Kaite asked me to write a guest blog about my experiences at the Unlimited Festival in London and I’m delighted to do so. I was overwhelmed by the vibrant and cheerful atmosphere at the festival – people discussing in speech and sign, moving around between workshops, panel discussions, performances, outdoor events, cafés and screenings of the Paralympic games. I came home to Berlin with so many new impressions and thoughts that I really struggle to arrange them in any systematic order. As a PhD student in theatre and peformance studies, I’m doing research about performances directed to Deaf and hearing audiences – which was my main reason for travelling to London. But as I have for once the opportunity not, or at least not only to write about my research topic, I prefer writing down some random impressions I got from the festival. As I don’t have much experience in disability arts, it was especially this part of the festival which delighted, surprised and challenged me the most. And now for my private Unlimited brainstorming.
David Toole – this is my first association when I think of Unlimited. He really was a revelation to me – as a dancer, actor and performer. I didn’ know him before and saw him for the first time in „In Water I’m Weightless“, Kaite’s Unlimited concession. Watching him performing opened for me a completely new notion what human body movement can be. Due to his individual movement pattern – he walks on his hands – he is capable of moving in a way which I haven’t seen before. Walking, dancing, climbing and jumping on his hands, he sometimes seemed unaffected by gravity. I have never seen before someone switching so quickly between elegance, ferocity, vulnerability and buoyancy in his movements. I’m sorry, I’m incapable of describing it any better – even in German I couldn’t. If you don’t know him (and even if you do know him), I advise you to do the same what I did when I came home: go on Youtube and watch David Toole dance videos.
Karina Jones, actress in „In Water I’m Weightless“, performed a monologue [written by Kaite] about visual impairment. From all the beautiful text passages I heard, read and saw that evening, it was this one which opened me a completely new perspective on vision and impairment. In her speech she denies her vision to be passive and fragmented. On the contrary, with her sight she restructures the world around her. By one glance she is able to flatten buildings to surfaces – mere colours and lines. „My sight isn’t broken, rather it breaks the world!“ Of course I know that the so called reality is formed by our perception of it – but it never came to my mind that perception alone can be seen as an active shaping of our surroundings and that a visual impairment just is another mode of this creative process. By her tragicomic reference to the danger of uncovered manholes, Jones makes sure that this monologue is to be understood as an expression of confidence, not of denial.
In the panel discussion „Making creative performance for Deaf and hearing audiences“, Ramesh Meyyappan, Kaite O’Reilly, Jenny Sealey and Sophie Woolley agreed that captioning and sign language interpretation of performances shouldn’t be an afterthought but rather a part of the creative process of writing and staging a play. Especially in National Theatre Wales’ production of Kaite’s play, the interpreter was extremely present on stage. Jo Ross did a great job in performing not a mere interpretation, but a completely new expression of the same concept that the speaking actors performed.
Two productions which were directed to a Deaf and hearing audience made use of aerial acrobarics. Graeae’s „Garden“ created beautiful poetic images by letting some actors climb and swing on huge flexible poles, looking like flowers in the wind. While this seemed to me rather like an illustration of a kind of fairy world, Ramesh Meyyappan’s use of ropes in „Skewered Snails“ was a proper narrative technique. It was astonishing how the use of space by climbing and swinging on ropes could be used to depict the characters and their relations to each other. In my opinion, Ramesh’s aerial acrobatics not only gave the audience a reason to watch in wonderment, but was – just as his gesture, mimics and choreography – an elaborate method to tell a plot without words. I can’t wait to see which performance techniques Ramesh will explore next.
Wherever Deaf and hearing people meet, communication is definitely an issue. In the meantime I’m quite used to communicate in international contexts. By combining German Sign Language, some BSL and international signs I’ve learned, fingerspelling (not in Britain, though, as Britain and Germany use different finger alphabets), mouthing, pantomime and especcially a lot of patience and goodwill on both sides, I had a lot of nice after show talks with Deaf and hearing artists, performers and spectators from all over the world. It feels always like a huge success to me and shows me that communication may not be easy, but is always possible.
Certainly the Southbank Centre in London is a good place for casual after show encounters. It may look like a parking deck from the outside, and the actual performance spaces seemed rather like a congress venue to me than a theatre space, but the wonderful terraces and sunlit halls encouraged meeting, talking in speech and sign.
During my stay in London, I wondered how the situation in Germany was like. As I said, I am not and expert in disability issues, but I have the impression that Britain has already achieved a lot which in Germany is still in its beginnings. Not only the overall accessibility of buildings, sights and public transport seemed to me better in London, but also in the sector of arts I think that Germany can get a lot of inspiration from Britain. Of course there exist some wonderful groups and artists in the sector of Deaf and disability theatre – but I doubt if it was possible to organize a festival on the same artistic level like Unlimited with German artists only.
But something is happening – first steps have been made. There are some groups which explore the possibilites of „aestetic access“ (a new term I learned in London, apparently mainly in use in Australia) and there exist projects in which Deaf, disabled and/or hearing and able-bodied artists cooperate and create new theatre and dance aesthetics. There is a slowly growing academic research interest in Deaf and disability arts and I’m proud to be part of it. I hope there is still more to come.
I still could write so much more, about the strange notion of „inspiring“ paralympic „superhumans“ and signing Drag Queen Bees, unreliable audio despcriptors and confusion about people’s hearing status, but I guess these few outlines should be enough to give an idea of my wonderful and inspiring experiences at Unlimited festival.
Rafael Ugarte Chacón is doctoral student at the Institute for Theatre Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. He is writing his thesis about aesthetic means in artistic performances for Deaf and hearing audiences.