A Chat With ‘Switched at Birth' Creator Lizzy Weiss

When I heard about the show Switched at Birth, I was instantly excited. I assumed, due to its subject matter, it would be a campy, over-the-top, ridiculous teen drama. You know, the kind of show you love for all the wrong reasons. I put on my snark cap and sat down to watch the premiere in June when a funny thing happened… I was blown away. This show was awesome!  Switched at Birth has easily become one of my new favorite shows.

For those of you who have yet to discover its brilliance, the show centers on two teen girls, Bay (Vanessa Marano) and Daphne (Katie Leclerc), who discover through a science project that they were switched at birth. As if this weren’t dramatic enough, things are further complicated by economic and racial differences as well as the fact that Daphne is deaf. Somehow the show manages to deal with all that drama in one of the most honest portrayals of teen and family life on TV. This week, I had the great opportunity to chat with the show’s creator Lizzy Weiss and here is some of what we discussed.

I’m sure you get this question a lot, but where did the concept of the show come from?

It came from a story I heard on the radio about two women who found out they were switched at birth. They found out in their mid-50s. They were much older and it still turned their lives upside down. I instantly thought, what if you were a teenager and found this out? Because being a teenager is already so much about your identity and questioning if you’re really with the right family and who you are. So I thought this would just take all those issues and magnify them. In addition to that, I was pregnant at the time, so the idea of a child being switched at birth was sort of more raw and terrifying for me in that moment.

Did you anticipate the huge response the show would get from the deaf community?

I’m happy, but not shocked. I knew right away that there wasn’t a lot out there and when you highlight such small community, they get excited and they want to see themselves on TV. So I’m not totally shocked. I visited a deaf high school in Los Angeles while I was researching and met with a group of deaf teenagers. Just hearing their response to the concept that I was working on and seeing how excited they were, I realized that we would be able to do a lot of great stuff.

I’ve learned so much about deaf culture through watching the show. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned about deaf culture through making the show?

In terms of the language, I think ASL is really interesting. I speak Spanish and a lot of us speak Latin based languages, but ASL is a totally different grammatical structure. It’s pretty fascinating. Like, my name is L Z ? and the question mark comes just from the way you raise your eyebrows. It’s so body language and facial expression heavy and it’s that aspect of the language that I find so interesting.

But, in terms of the culture and the community, what’s true with the deaf community is true with any small community, which is that on the one hand it creates such an intense bonding and on the other hand, everything can be sort of solidified. People tend to represent even when you don’t want them to. If you’re a white guy, everything you do doesn’t represent white guys. But when you have a smaller community, there seems to be more intensity and spotlight and things are held up to a magnifying glass as if they mean something. So there’s a lot of pressure there.

Have any of the personal experiences of the hearing impaired cast and crew members affected the storylines of the show?

No, not really our actors. But we have a deaf consultant and while I was researching, I reached out to whoever I could. I had a small circle of people who I emailed with and they would write me their experiences. But I don’t think specifically anything from Sean Berdy or Katie. The only thing I would say is that every time we write a script, we absolutely encourage and welcome any input so that it comes off honest and real. But we’re very careful to remember that there is not one true answer. There isn’t an exact point of view, necessarily. They’re just people. In episode 13, we had Emmett say when he was arrested and couldn’t use his hands or speak, “I hated being deaf.” I really wanted to do that moment. It felt true for Emmett in that moment. Nobody questioned it, but even if someone had, I was going to make sure that moment stayed because it felt like that is his character. Maybe other deaf people wouldn’t feel that way, but Emmett did.

Your show has to deal with the whole nature v. nurture debate in terms of Bay and Daphne. How different do you think the girls would be if they hadn’t been switched and were raised by their biological parents?

You’re asking me to come down on nature v. nurture?!

Well, I feel the show actually does a good job of not coming down on either side.

Right, I don’t really have a strong opinion one way or the other in the sense that I believe in exactly what the show is: (a) it’s a blend and (b) none of us will ever know. There’s been a million studies with twins separated and they find them later and see what they have in common. They’re a little similar, but of course they’re very different. Human beings are affected by all their surroundings, so I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think that push and pull is what I love and is tricky about our show. And I think that nature v. nurture element is what makes it intriguing to adults. I had such a strong response from last night’s episode [Episode 16] in particular, because it did hit that subject so head on, and we all know someone like Grandma Bonnie who is unapologetically about blood and nature. I think people found it really interesting to see that taken on.

It seems like your cast really enjoy one another. What is it like on set?

That’s so true. They do get along so well and since signing is such a big and unique environment for our show, our entire crew is learning how to sign. We just love learning new words. Everyone on set, behind the scenes, loves it. Whenever an interesting sign comes up, we all teach each other. That’s just such a huge part of being on set. For example, the sign for “heartbroken”, which is a word that comes up next week, is just so beautifully intuitive. You make a heart and then break it. Those things are just so fun to learn.

You and many of the cast members are active on Twitter. What is it like getting such instant feedback from viewers?

Interesting, of course, and not just Twitter – I read some of the forums and whatnot. Twitter is so short. I also enjoy the longer responses when people are really connected and take time to engage in online conversations about the show and they ask questions. Sometimes there are people in the discussions who are deaf or hard of hearing and they ask each other, “Well, what does this mean and was it right?” People are learning and I find those conversations great. It’s really fun to see people become so passionate about the show.

Have any of these conversations affected things in the writers’ room?

No, but I will say a lot of times people will say something that we have thought of and crossed out. Or even something as tiny as the nicknames. We’ve call Emmett and Bay “Ebay” in the room a couple times, which is a name the fans created. Also, sometimes people have responses that surprise me. I love all of these characters and sometimes, earlier in the season, people would respond pretty passionately either against Regina or against John. It surprised me because I love them, I understand them and I really write with the intention that you see everyone’s side. No one is doing something crazy and everyone is behaving in a way that feels realistic to their point of view. I do feel like people have come around, though. Sometimes a fan who responded harshly to, for example, John or even Regina knowing about the switch will have settled in and gotten it now. Even if they don’t agree, they understand why she did it. It’s really fun to see that growth with the fans.

What can we expect for the rest of the season?

As far as what to expect from the remainder of the season, Lizzy promises some really great arcs. They will continue to explore Daphne’s basketball story and relationship with John, Bay’s exploration of art and cultural identity, Emmett dealing with his parents’ divorce and the challenges of his relationship with Bay, as well as more examination of what happened at the hospital the night of the switch.

What about the possibility of an “alternate reality” episode showing life if the switch hadn’t happened?

“I’m fascinated by that reality and I think we could definitely revisit it at some point. We’ll see…”

A special thanks to Lizzy for taking the time to speak with me. I, for one, can’t wait to see where the rest of the season takes us. New episodes of Switched at Birth air Tuesdays at 8pm on ABCFamily and if you need to catch up, the first eleven episodes are currently streaming on both Hulu and Netflix Instant.

Featured Image via Hulu.com

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