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Theatre Alum T.J. Newton ’14 Shares Journey to Hear in ‘Surround Sound’

  • T.J. Newton ’14 at opening night of his latest play, The Secret of My Success.
    T.J. Newton ’14
  • Newton as he underwent surgery to implant a bone-anchored hearing aid.
T.J. Newton ’14 is a seasoned performer, having nabbed his first theatre role at seven years old. But this fall, as part of the cast of Universal Theatrical’s musical The Secret of My Success, he experienced the stage in a whole new way: It was the first show he could fully hear.

Newton was born with microtia, a congenital ear deformity that left him deaf in one ear. In August, doctors surgically implanted a bone-anchored hearing aid that allowed him to hear out of both ears; two months later, he joined castmates for The Secret of My Success’s debut at Houston’s Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. We spoke with him after the show ended its run in November about his life and career and how the pandemic made it harder for people with disabilities in ways that non-disabled people didn’t understand.

 

You started acting in childhood. What drew you to the stage?
I was fortunate to see a lot of theater growing up. My parents began taking me at a very young age, so I got bitten by that bug early. I started performing professionally when I was about seven, and it was honestly the only thing that brought me true joy. When I came to Marymount, that was the dream—getting to live in New York and working to be discovered.

Did microtia affect your work on stage?
Well, because I was born with it and born deaf in my left ear, it’s the only thing I’ve ever known. I’m from Colombia and was adopted as a baby. They matched me with my adoptive mother because she’s a speech therapist, and they thought she’d be able to help me with any hearing and speech issues. But I think the only difficulty I sometimes had was learning music; other than that I didn’t need much help. Still, once I had the procedure done, I realized how much I’d been missing out on—there was a huge difference once I started using my hearing aid.

You underwent surgery in August and started The Secret of My Success soon after. Was that difficult to do back-to-back?
I had to wait about three weeks for my head to heal because surgeons literally drilled into my skull to implant the base of the hearing aid. It was quite a painful, draining procedure. My head was pretty swollen—it looked like there was a golf ball on the side of it. But then I got my hearing aid, and a week later, I was in rehearsals. So, the timing and scheduling gods were smiling down upon me and making sure that I could start the show with my device.

What made you decide to get the surgery after so many years?
During the pandemic, a lot of hard-of-hearing people like me had even more difficulty hearing the world. Suddenly, with face masks and social distancing, my one and only working ear was working twice as hard to hear people talking right in front of me. There seemed to be a loss of hearing in that ear, too, that I felt was growing—and it didn’t get any better once the masks came off.I got it checked out, and it turned out that I did have hearing loss severe enough to qualify for the surgery and hearing aid.

Do you think it occurred to people that those who are hard of hearing faced additional challenges during COVID?
I don’t think so. Something I talk about often is how the deaf community, and also people who have disabilities across the board, are forgotten in social settings. During the pandemic, we were definitely not taken into consideration.

Was any part of you worried that the surgery might negatively affect your ability to perform?
No. I was very fortunate because I had different hearing aid options, and I also got to test my hearing aid out before getting the procedure. So, there may have been some reluctance before I got to test it, but once I did, there was no question in my mind that this was what I wanted to do.

How has your life changed since then?
It’s changed significantly. Everywhere is just so loud now. It’s been overwhelming in good and bad ways, especially in social settings, because my hearing aid has a microphone and will pick up other conversations. So, sometimes when I’m in a big group setting, it’s hard for me to concentrate on the person I’m speaking to.

But, you know, the most beautiful and calming spaces honestly have been the theater because my hearing aid can focus on just one specific sound, and I don’t have to worry about other sounds around me. And getting to listen to music and a big Broadway orchestra is so special because I’m hearing surround sound for the first time. I never knew what that was like. Being able to hear in both ears, especially live music, has been incredibly special.

What was starring in The Secret of My Success like?
The show is an adaptation of a 1987 Michael J. Fox comedy, and it was great because it’s a brand-new musical, and we got to see what these characters are like for the first time on stage. Being part of a show while it’s being developed is amazing because you usually don’t get to ask the writers questions. Often in theater, you do a show that was written 10, 20, 50 years ago.

What’s next for you?
Hopefully, the show will be licensed and produced all over the country. As for me, I’ve had a wonderful year. This is the fourth show I’ve gotten to do in the last 12 months. I’m very grateful and incredibly lucky to have been on stage four different times in the last year. So, I’ll go back to New York and back to the audition grind.

What advice do you have for students?
MMC taught me that this business is not easy, and you have to believe in yourself if you want to succeed. I always tell students that if this is what they want to do and what they feel they’re destined to do, they shouldn’t let anyone, or anything, stop them. I didn’t.