Donna Williams: The only Deaf in the cast

Posted on June 13, 2012

In May, I was in a play called The Birds, and we put on an absolutely bonkers show with feathers, sequins and dance routines that got the audience on their feet every time!

The Birds was originally written by the Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes and the birds of the title, angry at how they were being treated by the humans, rebel, take control of the skies and cut off all contact with heaven – blocking all of the people’s messages to the Gods.

Fast forward to the present day, and writer/director Cheryl Martin has updated the tale for our internet-using, disability-bashing modern times, with an all-deaf and disabled cast.

I was the deaf one, cast as ‘Eryr Euraid’, the Golden Eagle and Queen of the Birds. That’s right, baby! Now bow, peasant! Don’t make me kill you like a mountain goat.

This was my first real play, and I loved it. I loved being part of it and the camaraderie of the cast. It was also bloody hard work. I’m not just talking about the long days and weeks doing things over and over again in slightly different ways, or the fact that I can recall all our morning exercises, from arm-swinging to tongue twisters.

It was also hard work because the rest of the cast were hearing. I had interpreters for the rehearsals but I was staying in a hotel with the other non-local cast. We had no interpreters for the communal evening meals in various restaurants.

The only thing that saved my sanity was the fact that nearly all of the cast can fingerspell and sign a little bit, and the ones who (for various reasons) can’t, were willing to repeat things almost to infinity. Thank goodness for that.

But even so, after three weeks of rehearsals and near-constant lip-reading, I was starting to crack up. I was starting to remember why I’d rejected the hearing world when I realised there was an alternative. It’s because the hearing world is noisy. And they rely so much on the noise.

Towards the end, as I was starting to lose my grip. I couldn’t help reflecting that I really was in the company of birds. Imagine it. You’re sat in a forest, alone. All around you, every bird in the forest is singing or chattering at the top of their voice. It’s a cacophony of endless, meaningless noise, drowning your hearing-aids. And occasionally, one of those birds will fly up to you, tell you what they’re all chattering about, a couple more might fly up and for a while you’re included in the conversation.

But in order to understand these birds, you have to focus on their beaks with 100% concentration. If you lose concentration, which is entirely possible after a long day, or the conversation wanders away from you, the birds fly away again. And you end up reading the news on your phone. I even started writing a poem on this theme – the being surrounded by birds, I mean, not the news on my phone.

Let me make clear that I love the cast. They’re a bunch of amazing, cool, talented people, and they can and do fingerspell and make the effort to sign and/or patiently repeat things. Some even learned new signs from me, and tried their very best to remember them. The only thing I could have wished for is perhaps an awareness of how little I actually understand of what’s being said around me, which if there’s no terp and I’m tired, is very little indeed.

Overall, we adapted to each other very well, and we also came up with visual cues for me throughout the play. Case in point, for my first scene, I had to enter the stage while another Bird was singing beautifully. The two human characters were supposed to clap, at which point the Birds would chase them around before beating them up. Problem – we anticipated that the audience might clap too, and they did, every time. Kudos to you, Nightingale! Solution: Nightingale would smile and nod politely through the audience applause, then when the humans clapped, she would bow towards them. At which point I would notice them, and give the signal to attack. That’s because I’m the Queen, did I mention? I said bow!

And the director had the really cool idea to have the Birds as my chorus. This meant that as I signed my lines, the Birds had to say them, in harmony, hence my ‘chorus’. We even made a tape of the chorus doing their creepiest, meanest voices for the lines so that when it was played, it would seem as if the voices of the chorus were coming from everywhere. I thought it was a great way to integrate my signs into the play, and I loved the idea of being followed around by a group of loyal servants whose only jobs were to bow to my every whim and voice everything I signed in creepy, birdy voices. I wonder if I could get my interpreters to do that…

There was another brilliant thing – there were little boxes with two lights at eye level at each of the stage entrances, green for get ready and red for go. This was how I knew when it was time for me to regally enter the stage, and was much more dignified than simply having one of my terps push me out, which was the original idea…

Every performance was BSL interpreted by Erika James, and had captions on screens all around the stage. I’m not sure what else we could have done to make this play accessible.

There are so many people who were involved in this, I’m afraid to start naming them all in case I leave any out! But I think we all did a great job, and this was a great opportunity and experience. Long Live The Birds!

Donna Williams is a deaf writer and blogger living in Bristol and studying part-time in Cardiff. As well as being a postgrad student, she’s a BSL poet, freelance writer, NDCS Deaf Role Model presenter, and occasional performer. In dull moments, she blogs  and tweets as Deaf Firefly about what she sees as “a silly world from a deaf perspective!”

The Limping Chicken is supported by Deaf media company Remark!, training and consultancy Deafworks, provider of sign language services Deaf Umbrella, the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Look, Smile Chat campaign, and the National Theatre’s captioned plays.

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