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!”

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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.

Review: So Beautiful, by Chris Fonseca

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Chris Fonseca’s debut dance video was created with the lyrics to ‘So Beautiful’ by Musiq SoulChild in mind. Melissa Mostyn asks what makes this piece of romantic choreography unique?

Originally published in Disability Arts Online, 18 March 2014

So Beautiful is exactly as the title describes. An aesthetically pleasing, easy-on-the-eye choreographed piece, for the first two-and-a-half minutes you do not realise the dancer is deaf – that is, until he turns his head in close-up and pauses. Other than that, it’s just some guy who could be chilling out on a Sunday, texting a loved one in bed surrounded by a collection of vintage watches and washing his face before he gets into his moves.

And what moves they are. Minimal, yet precise and idiosyncratic, they could not belong to anyone but Chris Fonseca, who performs them. This is not a video targeted specifically at Deaf audiences. You need to be a member of the Deaf Community to know who Semhar Beyene, the female co-dancer who appears at Chris’ front door three minutes in, is.

Why is this important? Can Deaf people not dance? Of course they can – Beyene is one of a number of accomplished Deaf dancers who can adapt well to whatever pop-music routines they’re asked to deliver.

But this is where So Beautiful deviates from the Deaf Community norm. Within ghettoised communities, it is not unusual for members to emulate mainstream pop stars – Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake – in their performances, and in that respect, the Deaf Community is no different. Groups like Def Motion and X-Factor-alike sign-karaoke contests are devised for the exact purpose of entertaining their Deaf audiences, who enthusiastically lap up every second (and long may that continue).

Rare, however, is the opportunity to watch a well-crafted routine like Chris Fonseca’s, and feel that it came from him alone.

Of course, skilful film direction and editing plays a vital role in the presentation of So Beautiful, and the discovery that the work was done by none other than Bim Ajadi, a consummate Deaf film director, made me smile.

Although he is credited at the end, downplaying Ajadi’s involvement is a clever strategy that reinforces the sense that So Beautiful is a dance video that has moved out of the ghetto; the twist being, it gives Ajadi scope for more creative freedom too. This is not intended as a slight on his more Deaf-orientated work. Rather, he should be allowed to work outside the ghetto if he so chooses.

It’s been pointed out by Dao’s editor that as an art form, dance allows more room for manoeuvre in terms of presentation of identity – often making it hard to tell if the work is coming out of the experience of marginalization, unless it’s encoded within the artist’s practice.

I’d say that especially applies to the Deaf Community. Precious little deaf access to professional dance training, coupled with a proliferation of pop-music videos and DVDs since the 1980s, ensures that those within the Deaf Community seek out easier ways to learn to dance, but sometimes incline towards sheer mimicry due to the challenges of practising moving in tune. This often results in them emulating well-known routines with a degree of quiet, intense concentration that you don’t get with hearing dancers, who ironically tend to show more facial expression in the duration.

In contrast, the ease with which Chris Fonseca shifts and twists his body in So Beautiful is as if he’s slipped on his own dancing shoes without realising it. If he removed his CI processor before the film began, how would I know he was deaf?

Scriptwriting with Deafinitely Theatre, Act II Scene I: From The Heart

Originally published in Disability Arts Online, 7 February 2014
Rain might have crashed down persistently, but it did not dampen that fun January morning in Starbucks a jot. Deafinitely Theatre’s Artistic Director Paula Garfield was in need of the office at London’s Diorama Arts Studios (which we’d previously used as our workshop space) so Andrew decided to treat us to coffee before getting back to – well, I’d call it dissecting our brains really, so hard did he work at stretching our imaginations.

‘Without looking, how many people do you think are in this cafe?’ he challenged us, and then it was, ‘Give us ten things about this place in two minutes.’ He seemed to work in ever-deepening layers, zooming into points of interest such as the two women chatting in the corner adjacent to ours, and getting us to create an imaginary character profile for each. From there he’d throw at us a situation with which to start the play, a second scene, additional characters and so on, encouraging us to develop our characters further.

For my character – a 32-year-old self-centred, career-minded woman with South American roots called Juanita, who drove a 4-wheel-drive, rented a flat in London’s Richmond, was not in a relationship and had no interest in children – Andrew decided that she had suddenly found herself pregnant after a one-night stand.

What would the play open with? What would she be doing? Where would she be? What would she be wearing, and why? From then on, the doors of my imagination just flew open, and I wrote so fast in my notebook the words were illegible.

And so it went on like that until each of three participants (one was unable to attend) had a lead character, a first and second scene – the latter which involved a dialogue with another character – and an ending, and they all drew inspiration from complete strangers in the cafe who had absolutely nothing to do with us. These were just exercises, not actual work on our monologues. No wonder we returned to Diorama Arts Studios with heads spinning.

A more physical, but no less intensive, challenge presented itself to us in the afternoon, when we presented our second draft monologues as a performance – and this is where I found myself most conflicted.

