Tag Archives: Deaf culture

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


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

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

Deaf and disabled actors wanted – RSC and National Theatre general auditions

Those who know my work within disability arts and Deaf culture, or have been following this blog for some time, will know my position on casting and the (mis)representations of disability on stage.



Cast of 'In Water I'm Weightless' by O'Reilly, National Theatre Wales/Southbank Centre 2012, part of the Cultural Olympiad

Cast of ‘In Water I’m Weightless’ by O’Reilly, National Theatre Wales/Southbank Centre 2012, part of the Cultural Olympiad

I’ve posted up various provocations about ‘cripping up’ (non-disabled actors impersonating various physical and sensory impairments) and the necessity of playwrights to, as Lisa Hammond put it, ‘put crips in scripts.’ Now my heart sings (or I’m at least encouraged) to see the National theatre in London giving out a call for disabled and Deaf actors for general auditions in January 2014.


Time will tell if this is lip service, but meanwhile…. the deadline for application approached on Monday 2nd December 2013…..  So what are you waiting for? Go apply!

Deaf and Disabled Actors – General Theatre Auditions 2014

The National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company in association with a number of freelance Casting Directors from across the field of theatre are opening applications for general auditions with Deaf and Disabled actors in January 2014.

Applicants should be professional actors identifying as Deaf or Disabled, who have either undertaken vocational training, or have undertaken paid stage work in the business.

Successful applicants will have the opportunity to perform a monologue or duologue from a modern or classical play of their choosing in front of a range of theatre casting directors, and to attend a Q&A with a panel of theatre industry professionals.

Application deadline: Monday 2nd December
Successful applicants will be informed during the week of 16th December
Auditions will take place on Monday 6th January (10am-8pm) and Tuesday 7th January (10am-6pm) in Central London (please specify any non-availability over these two days in your application form)
Q&A: Tuesday 7th January 6.30pm – 8pm

How to Apply

Download the application form from their website (link, above)

Email your completed application form, acting CV and headshot to rscntauditions@gmail.com by Monday 2nd December
Postal applications should be addressed to RSC NT Auditions, Casting Department, National Theatre, London SE1 9PX
For applicants without email access please contact Charlotte on 020 7452 3448

The National Theatre Studio is fully accessible, however please inform us of any additional requirements you may have on the day on your application form.

If you have any queries please contact Charlotte on 020 7452 3448

RSC Logo National Theatre Logo

Guest blog: Medea – Theatre work with Deaf teenagers.






Publicity image for MEDEA! ME DEA F!

I saw this integrated production of Deaf and hearing teenagers last weekend at Ballhaus Ost in Berlin, and asked production assistant, Rafael Ugarte Chacón to write about the process and the experience for this blog, and was delighted when he agreed. Rafael recently wrote another guest blog, about his impressions of the Unlimited Festival at the Southbank in London, which you can read at:  https://kaiteoreilly.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/guest-blog-unlimited-impressions/

Medea – Theatre work with Deaf teenagers 

The last September weekend, the last shows of „MEDEA! DIE WAHRHEIT! ME DEA F!“ (Engl. „MEDEA! THE TRUTH! ME DEA F!“) took place in Ballhaus Ost Berlin. This production unites Deaf and hearing actors and actresses, adults and teenagers, professionals and amateurs. As a production assistant I was deeply involved in the process of staging a Greek myth with Deaf and hard of hearing teenagers.

„MEDEA!“ is the second theatre production of the Berlin based group Possible World and premiered in December 2011. The hearing director Michaela Caspar wanted to work with Deaf teenagers in an artistic project and thus cooperated with a school for the Deaf. The aim has never been to start a pedagogical project, but to make art – with the means and potentials that Deafness, sign language and the young age of the protagonists provide. Michaela decided to cooperate also with professional hearing actors, so that the group was mixed and the members could learn from each other. The shows were to be in speech and sign alike, directed to Deaf and hearing audiences. It was quickly decided that most of the roles should be played by two actors – one speaking and one signing.

