“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Plato
In September 2014, I was at a crossroads personally and professionally. I found myself back in London after a year away, looking for work opportunities and armed with an idea for a performance I wanted to make.
I had left London in August 2013 to work in Germany and New Zealand. New Zealand, the land of the long white cloud, hobbits and Flight of the Conchords, is where I consider home even though I haven’t lived there in nearly 10 years. I chose to leave a long tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Germany in order to be a bridesmaid at my sister’s wedding, a difficult decision at the time – the actors among you will know that turning down work goes against the grain – but one which I certainly didn’t regret.
While I was in New Zealand I met more of my sister’s friends within the Deaf community there, as well as her husband's Deaf friends visiting from America. The wedding was interpreted by a fantastic SLI, and the wedding party was both D/deaf and hearing. In the following weeks, I started to think about using sign language in my own artistic performance practice. Having studied acting and worked in the industry professionally for nearly ten years across six countries, I had not come across many Deaf theatre companies or companies making interesting accessible theatre. I had specialised in experimental physical theatre and then gone on to study imaginative text-based realist performance at Stella Adler, and I had always been interested in personal, autobiographical performance, but it had not occurred to me until this point to look to my own background - a family that communicates using a mixture of spoken English, New Zealand sign language, sign supported English and home sign - as inspiration for my work.
Returning to the UK with a kernel of an idea for a show, various pieces of research, transcripts of interviews I had conducted, and a couple of scenes written, I wasn’t really sure how to go about taking things further. I’d run a fringe theatre company with two friends in Australia a few years prior but since moving to the UK I had worked exclusively on theatre and film projects for other companies. I knew I wanted to get back to making my own work, but I didn’t have the professional networks set up to make the process smoother.
Then I found Jennifer Bates and The Deaf & Hearing Ensemble.
After an initial meeting to discuss the idea for the show, which I had tentatively named People of the Eye*, Jennifer and I met in a rehearsal room at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, where she had recently become a Masters student, to try a couple of scenes - the two which were the most developed based on work I had already done on them. Then Jennifer was sent some information about a scratch night at the Battersea Arts Centre and we decided we may as well apply, thinking we probably wouldn’t be selected. But we were. Jen knew Sophie Stone was perfect for the project, and despite the fact that we didn’t have any money at all, Sophie generously agreed to be involved. We only had two rushed rehearsals to create a 10 minute piece, but we instantly found a shared language, connection with the material and desire to make something worthwhile.
Myself and Sophie in our first scratch performance at BAC, December 2014
The beginning of 2015 brought an Arts Council application and an office/rehearsal space at LimeWharf in Hackney, where the team has been unfailingly supportive to artists such as ourselves and we made many valuable connections. For two wonderful weeks in April we were able to experiment and play. Jennifer strongly believes in utilising play theory in her rehearsals. I was very open to making changes to my written material, using it as a basis to devise from but to add or discard ideas where necessary, and Sophie is a very skilled and generous deviser, willing to contribute her own experiences and boundless imagination. We were also supported by outside eyes Stephen Collins, Nadia Nadarajah, David Sands, Tessa Parr and Lucy Ellinson. Our technical creative team Emma Houston, Gerry Maguire, Oliver Savidge and David Monteith-Hodge made invaluable contributions.
Rehearsal shots from our 2 week Research & Development at LimeWharf. Photos by David Monteith-Hodge www.photographise.com
We decided to invite the audience to share in open discussions after our first two performances - nerve-wracking for the artists, but ultimately very worthwhile. The company’s aim to create a space in which barriers can be broken down – performer/audience, D(d)eaf/hearing, across ages and cultural backgrounds – means that it makes sense for us to ask our audiences directly what they like and what they want to see more of.
A small section of the post show discussion at LimeWharf, April 2015. From left: Sophie Stone, Erin Siobhan Hutching, Jennifer Bates, Sophie Allen (SLI)
Around this time we began to correspond with Matthew Caines, the editor of the Cultural Professionals section of the Guardian, who invited us to contribute an opinion piece. This really gave us the opportunity to think about our voice as a company, and what we have to say. Editing four artist's contributions down to the required word limit was probably the most challenging part!
We were invited to present 20 minutes of People of the Eye at Pulse Festival at the New Wosley in Ipswich, for the Suitcase Prize curated by China Plate, and to present the full work in progress piece for the Last Word Festival at The Roundhouse in London the next day. This was the second time the company had been invited to perform at The Roundhouse, and we hope for a long and healthy relationship with that wonderful venue. We were able to have a further two days of rehearsal before these performances, in which we added some material which we hadn’t had time to rehearse in our initial two week R&D, and rehearse some new transitions for the selection of scenes we would be doing at Pulse Festival. During this weekend Sophie and I stayed overnight in shared accommodation and we were set a series of tasks by Jennifer to develop our “sisterly” relationship outside the rehearsal room.
So that was May 2015. We knew we would be performing the piece at Forest Fringe in August, and I spent some time after The Roundhouse performance restructuring the material. We were fortunate to be offered a slot at Shuffle Festival in Mile End in July, in which we were able to trial the new structure and experience an outdoor festival environment in which audience members were free to come and go as they pleased. We even had a dog run on “stage” at one point! It was a really valuable experience because we were able to test ourselves by performing in a non-traditional space, and we received very positive feedback for our performance despite not having things we might take for granted in a more traditional venue, such as the ability to black out the space completely. The concept of Shuffle Festival, which is designed to bring together the community in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park with outdoor films and performances, is fantastic and it relies on volunteers. The festival began in 2013 and is curated by a local resident you may have heard of, filmmaker Danny Boyle.
