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Wednesday 23 October 2019

Diversity in theatre

Dramatic gestures

Why the stage is the perfect space to explore sound, silence and deafness

By Sarah Crompton

 

Dramatic gestures 9’58

The wonderful thing about theatre is its capacity to surprise you. This summer, at the Edinburgh Festival, I dragged myself to a show that a friend had recommended called Louder (Is Not Always Clearer), created by the deaf performance artist, Jonny Cotsen, with the Welsh theatre group, Mr and Mrs Clark. Months later, I find myself thinking about that performance more than I remember some flashier, more heralded productions.

Using a variety of media – written signs, a laptop, frenetic dancing – it tells Cotsen’s story. A deaf child born to a hearing family, his mother was determined that he would “fit in” with the hearing world, and guided him through a regular education. He can lip-read, speak and even sing; but learning British Sign Language (BSL) liberated him.

In one memorable sequence, he asked the audience to try to lip-read, repeatedly putting phrases on a screen and asking us to try to follow. It was fascinating and sobering – deciphering those verbal shapes was almost impossible. Cotsen challenged us to think differently about deafness by making us empathise with its difference.

Jonny Cotzen in the Mr & Mrs Clark production of Louder Is Not Always Clearer

For a long time, theatre companies such as Deafinitely Theatre have provided high-quality bilingual productions in BSL and spoken English for deaf and hearing audiences. They have ploughed a pioneering path to changing attitudes and open minds: their production of Love’s Labour’s Lost at London’s Globe Theatre in 2011 – the first ever BSL production of Shakespeare – was both ground-breaking and revelatory.

Now, D/deaf actors and concerns are finally becoming more visible on a more regular basis in the theatrical mainstream. At the Bristol Old Vic, Ad Infinitum recently unveiled the result of five years’ work and 40 hours of interviews with deaf people in Extraordinary Wall (of Silence) about the oppression of deaf people in Britain, told through spoken language, physical language and BSL.

It all began when the director, George Mann, a physical theatre maker, saw a video of a deaf actor called Matthew Gurney and was impressed with his physical skill. They started to work together, and Mann started, he says, “to hear all these stories of oppression from the deaf world, of difficulties and struggle. I couldn’t believe I had never heard them before, and we started to talk about ways of putting them on stage.”

The show, inspired in part by Paddy Ladd’s book, Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood, tackles the issue of oralism. Speaking through the interpreter Kyra Pollitt, Matthew explains: “Deaf children were not allowed to communicate in sign language in schools; they were historically taught to speak, to listen. They had their sign language taken away from them.”

Gurney, was born to a deaf family so he grew up embedded in a rich seam of deaf culture. He worries that the suppression of this – the way deaf children are judged to have failed a hearing society’s standards – is causing untold damage. “Deaf mental health is a huge concern as a result of those kind of experiences,” he says. “I have been to counselling myself and my counsellor was a hearing person. How do I talk to that hearing person about my experiences that hearing people have taken my language away, that they can’t communicate with me, that there are barriers up between us? In counselling you want to get to the root of the problem and it’s a talking therapy. If you don’t share a language that’s really difficult.”

Ad Infinitum production of Extraordinary Wall of Silence at Bristol Old Vic

The show, performed by three deaf actors including Gurney, and one hearing one, explores such issues. “What we discovered in our research is that if a parent discovers a child is deaf, they see it as a tragedy,” says Mann. “We are all conditioned to see it as a negative. We are exploring where that comes from and why we see it in that way. I am saying this as a hearing person who has had to explore all this and be humbled by this. To think about it differently is really difficult.”

Theatre, he says, is a brilliant vehicle for breaking down barriers. “It’s not about providing access, it’s about asking how we can move towards this other culture and embrace it. We want to start a conversation around what it means to be culturally deaf.”

Because it is a physical form, theatre comfortably accommodates BSL, or VV – visual vernacular. “There are many aspects of theatrical style that can occur in sign language; that sense of movement, the rhythm, the pace. The visual aspect of it transfers well to the stage,” Gurney says. This is emphatically not about putting a signer in one corner or giving a deaf actor a small signed part. It is about full integration, casting deaf actors as leads.

Gurney was one of the stars of Love’s Labour’s Lost. “There were a lot of deaf people involved in that production,” he notes. “But not many of the actors that I was working alongside have been able to break through into the acting profession. There are still a lot of barriers and actors themselves perhaps lack the confidence to break those barriers down. Theatre companies are now being a little more open to the sort of skills that a deaf actor can contribute. The industry is improving although we still have a long way to go.”

