Review: Scored in Silence, Ovalhouse Theatre, 21st July 2019

It’s just her.

Chisato Minamimura in an austere white tulip dress, floating like a ghost in the darkness while she sign-mimes the stories of Deaf survivors of Hiroshima.

Her, acute and precise, neatly echoing the white-on-black linear animations projected on a gauze screen before her. The animations themselves are scenes from 1945 – a barber’s, swaying rice paddy fields, a plane preparing for the big drop, piles of dead bodies.

Sometimes grainy clips of the actual survivors fade in on the screen, retelling their experiences in Japanese sign language with English subtitles.

There is no music. Any sounds are part of the story’s fabric, conveyed via vibrating woojer belts worn by the audience.

Within the theatre’s intimate space – there is no raised platform – audience and performer alike are transported, as one, to the terrifying moment when the first A-bomb was dropped: terrifying only in an enlightened 21st century context, not that of surely the pilots carrying out the deed, or the deaf lives torn asunder by the blast.

There was no television or social media in 1945. Deaf people living in Hiroshima did not have access to radio, the telephone, or word-of-mouth. They did not know or understand what had happened to them, or why they were being treated like a lepers’ colony in love and in work for years afterwards.

In the absence of such knowledge, imagine how intense the trauma of seeing those dead bodies, naked and melted beyond gender, must have been. Adults and children, babies. The utter destruction of all that lay before them, killed by instantaneous, 2000-degree heat.

These stories are only now making themselves known through Scored in Silence, nearly 75 years later. I am incredulous how much power a 50-minute performance can have to educate us, yet here it is.

There can be no better storyteller than Chisato Minamimura, patching stories, nuclear science and news together in a poignant contemporary quilt of one place made infamous by political greed.

The Ovalhouse run being so short – it ran for just three performances – my hope, and belief, is that Scored in Silence secures many more bookings, not just nationwide but globally. The survivors deserve it.

Scored in Silence will be performed at Greenside, Edinburgh as part of the British Council Edinburgh Fringe Festival Showcase on 19th-23rd August 2019.

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Behind Closed Doors: WOW Exeter 2018 and Deaf abuse survivors

I am taking the train to Exeter St David’s on a beautiful day. The peaceful cumulus straddling the giant expanse of blue outside my window reflects my thoughts: assured of my place of safety and comfort, but not resolutely clear.

Today I’m joining a 2pm panel discussion about domestic abuse, Behind Closed Doors, chaired by Jude Kelly as part of WOW Exeter 2018, and I’m keen to share some of my Deaf survivor experiences.

The risk, in doing so, is inherent. I have PTSD and depression, both of which were triggered by cyberbullying following previous ‘outings’. (You can see my first one here.) I have young children to protect.

I belong to a 156,000-strong, intrinsically expressive Deaf/BSL Community that thrives on open communication and gossip – ensuring a high concentration of British Sign Language (BSL) users who know both me and my ex-partners, especially if they’re Deaf. (I expand on the theme here)

So if I don’t divulge certain details, focussing instead on information that doesn’t ‘date’ the abuse at a specific point in time – you know why.

However, I will not be cowed. My perpetuators know that I am one of very few Deaf women not just prepared to speak out – but able to, because I have the ability to articulate myself well to a mainstream or hearing audience. But you know what? If they try to stop me, they cannot profess to be an ally of the Deaf/BSL Community when they practise what we seek to overcome.

Since beginning my work with fellow Deaf survivors – both in a professional capacity, and more informally – I have come to realise how vital their contribution is to everyday discourse about domestic abuse, and yet how lacking it is. As an artist and writer who values freedom of expression in her work, that speaks most deeply to me.

And there are honestly others who recognise this too. In 2015, I was invited onto a panel discussion at the Women’s Aid annual conference, where I became the only Deaf survivor addressing a packed room directly. Later that year, I gave a 45-minute presentation at the NHS Safeguarding annual conference, in which purple became the token colour.

Again, I was the first Deaf survivor to speak out there. 350 people fell completely silent.