At the end of July I headed up to Edinburgh to start working for the Gilded Balloon. The Fringe Festival is a truly unique environment, and it completely consumes those who venture to take part in it. I saw about 50 shows, of varying quality, but each of them helped me solidify my own ideas about what I wanted an audience member to take away from my work. Some particularly excellent pieces which were accessible for Deaf audiences were Can I Start Again Please by Sue McLaine and Nadia Nadarajah (who we’re proud to say is part of our Ensemble) and Graeae’s The Solid Life of Sugar Water. Inspiring personal pieces framed in original, innovative ways such as Jo Clifford’s The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven and Emma Frankland’s None of Us is Yet a Robot; beautiful physical theatre like Gecko’s Institute; and smart, snappy new writing like Made in China’s Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me, Ruaraidh Murray’s Allie and Action Hero’s Wrecking Ball also stood out as containing elements of the kind of theatre I’d like to make.
A number of the shows that I’ve listed were also part of the Forest Fringe's fantastic program and The Deaf & Hearing Ensemble’s Access Day there, organised with Solar Bear Theatre Company. Although I had little to do with the organisation of this (Jennifer does an amazing job at matching theatre companies with BSL interpreters) it was really gratifying to see exciting Fringe shows made accessible to D/deaf audience members, and to witness how allowing an interpreter to become part of the piece rather than standing off to one side can add an additional rich layer to the work. Forest Fringe is an essential part of the theatrical landscape, a safe, supportive environment for artists to present experimental, innovative and at times provocative work. We hope our collaboration with Andy, Ira and Deborah will continue for a long time. Forest Fringe also hosted the iF Platform's forum "iF Not Now, When?" on the same day as our Access Day, which meant we were able to share a venue with artists we admire such as Jenny Sealey of Graeae Theatre Company and Jess Thom (Tourretteshero) who were speaking in the forum, as well as catch up with the wonderful Paula Garfield from Deafinitely Theatre, who has been a real support to our company. As well as performing People of the Eye (still in a work in progress stage, but much further along than the early showings) and organising the interpreters for the performances, the Ensemble also set up a fun play area, created by our enthusiastic interns Rachael Merry and Angel Stone.
Throughout the various work in progress incarnations of People of The Eye that we had performed, we had struggled to find an ending, feeling that the story was unfinished. Perhaps the pressure of telling a story which is so personal to all of us contributed to this. We tried many different things but each time the story felt incomplete – fine for a work in progress, but we are aiming towards a full show. Finally, during our only day of rehearsal before Forest Fringe, something clicked. The humour in the piece is very important to us, as is the relationship between the two central characters, the sisters. We were able to develop an ending for this performance which felt right, and we were told by several audience members that we should take the “work in progress” off our show title, as it felt more complete than many other shows they’d seen at the Fringe. The company agreed that this was the best performance we had done yet, but we also agreed that we want to rework it significantly before we present it as a full show in 2016.
At this point in time we are looking for a videographer/animator to work with us to visually represent soundscape and develop creative captioning. We would love to work with a D/deaf animator or videographer alongside our hearing soundscape artist, in the spirit of the Deaf & Hearing Ensemble. We are also looking for a D/deaf choreographer to work with us on movement and improve our BSL for performance. We’ve got some exciting opportunities on the cards for this show in 2016 which we hope to confirm and share very soon!
In addition to working on People of the Eye, The Deaf & Hearing Ensemble is producing an event on 1st March at Genesis Cinema where artists are invited to present 10 minute scratch pieces which are accessible for D/deaf and hearing audiences. We are aware that there aren't many opportunities for D/deaf artists to present work in progress pieces in the ‘mainstream’ theatre community, and that many hearing artists are interested in developing accessibility in their work but they may not be sure how to approach it. We hope to provide a platform for both of these things to occur.
In October, Jennifer and Sophie facilitated a workshop with Southwark Playhouse's Young Company which was received enthusiastically. Hopefully we will be able to expand our work with Southwark Playhouse to include running workshops for a group of young Deaf & Hearing perfomers in 2016. Ensemble members Nadia Nadarajah and David Sands ran a schools workshop which received excellent feedback earlier in the year, and this is an area we'd like to move into. Jennifer also ran a workshop at Solar Bear's Progression 2015 conference, setting the attendees of her workshop playful tasks to improve communication and break down barriers.
The Ensemble has also been awarded a commission to conduct a Research and Development with the aim of creating an outdoor performance for Liberty Festival.
Apart from working with the DH Ensemble, in 2015 I have been lucky enough to work with a range of talented artists - I reunited with La JohnJoseph to being work on a new piece; worked with a new immersive heatre company Hush Hush Hoopla; continued producing my own staged play reading event World Dramaturgy with Elena Liutkute focussing on international scripts ; worked on a theatre research week with Admiration Theatre; and appeared in a few small TV and commercial roles. I have new actor representation - APM Associates. All of this work is significant. However, I feel that I have found a home in a supportive environment and a niche for myself as an artist in the cultural landscape with The Ensemble, contributing what I can as a performer, producer, deviser and writer to helping this exciting, unique company grow. The artists who have worked with The Deaf & Hearing Ensemble rotate on a project by project basis but once you are part of the Ensemble, you always will be. We look forward to welcoming new members in 2016.
* "They are first, last, and all the time the people of the eye.” – G. Veditz, 1910. This was the inspiration for the name of the play.
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)
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
Check out our video teaser from our LimeWharf work in progress....#PeopleoftheEye #TheDeafandHearingEnsemble
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!