You see, I have a duality to my identity: my first language is English, because that’s what I was first exposed to (I was born hearing, although I am pre-lingually deaf), I come from a family of writers and artists, and I grew up in the ’70s when sign language was heavily oppressed. Yet my Deaf identity still managed to manifest itself in a variety of ways: through attending a partially hearing unit and then an oral deaf school (where I surreptitiously learnt the finger-spelling alphabet in a loo cubicle), being regularly cut off at the (hearing) family dinner-table, being oblivious to the jazz my mother often played on the radio, and finally finding myself more comfortable living, working and socialising with Deaf people.

As a result I have plenty of BSL skills that I’ve picked up over the years, but they are rather mangled. Although I adapt according to the company I’m in, my tendency is to speak and sign, with my spoken English emerging as the stronger denominator. Interestingly, when I’m speaking in public, I’m inclined to lean on my BSL more. I find that I can project my ‘voice’ (note the colloquial marks) much more effectively that way.

At least during my BSL gallery talks, I can, and do, rely on a little finger-spelling here and there for certain places and names. There is plenty of scope for ad-libbing too.

But performing straight from an English theatrical script? That is something else. My own writing, like Sannah’s (see earlier post) is steeped in the English language, in accordance with the mainstream MA studies I have undertaken – I am to date the only Deaf person to have completed and passed a Master of Arts postgraduate degree in Fashion Journalism and Promotion at Central Saint Martins. So in linguistic terms, my writing is very, very separate from how I express myself verbally – not just informally, but as a whole.

So when I delivered my monologue, there were whole chunks – words, phrases – that I simply found it impossible to translate to BSL terms. I either finger-spelt those words or their first letters, mouthed them, or waved about vaguely. I lost the drama of my own written words in my delivery. Even though BSL is not his first language either, I could see that Andrew was picking up on this.

‘This is beautiful poetry,’ he said afterwards. ‘Says a lot here’ – he brushed his hand over my script – ‘but it must come from the heart. If it doesn’t mean anything verbally, why say it?’ But that was exactly my trouble. Where did my heart lie – with BSL, or English? Would I be demeaning my personal written English values if I tweaked the script so to be more BSL-friendly?

Part of my dilemma came from the knowledge that once the showcase was over, Deafinitely Theatre would be uploading all our monologues onto a specific web server as a way of maximising work opportunities with mainstream theatre companies. After all, theatre directors had their own very busy schedules to keep and could not guarantee attendance of the showcase.

Nevertheless, the showcase was being presented to a mixed Deaf and hearing audience. Our monologues had to be accessible in some way. Of course, our scripts would be projected on a screen behind us, so we could deliver them in whichever way felt most comfortable to us. Sannah was getting an actor to perform hers, while the second participant, Lianne, being a BSL learner, was more inclined to deliver her monologue orally (probably with a BSL interpreter present on the night).

So the dilemma I have just described was mine alone. I could understand perfectly why Andrew had asked us to perform our monologues ourselves. But I was torn not just because of the inherent challenges in translating English to BSL without losing dramatic emphasis – but also because the writing was mine, and I am not an actor.

Scriptwriting with Deafinitely Theatre, Act I Scene II: Drafting

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Deafinitely Theatre HUB participants. Left to right: Nadia Nadarajah, Sannah Gulamani, Donna Mullings, David Sands, Sandra Williams, Paula Garfield, Matty Gurney, Donna Williams

Originally published on Disability Arts Online, 4 February 2014

Even though it’s a work-in-progress, Stephen Collins’ delivery of his monologue is nevertheless mesmerising. He’s picked a childhood story retold by the character Baby in Jez Butterworth’s Mojo for Deafinitely Theatre’s forthcoming HUB showcase in late February, and Andrew has asked him and Donna Mullings – who has selected a monologue from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard – to demonstrate to us writers how they would translate English scripts into BSL.

In both cases, I can see how pace, tone, rhythm, and context can shift in the transition. It’s not just that certain words, sometimes entire phrases, have to be abandoned in order to convey the message in BSL more effectively; the actor also has to consider a change of emphasis so to balance out the delivery appropriately and in accordance with the prevailing mood.

It’s not a premise I’m completely unfamiliar with, of course, having delivered BSL gallery talks that contained art theories steeped in spoken-language culture. The difference with theatrical monologues, of course, is that they are essentially the character’s inner thoughts, and therefore tend to spring from an English-literary mind.

It’s something I have given much consideration to since Day 2 of the HUB scriptwriting programme, when we began sharing our first draft monologues with each other. I can’t speak for the other three, but I was certainly nervous about showing mine (yes, I know – a first draft). Feedback was thankfully good, with Andrew calling it ‘poetic’, and a nice discussion around how I could maintain the ambiguity of my drowning theme to the end.

One of the draft monologues – written by fellow HUB writer Sannah Gulamani – was very interesting. At this stage I’m not at liberty to say what it was about, but I know most people who saw it would concur that it was stunningly written and read like a book, rather than a piece of theatre. Its descriptions were certainly evocative but, funnily enough, the pictures they conjured up in my mind were those of an English speaker, not a BSL user.

