn how people moved in the 1970s and ’80s and how they interacted physically. She took inspiration for her monologue from watching clips of Malcolm X.
“His strong, unapologetic stance was something I imagined Sarah doing,” she said.
Ridloff is proud of what she has accomplished in her portrayal of Sarah. Ridloff’s mother is African-American and her father is Mexican-American. The role of Sarah traditionally has been played by white women.
“I approached Sarah the same way I approach a character when writing creatively,” she said. “I slowly unpacked her strengths and her flaws and embraced them all. I am proud of how I portrayed Sarah as a woman of color, as a woman who was capable of loving and respecting herself. I feel that it is such an important representation for young women of color today. We need to be unapologetic about the way we are naturally.”
And there’s a little bit of CSUN in her performance.
“I majored in creative writing at CSUN, and it helped me with finding small truths in Sarah,” she said. “It also helped me find the fire behind her anger and passion.”
On what was a long morning for Ridloff on May 1 — her son woke her up at 3 a.m. wanting a bath — her husband gave her the news that she had been nominated for a Tony Award.
The award eventually went to Glenda Jackson for her performance in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, but Ridloff said she already received her reward long before the Tony nomination.
“If I could draw a picture of this journey, I would draw a straight line at 90 degrees,” she said. “This trajectory has been astronomical — it has been a thrilling ride. But what makes it extraordinary is how Broadway has given me a megaphone to speak through, to talk about the importance of including people that have been typically marginalized and only seen peripherally.
“I have seen how this journey has affected my colleagues,” she continued. “[My co-star] Joshua [Jackson] now knows sign language. Kenny is now very aware of the community of the Deaf and has changed his thoughts on inclusion — not just in terms of color, but also in terms of abilities. That’s extraordinary to me.”
Children of a Lesser God’s run on Broadway may have ended May 27, but Ridloff is already starting on another project — one that’s under wraps for the moment.
“As for what’s next? I have a very exciting project coming up, and I can’t wait to share it with the world soon,” she said.
This summer, it was announced that Ridloff will take on a role for the upcoming ninth season of AMC’s iconic series The Walking Dead. The new season premieres Oct. 7.