From 7th - 18th April I was fortunate enough to spend almost all of my time (apart from the few hours of sleep I got each night!) with an incredibly talented company of artists of which I am honored to now be a member, The Deaf & Hearing Ensemble. We were conducting a Research & Development period for a piece I've written called People of the Eye. These generous spirits brought so much energy, vitality, intelligence and talent with them into the rehearsal room that we were able to create something we were really proud of in 9 days.
It wasn't without its challenges. The first week was a joyful time of discovery and play, but when the reality of Week 2 hit us over the head with a mimed saucepan (you might get this if you saw the performance....) we remembered that we weren't just there to frolic around making artistic discoveries and playing children's games in the street, scaring all the hipsters working in the area, but we had to get up in front of not one but two audiences in a matter of days and show them something. We all started to feel the strain. The weight of responsibility for the story we were telling and the idea of family and culture we were representing felt too much at some points. We were telling a story of Deafness, but we had to keep reminding ourselves that we were also telling an individual story, and that we couldn't possibly represent every experience of Deafness. On top of that, unlike many other plays written about D/deafness and disability, we were coming from a real place of truth. My story is inspired by my upbringing with my sister who is deaf, and the other main performer Sophie is deaf herself. We also invited four members of the Ensemble, three D/deaf and one hearing (so much gratitude to Stephen Collins, David Sands, Nadia Nadarajah and Tessa Parr) to act as "outside eyes" and offer their insight and opinions. It really matters to us that we represent both Deaf and hearing perspectives, looking through the eyes of Deaf and hearing characters, artists and audiences to tell our story, rather than having it skewed towards one perspective.
After our work in progress performances we held Q&A sessions where we offered the audience the opportunity to give us feedback. I was personally heartened by the feedback from both D/deaf and hearing members of the audience. It was wonderful to know that people either learnt something really fascinating, or were able to relate and reminisce about their own childhood, and that above all people related to this story of family. Many people also commented about how included they had felt during the performance. We will be considering all the suggestions made and seeing what we can do with them to build this project into a longer production.
I have been upset lately hearing about some playwrights and theatre companies presenting a picture of disability which is depressing and sensationalized, with no disabled artists involved in the process. I was saddened to hear that there is reportedly a production of Children of a Lesser God being staged in a European country with no D/deaf actors at all. Having worked as an artist in a rehearsal process with D/deaf performers I can unequivocally say that it's more than worth any accommodations that have to be made which really aren't that difficult at all (such as employing a Sign Language Interpreter - which actually really enhanced our process as they were happy to join in and share their own experiences). And I don't say that just because it's absolutely essential to have representation by D/deaf or disabled artists in the room when the story being told reflects their experience to add real depth and truth to the story. That seems obvious to me. I also say it because based on my experiences I would be privileged to work with these world class artists on any production, regardless of the subject matter. I don't believe that able-bodied actors should never play a character with a disability or a different background to them. Sometimes this is necessary for various reasons and that is why we train as actors, to play characters who may be quite different to us. However I do disagree with the exclusion of Deaf or disabled artists from the process because it is "too difficult to communicate". If it's too difficult, you shouldn't be making a piece of work about that experience.
On a personal note, I just want to say a little something about a few special people. I met Jennifer Bates about six months ago when I went for an interview for a zumba teacher role. Call it providence, divine intervention, fate...we were meant to meet! It's rare to find someone else who is so totally on the same page as you. We encourage each other, and our "yeah, why not?" attitude meant that we went from having a phone conversation, to a coffee, to a rehearsal, to a slot at a scratch night at the Battersea Arts Centre, to an Arts Council application, an office, a rehearsal period and two performances in a matter of months! Jen - you're amazing. I'm grateful that we met, and I'm excited for the journey that is to come.
One of the most special things that Jen has brought me is a gorgeous, incredibly talented lady called Sophie Stone. Sophie is the kind of performer that other performers dream of working with. She's generous, inventive, charismatic, and she cares so much about everything that she works on. Sophie, I know you found this project difficult at times as it was very personal for both of us. Thank you for all of your support and energy. And for all the bruises...... (yup, still milking it....)
Our technical creatives Oliver Savage, Gerry Maguire and Emma Houston joined us on the journey at the beginning of April, and they dealt with the challenge of working with a company that insists on experimenting constantly with grace and aplomb! Our desire to really work through the subject matter and try lots of different things meant that they had to make lots of changes along the way. I had envisioned a really tech-heavy production and I was always aware how difficult this would be to pull off in two weeks. I was really pleased with what they managed to produce, and I'm full of ideas for how we could make things even more interesting (Glad to hear that guys?....)
We also had the luxury of an in-house photographer David Monteith-Hodge to document the process. As he is also my boyfriend I was fortunately able to veto the ones where I'm pulling particularly unattractive faces!
Where to from here?
We've got a workshop to run, an article for the Guardian Disability Series to write, and another day of rehearsal before we perform at Pulse Festival and The Roundhouse. We are going to compile all the feedback we received and make an action plan for the future, as well as report back to the Arts Council to demonstrate how their support has been used. We're looking for a fabulous producer who cares about accessibility and we want to get back into a rehearsal room towards the end of the year for about four weeks to make the final version of this show!