Earlier this year, I collaborated in a workshop with DeafHope survivors as part of Statements in Semaphore, an Arts Council-funded project led by Susan Merrick. (You can read more about the workshop here.)

In two hours, I had become a fan of the survivors. The dignity and composure they showed, as they worked patiently on their effigies, reminded me of our unbroken spirit, and evoked memories of how I felt after completing my own course with DeafHope some years ago.

It also made me very sad. These women were resilient because they had to be – but how many of them could stand up on stage and address a hearing audience? For Deaf women, the usual disincentive to come forward is aggravated by, again, communication barriers.

Visible though the survivors’ art is, it exists only as anonymous messages. Their experiences, and what they do afterwards to ensure their safety, remain hidden.

Within the wider society, our position is vulnerable. 90% of all Deaf and hard-of-hearing people come from hearing families, the majority of whom don’t sign. Having a deaf child doesn’t guarantee increased deaf awareness, ensuring that the communication barriers between child and parent become their own institution.

Being clueless in the matter, if they’re not inquisitive enough, parents will then turn to medical advice to ‘solve’ the problem instead. Some will, unfortunately, start abusing their deaf children as a way of deflecting their guilt – thus setting the tone for future toxic relationships.

For people like that, the very idea of calling out domestic abuse in adulthood becomes an insurmountable challenge. I am very lucky to have had loving parents (communication barriers notwithstanding), and an understanding of what constitutes a healthy relationship – but even I have faced enormous pressures to not come forward.

Sharing my experiences briefly with a compassionate audience at WOWExeter today, I am assured of their support. There are four other people on the panel besides me – chair and WOW founder Jude Kelly; Elizabeth Langley and Karen Atkinson of SPLITZ; and Sasha Nathanson of Stop Abuse For Everyone (SAFE). It’s a lovely panel, with courageous stories of their own to share, and Jude is kind and accommodating. The 45-minute discussion is even-handed, with a few more minutes for audience questions. My PTSD inhibits me a little when I give my background, but I push on nevertheless, and hope the audience gets the message.

However afterwards, when the BSL interpreters are gone and people come up to congratulate me, the barriers remain. I wonder then how I can advance from this?

I am not Dr Christine Blasey Ford. Even within my own community I don’t have an international movement backing me with #IBelieveHer on social media. I do not have the time or the energy, for practical reasons as a single parent and carer of a disabled child, to campaign for better support for Deaf survivors.

I can write and make art, and use both to effect change. I can get others to do the same, collaboratively or otherwise. I can continue representing Deaf survivors at mainstream events. But I cannot do that alone. There needs to be a Deaf collective, not a one-woman band, for real change to take place.

The onus is on you, dear reader, to share this blog as widely as you can. Make sure it reaches Deaf survivors and their allies, and encourage them to join ranks with me. We may not be able to hide the emotion pouring forth from the sign language we use, or even avoid their symbiosis altogether. But if we can be emotional together, the more powerful our message will be.

The cumulus is passing. It is time.

(Edited on 16th October 2018 for clarity.)

Review: Deafinitely Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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David Sands (Bottom) and Alim Jayda (Puck). Photo by Simon Kane

Following the success of Deafinitely Theatre’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost as part of the 2012 Globe to Globe project, they return to Shakespeare’s Globe with a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in British Sign Language, until 7 June. Review by Melissa Mostyn

This is an edited version of the review that originally appeared on Disability Arts Online on 5th June 2014.

 

The condensed air of high summer has a knack of filling us with unrequited longing, so that upon nightfall, we grow misty-eyed. It is no coincidence that A Midsummer Night’s Dream – one of Shakespeare’s most delightful romantic comedies – makes ideal viewing in a reconstructed amphitheatre close to a warm June sunset.

Not so easy to reconcile is the idea of presenting bona fide Shakespeare and its many allusions in British Sign Language, and in a manner that befits monumental raked seating like that of the Globe Theatre. Yet that is exactly what Deafinitely Theatre’s bold and dexterous production has achieved, mixing in not just spoken English and BSL but also Visual Vernacular – a highly innovative visual storytelling method derived from intrinsic sign language culture – song, music, and dance to intoxicating effect.

