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Guardian Article

On Tuesday 12th May, an article written by members of The Deaf & Hearing Ensemble about our show People of the Eye was published in the Guardian.

You can see the article on the Guardian website here

As we had a word limit for the article, The Guardian wasn't able to publish the full text we sent them. You can read the full version below. 

All photos by David Monteith-Hodge (Photographise)

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The Deaf and Hearing Ensemble are a group of D/deaf and hearing artists who come together to tell stories. Our work can include British Sign Language, Spoken English, projection, movement, mime, music and soundscapes. All of our work is accessible for D/deaf, hard of hearing and hearing audiences.

The company formed in 2013 and consists of professional, experienced freelance theatre practitioners who have worked with companies such as the National Theatre, the Royal Court, RSC, Solar Bear, Graeae and Deafinitely Theatre.

Our latest project is a script written by performer Erin Siobhan Hutching called People of the Eye, based on her experience of growing up with a deaf sister, learning sign language and being introduced to Deaf culture. This is a new kind of project for The DH Ensemble as our previous work never directly addressed the subject of Deafness.

We received funding from the Arts Council England to conduct a two week Research and Development period. Our primary team consisted of a hearing director who is experienced working with D/deaf artists; a hearing writer/performer who has a Deaf family member; a performer who is deaf; three hearing technical creatives working on lighting, film and soundscape who had never worked with D/deaf artists before; three D/deaf “outside eyes” brought into provide feedback and personal insights; and two sign language interpreters. Some members of the artistic and technical team have shared their thoughts on the process.  

 Erin Siobhan Hutching - Writer/Performer

In my experience theatre aimed at both D/deaf and hearing audiences that gives them an equal experience is unusual, and that’s what I wanted to create. This project is based on the experiences of my family and friends who are affected by deafness (directly or indirectly). It celebrates the performative beauty of sign language and Deaf culture without shying away from the complex idea of culture versus disability.

I used a mix of theatrical conventions including audience participation, physical theatre and video projections, striving to make accessibility part of the aesthetic instead of a tag-on. I wanted sound to be conveyed visually for the D/deaf audience, while allowing the hearing audience an insight into what the D/deaf experience of the world may be. I organised the script visually, each section (i.e. physical action, sound, film, subtitles) colour-coded to explain how it would happen simultaneously. A few scenes were changed significantly in rehearsal as sometimes visual elements that seemed right in my head didn't quite translate in practice, or in response to feedback from Deaf “outside eyes”. As the project develops we plan to have a D/deaf and hearing creative working together in each aspect of production, to present a balanced viewpoint.  

This is a story of D/deafness, but also an individual story about a family coming from a real place of truth. Everyone involved in the process brought their own experiences to the table, even the sign language interpreters who were generous enough to share their own insights as hearing professionals in a D/deaf world. As well as assisting Sophie’s access, watching them also helped improve my own sign language skills. I use New Zealand sign which is very similar to BSL but not exactly the same (the difference is rather like someone speaking in a very strong accent!)   

 Sophie Stone – Performer and co-founder of The Deaf and Hearing Ensemble

 The DH Ensemble strives to make work that is collaborative, inclusive and accessible. We relish the challenge of telling stories from many perspectives and looks for ways to include the audience in the journey of discovery. With Erin’s story, we knew her words came from a place of truth and wanted to honour that with shared experiences of the ensemble.

 The team have a wealth of knowledge and imagination that creates something rich and whole; drawing on experiences, culture and emotional/mental integrity, shared by honest dialogue and discovering relationships between the literal and physical.

 I feel a responsibility as an artist to represent things authentically within the realms of imagination and find there is so much more to play with when there is a richness of diverse experience. Where there is limitation and no room for mistakes, how do we ever truly discover the unexplored, the hidden, the unheard?

 Working in the room with two artists, Jen & Erin, who can sign (Scottish & New Zealand Signs for cultural spice!) helped my own personal access. Working with Emma Houston on sound and Gerry Maguire on visuals meant we could align digital manifestations to sound so Deaf audience members could experience sound changes visually – and equally as importantly, both Deaf and hearing audiences were perceiving the experience of, for example, a hearing test and the projected internal breakdown as equally as possible.

 I’ve learnt, as a part of a collaborative team, my perspective is my voice, and my voice can be ‘heard’ within every aspect of the creative process as much as everyone else’s.

 Oliver Savidge – Technical Manager

Working on People of the Eye was definitely an eye opener for me. As Erin’s story is so personal, it was always important for the piece to be respectful and inclusive.  One of the key things I noticed early on in the process of devising the show was the communication.  As the show has a deaf actor, Sophie, I always imagined that communication could be tricky, but on this project that wasn’t the case at all. As Erin and Jennifer can both sign, at times I felt like a minority as I am not able to sign!

The rehearsal room was the same as any other project, only with language not only from the mouth, but also from the body. As sign language uses the body so much, this means the language itself is very open. BSL immediately incudes every member of that conversation, and welcomes you the moment you enter the room. This was a great asset to the devising process.

Another interesting discovery for me, as a technical manager, was how to cue somebody onstage who is deaf as the theatre usually uses sound cues. We had this great cue where we flashed the lights, which was not just beneficial for Sophie, acting as a visual cue, but also Erin, as she was performing with video behind her. Regardless of hearing ability, both actors found this method of cueing practical, and we ended up using the lights flashing throughout the whole scene, as it looked so good! This show was full of lots of little challenges, and we always had fun finding solutions.

 Jennifer K. Bates – Director and co-founder of The Deaf and Hearing Ensemble

For me, it’s always about the people in the room. I thrive when I look around the rehearsal room and see these generous artists giving their all to a project: bringing their skills, qualities and personal experiences and offering them as gifts. This way of working feels rich, potent and surprising.  In my view, theatre is about communication: characters communicating to one another and the actors and the audience communicating in a series of live moments of genuine interaction.

Audiences aren’t given much time to relax at the beginning of our latest production as it involves quite a bit of participation. This exploration in communication is what we find most interesting, particularly within a company of people who communicate in very different ways. I imagine it’s much the same in any theatre company that is bilingual or uses interpreters to help aid communication in the rehearsal room. In fact I’ve found that some of the most exciting and fullest moments are when the communication breaks down and mistakes are made, much like in ‘real’ life!

A primary aim of the work is that it is not only accessible but a shared experience for Deaf, hard of hearing and hearing audiences. To do this we must always be questioning what each audience member is able to receive from the performance, our general rule is: whatever is seen is heard and whatever is heard is seen. A typical rehearsal will consist of me harassing the video designer with notes like “I can hear action and I can’t see it. I need to see it”. This can be tiny but if the hearing audience knows something that the D/deaf audience doesn’t we need to work out a way to change it. I can also be found having chats with the performers such as “if this character is using BSL, do we need a voice over or projected text for the non BSL users?” The most important thing when it comes to both these points is that we need to solve it in the most appropriate way in relation to the world of the play and the story that we are telling.

We like to play and make each other laugh. We experiment with different technologies to make sound visual; sometimes we use beautiful subtitles, or we write on paper, or we don’t use language at all and the meaning is clear through the intention and performance. We give our audiences the credit they deserve. We want them to take from the piece what they want, maybe it makes them think, maybe they can relate and maybe they laugh along the way too.

People of the Eye will have work in progress performances at Pulse Festival and The Roundhouse in May. Information available at www.thedeafandhearingensemble.com