Deafinitely Theatre’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost at London’s Globe Theatre in 2011

There is a danger of tokenism. In Sam Gold’s King Lear on Broadway, for example, the part of Albany was taken by a deaf actor and his signer played another part; but it felt like a gesture in a gimmicky production rather than a cohesive idea. As Gurney remarks: “There is an issue where having sign language somewhere around the production helps tick the diversity box and get funding. A deaf actor is given a small role; I’d like to see them given a leading role.”

It is undoubtedly true that where deaf actors take their place alongside hearing ones, as of right, the effects can be devastating and illuminating. In the Globe’s production of As You Like It last year, the Deaf actor Nadia Nadarajah played Celia, signing her lines, with the other characters signing back to her. We didn’t “hear” Shakespeare’s words, but it didn’t matter. In debbie tucker green’s play, ear for eye, the deaf actor, Jamal Ajala, was one of a 16-strong cast of people of colour, talking about how to live in a world that is continuously hostile to them. The fact that he spoke in BSL about the difficulty of conversations with the police, made his problems more intense but nothing in the play differentiated him from the other actors.

For Ajala, aged 24, getting the part – for which he has since won a best actor Stage Debut award – was a complete surprise. “When I got an email inviting me to audition, I really didn’t know who tucker green was,” he says, talking through his friend John Boylan, and laughing at his own ignorance. “It wasn’t a role for a deaf person. I had to create the BSL for it.”

Tosin Cole in Debbie Tucker Green’s play “ear for eye”

The irony for him was that although his stage family signed, his off-stage family do not. He was born in Nigeria to a hearing family. “There is nothing for deaf children there,” he says. “Everything happened around me. I felt like I was a baby.” When he moved to the UK with his mother and sister at the age of seven, he went to a deaf primary school. “That’s when I started to sign. Really my first language is BSL.”

He initially began to act at the suggestion of a therapist. “I was a bit depressed and the counsellor encouraged me to go to a drama club,” he says. “All my feelings came out and it improved the way I felt about things.” Once he started, he was hooked. He joined the Deaf Youth Theatre and then the National Youth Theatre itself; he has acted with both Graeae and Deafinitely. Now, he is a man with a mission; he wants to play a full part in theatre. “I am really involved in the deaf community but in my work, I want to mix, deaf and hearing, black and white. It can’t just be one. You learn from other people’s experiences and cultures.”

He sees theatre as the perfect vehicle for such a desire. “Theatre is about telling stories. Deaf people’s stories have not been told. I hope we can connect with people in the audience so it means something to people who may be deaf, who may be black, who may be deaf and black.”

Even in the short time he has been involved in acting, he sees things changing, albeit slowly: “A few years ago, I felt there were barriers I couldn’t break down, but I worked at it and I am determined to keep going. Any improvement will take a while.”

Barriers are being broken in other ways too. Koko Brown is writing a “colour” trilogy of plays, the second of which, Grey, is about the racial politics of mental health. Brown is not deaf, yet she decided to perform the piece with the actor, Sapphire Joy, who plays Her, an alter-ego and companion to Brown’s character of Woman. As they talk and argue, Joy communicates in BSL.

Brown wanted to increase accessibility, to welcome D/deaf audiences. But she also thought “why not have a play with another language in it that will help a group of people to experience theatre? It could have been French or German. The reason I chose BSL is that it is so performative and so beautiful; it works with the style and the form of art I am working with.”

Koko Brown as Woman in Grey at Ovalhouse

Of course, it also worked as a metaphor: “The play is about someone living with depression and not feeling heard,” Brown explains. “What better way to explore that than to give another character a language that is non-verbal, so represent the internal version that no one else can hear?”

It is important for Brown that Joy is not an interpreter on stage, but an actress who “talks” in BSL. Her presence is easily accommodated in theatre – a form that should thrive on experimentation and on change, and on confronting tired assumptions. Brown’s intention is to increase her focus on making work that will support deaf people, black people, people with mental health issues.

“Theatre is the best place to raise awareness of something ,” she says. “You’re in a room with someone who is telling you something to your face. You can’t get away.”

Photographs Jorge Lizalde, Alex Brenner, Stephen Cummiskey and  Mariana Feijó

Further reading

Understanding Deaf Culture: in Search of Deafhood, by Paddy Ladd. A fascinating volume making the argument that Deaf cultures have an important contribution to make to human life in general.

When the Mind Hears – A History of the Deaf, by Harlan Lane. A beautifully written study that conjures vividly the prejudice and difficulty deaf people suffer in a hearing world.

Koko Brown’s play Grey. A passionate, adventurous play about depression and the way it is hidden, particularly among black women.