Central to the play is the story of four real-world lovers: Lysander (Adam Bassett) and Hermia (Fifi Garfield) who love each other, Demetrius (Lee Robertson) who loves Hermia, and Helena (Charlotte Arrowsmith) who loves Demetrius. Providing the play’s bookends is the wedding of Duke Theseus (Ace Mahbaz) and Hippolyta (Nadia Nadarajah) which brings all the characters together in the end with its festivities.

Hermia’s father Egeus (Ralph Bogard) wants her to marry Demetrius or else die or be a nun, and asks Theseus for permission to instrument her fate. Dismayed, Hermia and Lysander elope to the forest, but not before Hermia confides in best friend Helena. Hoping to gain Demetrius’ love, Helena reveals their plans to him, but he rejects her in dogged pursuit of Hermia.

Flitting in between the lovers are a group of gormless tradesmen rehearsing a play for Theseus – including Nick Bottom (David Sands) and Francis Flute (Jason Taylor) – and the fairies, representing the otherworld: king Oberon, furious with his queen Titania (here Mahbaz and Nadarajah become the real world’s alter-egos) for stealing a boy changeling and seeking revenge. He sends Puck (Alim Jayda, nimble as a Nijinsky-meets-Peter Pan) to cast a spell on the sleeping Titania, ensuring that she falls for the first person she sees upon awakening.

Puck being Puck, the mischief-making goes further than it should, with both Demetrius and Lysander chasing a witless Helena, Bottom (by now an ass) becoming the perplexed object of Titania’s affections, and the jilted Hermia throwing hilariously enraged punches with her two hitherto lovers. Towering over them all is a charismatic Mahbaz as Oberon and Theseus, both desperate to regain order in the worlds they govern.

The inevitable happy outcome becomes an excuse for a play-within-a-play, where Sands (his Bottom having regained human form) and Taylor, flouncing in a blonde wig and girly dress, mirror Lysander and Hermia’s story as convivial lovers trying to communicate via a makeshift wall. Punching out a brick, so they could poke out their arms and sign to each other, has never looked so funny or picture-perfect.

As if the concoction couldn’t seduce us enough, Peter Burgess dresses the characters in a contemporary time-warp of banker pinstripes, avant-garde foliage, Edwardian skirts and dandy waistcoats festooned with ties. Was that a mosquito bite I swatted from my ankle at the end, or Puck’s tickle? Swayed by the musk of a gentle summer’s night, I could not be sure.

Review: Poetry and Sign

Poetry and Sign was a unique event exploring the relationship between sign language, spoken poetry and dance, which took place at King’s Place in central London on 15th May.

Photo by Lauren Harris
Photo by Lauren Harris

Originally published on Disability Arts Online, 19 May 2014

As a harbinger of Deaf Awareness Week, which begins today, Remark!’s collaboration with Poet In The City was a strategic move that enabled sign language poets Ashley Kendall and Jean St Clair to showcase their talents alongside actor Tim Barlow (a cochlear implant user), Rambert dance choreographer Deborah Galloway, and performers from Roehampton Dance.

I am always more drawn to poetry when it is performed in BSL, rather than seeing it performed in spoken English with the words projected alongside on-screen. It’s not just that it is more accessible; rather, by default it calls for a much more animated and physical delivery, ensuring that images of flowers, snow, horses and even wind materialise from one solitary upper body alone.

I liked all of them! But one stanza that stuck in my mind was from Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by the woods on a snowy eve’:

‘He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.’

What the performance did admirably was to demonstrate how spoken poetry contrasts with its BSL interpretation. (Here, I use the word ‘interpretation’ loosely, for reasons given below.) Essentially, the event was structured so that each time a poem appeared on-screen – it could be Robert Frost, Louis MacNeice, or Ted Hughes – it was first recited orally by Barlow, and then performed in BSL by Kendall and St Clair, taking turns.

Rather than relay information in the manner of a formal interpreter, they developed their own take on the poetry, enabling them to bring not just a fuller BSL perspective but also their warm, individual personalities into their performance.

