Deaf theatre – integration and moving forward in the artistic sector

Convener(s): Miriam Zendle ([email protected]/@mzendle)

Participants: Caro Parkes, Chris Grady, Sarah Punson, Martin McLean, Jenn Lunn, Ashley Scott Layton and other butterflies

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

Where is deaf theatre at the moment?

Deafinitely Theatre are doing good work. Writing courses for deaf people been run for past 5 years, have had panel of judges from Royal Court, Soho, Complicite. 4 people came on course this year – taking initial idea to full length play. Want to encourage them and build confidence.

Access to theatre is improving through captioned performances, but theatre writers have no experience of deaf world – need more deaf people to take control writing plays.

Kate O’Reilly – worked with deaf actors with Fingersmith. Also Jinx Sinclair and Jaine Draper (spelling – not sure of names!)

Other organisations that are doing good work – Graeae and Fittings Multimedia Arts. De Roots (??) aimed at young children. But it’s hard for deaf actors to get jobs and work full-time within industry.

BSL: with signing it’s easy to miss on stage who’s speaking as you have to face out all the time. Hearing people might not see it as natural but if done well it can be – and it works.

It’s a skill to sign and act, to make it look natural and smooth.

Integration – Graeae have both deaf and hearing working together, BSL interpreter on stage. Have to see in order to understand.

There are varying degrees of deafness – and if you grew up in hearing family, would have different experience to growing up in deaf family. For many deaf people, sign is not their first language, and it’s not natural to them. 

Complex situation – hearing therapy helped Caro with speaking.

Signing gives 5 year olds a vocabulary of 5000, while hearing children 2/3000. Children are more visually receptive. Language comes first for them.

Should you send kids to deaf/hearing school? Education has big impact.

Policy – Martin never saw people sign growing up, wanted to but couldn’t engage. Parents went to sign language course and tried to teach him but he wasn’t keen!

NDCS – National Deaf Children’s Society.

BSL is now recognised as official language – but nowadays children have cochlear implants, many have memory of speech, so are less people using sign cos of that? Schools are now allowed to teach kids in sign language, though.

But BSL is also evolving and changing as any language would – words change.

Situation complicated with TV and theatre – language vs style on stage. BSL vocab – sign doesn’t always match what is translated – often meaning rather than word for word.

Deaf people want more sign language in all areas – stage, TV, film.

Needs to be space for sign language on stage to evolve into a theatrical voice. Not enough exploration into poetry of language. 

Complicated situation with deaf scripts – sign is visual, so to translate into English language, then out again, creates issues. Something gets lost in translation.

Caro – maybe Deafinitely should go to Europe and look at physical theatre communication there.

Gentleman from Perfect Pitch saw Big River in NY, performed bilingually – signed in poetry/song. Complete experience. ASL (American Sign Language) honoured, not happening so much in UK.

Same with the Miracle Worker – signed with extra characters on stage in costume/mingling, honoured and kept theatrical illusion.

Helen Keller is admired in US – not talked about so much her.

There is a deaf-led film industry.

Caro: Glass ceiling for deaf theatre, Deafinitely are high up, have done plays at Soho etc, but are tapping away at ceiling and limitations in place currently.

Lots of technical things to be covered if you are putting on a show, hard to bring everything together, even though London is best place in world for theatre.

Still new medium – exploration to be done. Is going on at moment with voiceovers, sub/surtitling,.

Deaf person can appreciate culture better – for hearing writer, can’t go so deep into character as lacks awareness.

Martin – deaf character in Tribes weak character.

Caro toured one-woman show about a funeral director who becomes a diva through signed song. Post-show discussion, some said if they’d known she was deaf before they might not have come – stigma of ‘deaf and disability theatre’.

Similar situation with women/black/Asian theatre.

BBC have strict policy – casting directors have to make sure that if a character is not clearly defined as a certain thing, they could be Asian/black/etc.

People are afraid to write gay characters – issue could take over play. Same issue with deaf. They don’t want it to take over play.

Can be done – eg Graeae’s Reasons To Be Cheerful – one deaf character, didn’t take over play.

Separate issue of ‘cripping up’ ‘deafing up’ – whole argument about hearing/deaf actors.

Have to bear equality and fairness in mind but at same time, deaf actors aren’t getting opportunities so is access the thing?

How can we move forward, making theatre more accessible, more natural environment?

Not just about building into the budget, or making it big issue, is fundamental issue to do with disabled performers and access to drama school – physical, language access, accessible exercises and dancing/singing/acting.

One participant went to special needs school, was told she wouldn’t even achieve a normal job in daily life!

What is root of issue? Confidence. Not enough around. History of bad experiences for disabled performers – hearing seen as barrier. Frustrating. To some extent performers expect perfect opp to come to them. Need to start rolling sleeves up.

Pigeon-holing yourself: Caro used to work in mainstream, recently done great deal of deaf theatre. But deaf performers can theoretically play anything – plus theatre is more open to ‘weirdness’. 

Difficult for TV – directors can be happy with abilities but have pressure from producers. Reasons don’t stand up but if directors made it clearer, maybe would get somewhere. How much control do they realistically have?

Another big issue with people saying ‘I’m not being rude’ ‘I hope I’m not offending’ – creates a culture of them/us.

People are scared of saying the wrong thing, but deaf people have heard it all before. Get it wrong, stop being scared, stop thinking about yourself so much.

Theatre is currently separate for deaf people also because they often live separately, need to break down barriers and get them more involved in the mainstream. Martin believes lack of integration, should all just go to pub and get pissed and then the ‘fear’ of meeting a deaf person would go away! 

The only way to learn about deaf people is to integrate and engage.