The production was not based on the Euripidean Medea, but on a play that the author Till Nikolaus von Heiseler had written for the group, telling the story of Jason and Medea meeting for the first time, stealing the Golden Fleece from Medea’s father and fleeing to Greece. All in all a rather archaic plot, starring goddesses and kings, full of conflicts between empires, sexes, generations and – not surprisingly – Deaf and hearing.

Working with texts is always a challenge when Deaf people are involved. Most of them don’t think in words, but images. Deaf culture lives from face to face communication, not from scripture. Furthermore, learning to read means to learn the connection between graphic symbols and sounds – if one doesn’t perceive the sounds, this process is incomparably more difficult. As most of the involved teenagers’ families migrated to Germany, neither German Sign Language (DGS) nor German are their native languages. The communication in the families is rather in Turkish, Armenian or Russian. As a consequence understanding the original text of the play, written in a beautiful poetic language, but not easy to unterstand immediately even for German native speakers, was virtually impossible for the teenagers.

So it was the task of the team around interpreter Anka Böttcher to make the plot and the scenes accessible not only to a Deaf audience, but as a first step to our Deaf actors and actresses. We talked a lot with them about the general plot, but also about myths, Ancient Greece, the characters and their motivations and the situations they find themselves in. As a textual basis, we „translated“ the original text in contemporary German and read it together with the actors and actresses. Anka provided a first rough translation in DGS which we discussed together with the teenagers. It was absolutely crucial that they understand the scene situation and that they are able to relate to it. In most of the cases, we changed the translations according to the requirements and suggestions by the teenagers, finding adequate and understandable formulations and signs.

In some of the scenes we tried to make use of poetic means that are characteristic for sign languages, thus creating a poetic imagery only possible in a visual language like DGS.

In the actual performance, the text was a complex mixture from spoken words, sign and projected writing, combined with sound, music and multisensory rhythmic elements like stomping. Our aim was to make a performance for Deaf and hearing audiences, but not by the means of a mere interpretation, but as the result of an aesthetic process involving Deaf and hearing actors and actresses. So there are scenes and episodes that are spoken or signed or both, or entirely without words. According to the audiences’ linguistic backgrounds, the given information slightly changes. Some scenes are accessible rather to signers, others to hearing people – everybody is sometimes left out. Sometimes one group has an advantage, sometimes the other one. But all in all, the plot and the text are accessible to all of them.

Although we are still searching for the best means to communicate with Deaf and hearing audiences – and I’m sure the search will never be at an end –, I hope we have been able to give to every audience member an insight to something new. Maybe some hearing spectators had an impression about the artistic potential of sign language, and some Deaf spectators could participate in a performance which goes beyond mere interpretation. I’m sure that being part of a mixed audience, hearing and Deaf together, certainly is a very special experience to most of us – and this is one of the most important functions of theatre: coming together.

To  get an impression of the show, watch the trailer or visit the websites of Possible World with a lot of photos and further information about „MEDEA!“ and other projects (English and German).

Trailer: www.vimeo.com/47661604




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.

Guest blog: Unlimited Impressions

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

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.

Sign Language

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.

Kaite O’Reilly workshop and panel discussion at Southbank Centre 30th August 2012.


Thursday 30 August 2012. 3.30pm. Southbank Centre, London.

An introduction to making performance work which, in both content and form, reflects a world that is more inclusive, challenges hackneyed representations of disability, and creates new narratives, protagonists and dynamic form.

The creative and theatrical possibilities of access devices or tools – sign language interpretation, audio description, projected text or subtitles, for example – are still not being widely explored. This workshop begins to consider these as the potential means to artistic innovation and exploration, rather than an ‘add on’, illustrated by examples from Kaite’s texts and productions within the ‘mainstream’ and disability arts and culture.

Please note – this free event requires a ticket. You can reserve your ticket online (£1.75 transaction fee) or by phone on 0844 847 9910 (£2.75 transaction fee). Transaction fees apply per transaction, not per ticket. You can also reserve your seat without a transaction fee by visiting one of our Southbank Centre Ticket Offices in person.

