Creating a Deaf and hearing theatre ensemble in New Zealand.

 

'At the end of my hands'. Equal Voices Arts. Photo: Sycamore Media

‘At the end of my hands’. Equal Voices Arts. Photo: Sycamore Media

A GUEST BLOG FROM LAURA HAUGHEY IN NEW ZEALAND:

I write this blog post after sitting down for the first time to reflect upon Equal Voices Art’s latest performance project, ‘At The End Of My Hands’. It opened at the beginning of May to full audiences in Hamilton, New Zealand, and is currently in preparation to go to Auckland at the end of May.

What a whirlwind adventure the process has been!

I arrived in New Zealand 15 months ago to start teaching theatre studies at the University of Waikato. I don’t have a traditional background in theatre, but trained as a physiotherapist, whilst working as a performer in a professional Deaf-led dance theatre company. Consequently, the body, how we move, how we communicate and how we share what it is like to be a human being with other human beings (a concern of theatre I make!), are all primary concerns of mine.

I wanted to make a show with Deaf actors and hearing actors, and work on developing an aesthetic of manual languages fused with voice, gesture, physical storytelling and visual vernacular. Deaf actors inherently understand what it means to work through the body and to place the body at the centre of the work.

Inclusive theatre is still emerging in New Zealand, and I couldn’t find any current professional activity of Deaf actors or performances designed for Deaf and hearing audiences, so finding a starting place was key.

This starting place came in the shape of Kayte Shaw, a community development Kaituitui (Kaituitui: Maori word for creating links, and connecting people) working for the wonderful organisation Deaf Aotearoa. As a hearing person from overseas, I needed to tread carefully and sensitively. I am not new to Deaf culture, having worked within Deaf-led theatre for my formative years, but I was new to Deaf culture here in New Zealand, and needed to show my respect to that community by making connections slowly. Kayte enabled me to offer introductory sign theatre workshops to the Deaf community in Waikato. We recorded videos for the Deaf community so all the information was in their first language (New Zealand Sign Language) and Kayte worked hard to get the news out to everyone who may be interested. We booked an NZSL interpreter to support me in delivering the sessions as I sign in BSL (British Sign Language), and am new to the unique manual language that is NZSL. The languages have similarities (BSL, NZSL and AUSLAN all belong to the same family of sign languages), but there are specific cultural and linguistic differences that make NZSL unique.

The theatre workshops were a success. We had between 15 – 17 Deaf people attend the workshops, which I led using BSL and the interpreter helped me to make the leap to NZSL (as well as lots of side coaching from the group!)

 

'At the end of my hands' by Equal Voices Arts. Photo: Sycamore Media

‘At the end of my hands’ by Equal Voices Arts. Photo: Sycamore Media

The workshops enabled us to build a shared physical language for ways of working, starting points for telling stories, and choreographic improvisations. The workshops allowed us to see which ‘theatre specific signs’ weren’t familiar to the group, and to attempt to find ways to explain the concepts behind such signs.

From the workshops came the auditions. We were looking for four Deaf actors and two hearing actors (who were familiar with Deaf culture and physically strong storytellers). The final ensemble consisted of 4 Deaf actors who have NZSL as their first language, 1 hearing actor with Serbian as his first language and 1 hearing actor who was familiar with sign language and Deaf culture and had attended the sign theatre workshops.

We also booked an experienced interpreter, Kelly Hodgins (who has interpreted for stage shows), for the rehearsal process. Alongside Kelly, we also worked with Nicola Clements, who has theatre experience and is training to be a NZSL interpreter. There is very little work like this going on in New Zealand, so it was an experiment for all concerned. Nicola helped us to make the connections I needed to make the working process a reality.

Beginning a devising process which crosses cultures and languages needs to find a starting point where all can move from, so we started by telling stories. Stories about communication, culture, making friends, Deaf culture, the oppression of Sign Languages (three of our Deaf actors were banned from using sign language in school in the dark days of oralism) were all explored and told, without words and signs at first – just using our bodies. Signs and words followed, as did visual vernacular, gestural storytelling and universal modes of expression.

'At the end of my hands', Equal Voices Arts. Photo: Sycamore Media.

‘At the end of my hands’, Equal Voices Arts. Photo: Sycamore Media.

The piece emerged quickly and strongly. These were stories that needed to be told, and they jumped from people’s hands and bodies. There was an immediacy and urgency to set them free. Not all the performance is signed, and very little is spoken. All that is spoken is not interpreted into sign and all that is signed is not interpreted into spoken English. Instead, the two languages sit side by side, explored equally (and given equal status), but not in parallel. The Deaf audience get a slightly different narrative to the hearing audience, and this is deliberate. Most of the Deaf audience know these stories, they know sign languages worldwide were banned, they know what that oppression has done to the development of the language and cultures in the Deaf communities worldwide. For most of our hearing audience, these stories were new, and shocking. And watching alongside a Deaf audience changes their perceptions hugely.

The feedback from the sell-out Hamilton shows was hugely supportive, warm and affirmative of the stories shared.

The piece is looking forward to going to Auckland next, where it will be performed on the 30th May at TAPAC (The Auckland Performing Arts Centre).

We can’t wait to see where it will go next…

 

This project was funded by the Contestable Research Fund from the Faculty or Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Waikato and supported by Deaf Aotearoa. Equal Voices are grateful to Kaite O’Reilly for mentorship and guidance throughout.

Laura Haughey

Laura Haughey

BIOG:
Dr.Laura Haughey is a theatre director, movement director and actor trainer with an interest in the body and communication. She moved to New Zealand in 2014 to teach theatre at the University of Waikato. Laura runs Equal Voices Arts ( http://www.equalvoices.co.uk), delivering projects in both the UK and NZ.

Copyright Laura Haughey May 2015.

Photographs of performance ‘At the end of my hands’ courtesy of Sycamore Media

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