In fact I got the overwhelming sense that this was the beginning of the play, rather than the middle of it; the setting of the scene, if you like. So a lively brainstorming chat ensued where we all threw in a variety of ideas as to how Sannah could further dramatize her monologue; a Shakespearean singing narrator, getting another family member to deliver the monologue (it was set earlier on in the 20th century), swapping around bits here and there…

This particular workshop actually took place over two days, so that two of us (there are four of us altogether) got to show our monologues on each day. This naturally incurred a substantial amount of thinking that generated its own motivation for the next scriptwriting workshop – our third – which took place a fortnight later.

Scriptwriting with Deafinitely Theatre, Act I Scene I: Truth

Originally published on Disability Arts Online, 28th December 2013
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I’m eight. I’m dreaming. I’m floating – I think I’m on top of the world. I change position, as if there is infinite space and nothingness around me, then I feel my head hitting a partition of some sort. It takes me by surprise, so much so that I stick out an arm to push it out of the way. I want there to still be nothingness.
Before I know it, I’m falling; I’m not dreaming that I am falling. The cool night air whooshing past my face tells me that I’ve woken up, but it’s too dark for me to see anything. I panic because I haven’t my hearing aids in and I can’t hear anything.
Again before I’ve composed myself, my nose hits something abrasive, like a Brillo pad, then the rest of my body follows. I taste blood in my mouth. I realise that I’ve hit the floor of a holiday caravan from the top bunk bed in the dark – but only because my mother switches on the light.

Silence. There are four faces staring at me slack-jawed. I worry that the extract from my childhood I’ve just described may be the worst thing I’ve ever written.
‘Wow,’ Deafinitely Theatre’s Andrew Muir finally says, and with that my paranoia subsides. I’m participating in the company’s first HUB scriptwriting workshop – part of a three-year initiative to nurture the skills of Deaf actors, writers and directors – and the description of a childhood memory is just one of the exercises we’ve been participating in. It’s going brilliantly, and I’m learning a lot about my fellow participants. We have four writers on board this year, and my understanding is that Deafinitely plans to bring in more for 2014.
For some time now I have been wanting to create a play. I already have an idea for one – but it’s probably too grand a vision to achieve on a shoestring at this tentative stage.
But when Andrew talks about writing ‘truth’ in the workshop, I know exactly what he means. In order to write a play that an audience can relate to, you need life experience. You can’t write in a vacuum. There has to be authenticity. Imagination is all very well – and believe you me, I have lots – but if you haven’t lived, what wisdom and knowledge can you draw inspiration from?
The key is to be aware of what you are experiencing, and its potential ramifications for not just you, but other people in your life. It could be something quite boring – like waking up to a sloping, plain white ceiling at home, like I did on the morning of the workshop – that you could spin interesting connotations off at a tangent.
Why is my ceiling white? Why does it slope? From this I can tell you that I live on a hill, on the fringe of the local woods overlooking a view of provincial rooftops and that my house has subsistence, but it’s never been as bad as my landlord has made out, even though they tried to use it as an excuse to put me off bidding for it (I am a social tenant) but I persevered, and that prior to my moving in 10 months later my landlord offered me a choice of colour scheme and I asked for all the walls to be painted white instead of the obligatory magnolia and that is why the ceiling I’m looking at within seconds of waking up is the colour it is.
There you have it: a background that will help shape your story and its accompanying characters. This is the kind of ‘truth’ that I think Andrew wants us to write.
But this workshop is just the beginning. Andrew isn’t keen for the four of us to create a play – at least, not yet. While there were certainly some brilliant set-pieces over the years, the trouble with Deafinitely’s 4Play scheme was how it made out to be about THE PLAY, with directors and actors and sets and props and lighting and costumes and so on when it should have focused instead on nurturing writers’ skills and confidence over time.
So, instead of a play, we are to write a character monologue as a work-in-progress. The HUB actors will have a separate workshop programme of their own to commit to (a couple of which I have already participated in by way of introduction to theatrical practice, and my, how enlightening those were too).
In lieu of what the writers are being asked to do, the turnaround will be short: some drafting of our monologues in January, followed by a collaboration with a Deaf actor where necessary, rehearsals, and then a performance in front of an invited audience made up of theatre professionals, family and friends in late February. Then when more writers join the HUB, we work on something bigger; the following year, it gets even bigger, and so forth.
As this is a work-in-progress, collaborations with actors in the development of our character monologues are not strictly necessary. Some of us are going to perform our own pieces as part of our professional development. I certainly am.
As I said earlier, I already have an idea for a drama, but it’s just too grand a vision to realise on a shoestring. What I can do – and this is what Andrew himself advises – is pick one of the characters that I want to people my play, and write a monologue for him or her (I haven’t decided which). Naturally it would be premature for me to tell you what it’s about – even though the theme of drowning will be relevant – but I can say, with my characteristic mix of excitement, confidence and resolution I suppose, that there will be ‘truth’.

Review: Paralympic Flame Celebration

 

Rachel Gadsden in action at the Flame Celebration. Image (c) Kay Young Photography 2012

Just posted a review of the Flame Celebration, which heralded the start of the Paralympic Torch Relay in Stoke Mandeville, on Disability Arts Online. See full article here:

http://www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/?location_id=1872