Kaite O’Reilly’s ‘In Water I’m Weightless’ with National Theatre Wales appears at Southbank Centre as part of Unlimited. She won the 2010/11 Ted Hughes Award for New Works in Poetry for her new version of Aeschulus’s ‘Persians’, for National Theatre Wales.

30 August 2012, 3:30pm

Sunley Pavillion

Southbank Centre




Thursday 30 August 2012


Southbank Centre, London

A dynamic panel discussion exploring the creative use of voice and sign language within live performance.

The speakers include artists Kaite O’Reilly, Jenny Sealey, Ramesh Meyyappan and Sophie Woolley.


Unlimited at Southbank Centre: 30 August – 9 September, 2012

‘Unlimited celebrates disability, arts, culture and sport on an unprecedented scale and encourages disabled and deaf artists to push beyond their personal best alongside Paralympic athletes, by creating work which opens doors, changes minds, and inspires new collaborations.’ Arts Council England

Southbank Centre will present the Unlimited commissions across the site in a high profile festival to coincide with the 2012 Paralympics. The Unlimited commissions invited artists to think big and develop dream projects that they would not otherwise have had the resources to create. The programme is about artists pushing themselves to reach previously unattained goals.

The 29 Unlimited commissions range widely in artform including dance, live arts, visual arts, music and theatre. The Unlimited programme will put the spotlight on the artistic vision and originality of deaf and disabled artists, giving them space to present their work and share their practice more widely.

Unlimited is a London 2012 Cultural Olympiad project. The project is principally funded by the National Lottery through the Olympic Lottery Distributor, and is delivered in partnership between London 2012, Arts Council England, Creative Scotland, Arts Council of Wales, Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the British Council.

A happy day. And it’s not even 10am yet.


I get up, my head full of thoughts for the paper I’m writing for a forthcoming conference. I’m reflecting, amongst other things, on Sign Dance Theatre, featuring my old collaborator, the Deaf choreographer/dancer Denise Armstrong, who I have worked with since the late 80’s/early 90’s. My thoughts busy with language which is written (my job), then interpreted and transformed into theatricalised BSL (British Sign Language), gesture, and choreography (Denise’s job), I go down into the kitchen, where the unmistakeable words of Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days meet me. ‘This has been a happy day,’ Patricia Boyette is saying round the corner, unseen, at the table, completing, I realise, a word run of the second act, which she is currently learning by heart. Earlier, propped in bed and doing my morning emails, I heard a low humming rumble from below which I now recognise as her rehearsing the first act. It is a phenomenal feat, laying down such texts to memory, and yesterday at dinner when talking of neuroscience and enhancement – how just learning the alphabet makes physiological changes to the brain – Patricia laughed and wondered what Beckett was doing to her brain….








Patricia Boyette as Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days, The Llanarth Group, for the Malta Theatre Festival.

Outside in the studio Phillip Zarrilli is encouraging Andy Crook to throw himself around – hurl himself to the floor – to cross the space, teetering, off-balance, as though pushed violently from behind. They are rehearsing Beckett’s Act Without Words One – Phillip, pulling the strings which reveal, offer, and withdraw the scissors, the flagon of water, the canopy of shade offered on Beckett’s arid island, calls it not directing, but torturing. Like Happy Days, and several other Beckett shorts including Ohio Impromptu and my favourites Not I, and Rockaby, they are in preparation for the Malta Theatre Festival.

Much as I adore Beckett, I retreat upstairs to my study, and interact online with my friend Peader Kirk and Mkultra, currently making an intervention in Athens during these historic days around the election: http://celebrationsathens.wordpress.com/onlinetoday/

Then, just as I am about to start work again on the conference paper, I see Hannah Ackroyd has nominated me for a blogging award. I pause, look over this brief morning, reflect on the people around me, their creativity and work, and think yes, indeed, this is a happy day. And it’s not even 10am yet.



Phillip Zarrilli and Eugenio Barba at Theatre Week at the Malta Arts Festival: http://www.labforculture.org/fr/groupes/public/labforculture/événements-et-actualité/101036