I liked the fact that instead of having voice-overs, it was left to the audience to follow their performance using projected words on-screen behind them, as guidance.

That some of the poems initially looked difficult to translate into BSL, but in actuality never were, also made me smile; it reinforced how fluid BSL is as a language. “It is not the fittest, or the strongest, or the cleverest that survive,” Charles Darwin is claimed to have said, “but those who are most adaptable to change.” Given its protracted oppression, no language can be proven to be more adaptable than British Sign Language.

Here and there, the poetry was intercut with speeches. Jean St Clair gave a sounding-board for how creative English-to-BSL translations work; Tim Barlow talked about how he became deaf and how that influenced his decision to become an actor.

Unfortunately, Deborah Calloway provided one of the few irritations of the evening when she perpetually obscured her assigned sign language interpreter with her exaggerated choreography. This might have been fine if she was dancing. In fact, she was simply explaining the theory behind her movements. As for the Roehampton dancers moving (and signing) abstractly to a solitary drum – the less said about them, the better.

That aside, Poetry and Sign attracted a full house, and for three perfectly good reasons – Kendall, St Clair and Barlow – I’d say, “More please!”

Review: Frozen, by fingersmiths

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Originally developed at the National Theatre Studio, ‘Frozen’ sees a cast of Deaf and hearing actors bring fingersmiths’ visual and physical theatre style to the stage, in the first major production of the play in 10 years.

Originally published on Disability Arts Online, 9 March 2014

[I write as a member of Deafinitely Theatre’s HUB, some of whom saw the play at Stratford Circus and took part in a group critique of Frozen after the performance.]

Right from the offset, you know that Frozen is going to be a hard-hitting psychological drama. As the lights go up you are confronted by a compact, split-level set, all harsh white angles everywhere that set you on edge.

You don’t feel in harmony with what you’re seeing; no flowers or homely living-room paraphernalia to make you feel like a cup of tea. Thus the scene is set for a contemporary piece of theatre that keeps your nerves fraying throughout.

Frozen explores issues arising from the abduction and murder of a 10-year-old girl, Rhona, and how the crime ‘freezes’ the three main characters – Ralph, the girl’s killer, Nancy, her mother, and Agnetha, a criminal psychologist – into states of fraught emotional paralysis from which they are unable to escape.

A vivid, gut-wrenching and complex drama, Frozen also highlights the challenges in determining whether a crime should be treated as a sin or a symptom of mental health issues (Ralph is himself a victim of paternal child abuse). A large chunk of the play is dedicated to monologues, enabling insight into the characters’ changing thought processes as they struggle to make peace with their individual pain.

Eventually the monologues draw the characters together in raw symbiosis via one-to-one meetings. The final thaw-out is provided when Nancy visits Ralph in prison years later, with three simple-yet-hard words – ‘I forgive you’ – unleashing an extraordinary change in the serial killer.

In the hands of Fingersmiths, Frozen went smoothly from a three-hander to a bilingual ensemble of six without losing its edge, due to a high-calibre cast that kept us gripped all the way through. Detailing exactly what each actor excelled at is impossible given the talent involved, but Mike Hugo and Neil Fox-Roberts (both of whom played Ralph) and Hazel Maycock, as the speaking Nancy to Jean St Clair’s BSL counterpart, were flawless.

In bilingual Deaf theatre, the idea of having characters in duplicate – one signing, one speaking – is not new. I liked the way the pairs interacted with each other symbolising an internal dialogue, but the decision to move away from mirroring each other as well didn’t always quite work.

By entering the stage independently of each other and on different floors at the beginning, the two tightly-suited Agnethas (Sophie Stone and Deepa Shastri), highlighted the sense of each being alone in separate homes. This left me slightly confused as to whether they were playing the same character, or just happened to have synchronised thoughts and actions as different people.

The two Ralphs were more successful with the BSL-using aspect (Fox-Roberts) pointing nonchalantly at the tattoos of his speaking counterpart (Hugo) while the latter recalled their history.

I welcomed the approach as a refreshing and bold experiment in theatrical dynamics.