When I was 7 years old, in 1991, a year after I had been diagnosed as being deaf, the neighbour across the road suggested to my Mum that I join an inclusive theatre company called Chickenshed. So called because they began life in a chicken shed!
At the time, they were operating out of church halls, and often performing in venues such as Sadler’s Wells, The Old Bull Arts Theatre (in High Barnet) and The Equinox (a nightclub in Leicester Square). For me, being part of Chickenshed was a way to channel my expressiveness and imagination – the children’s workshops were brilliant fun.From a young age, I learnt to work with a mixed group of people. It was, and still is, a place for everyone – of any background, gender, ability. In a way, it strives to be a place where children and adults feel a part of something, where they won’t be judged. Unlike in the outside world, where barriers often let people down, Chickenshed brings people together to create theatre without barriers.
In later years, as I grew up and went from primary to secondary education, Chickenshed grew and moved to their own purpose built theatre in Chase Side, Southgate. Moving to secondary school brought its own challenges. It was being moved to a school with hundreds of pupils and a small HIU (Hearing Impaired Unit) that changed my previously outgoing and exuberant personality into an armour of shyness. Although I had friends within the HIU and outside school – to cope with the classroom environment of answering questions and being prodded into doing so (a real issue for an introvert!), I became a bit of a nervous wreck.
When I went to Chickenshed, I got a release from this, relaxing and focusing on something that had given me the confidence to be myself. It was around age 16 when I needed this the most – and I got involved in performances that integrated sign language, such as Peter Pan, Romeo and Juliet, and in cabarets, using sign-song. It is a strange thing to feel as though you are two different people – one that is shy, reticent and nervous, and the other that loves to perform, communicate and feels proud of her achievements. I’m not sure if this is a feature of being deaf and mainstreamed, because despite all the nerves and the painful teen angst, I did do very well academically. I read so much – because books were my friends…they still are!
So – aged 16, I was asked, along with three other youth theatre members – to help translate the script for Romeo and Juliet, with help from two adult company members. We spent a few sessions going through each part of the play and translating both the spoken parts of the play and also the dialogue that was being sung (such as the Queen Mab monologue by Mercutio, and Come Gentle Night by Juliet). Our characters were restoration artists in a cathedral where we begin to tell each other the story of Romeo and Juliet. I think this was one of those moments where I really felt connected to my deaf identity – where I realised that all I was going through at school and as a teen was okay because I could get through it!
Being deaf was a positive part of my identity, and I think translating scripts and signing songs gave me that affirmation. My sister and I had also signed I Am In Love With The World on stage and on TV in 1997, as part of the Diana memorial single; it was Diana’s favourite Chickenshed song. A few years before that, I remember her coming to one of the Church Halls and sitting barefoot with a few of us in a Children’s Theatre session. She seemed like a shy and graceful person. The company was developing a way to integrate BSL and SSE into performances. I had been signing We Need Each Other, the theatre company’s ‘theme song’ on stage alone in cabarets (with people cueing me offstage for the music), so I had a few chances to connect with my own deaf identity. I made lifelong friends, and it gave me the strength to be myself with friends at school too.
Before going on stage, butterflies and nerves would take over, but usually I was so focused on watching for my cues to go onstage, or focusing on remembering what I had to do, that there wasn’t time to be overwhelmed. I loved the adrenaline of being on stage and performing, of putting myself into another character, of being part of something where everyone was supporting each other. The support I got in workshops and rehearsals was usually what I needed – I was given scripts and song lyrics to make sure I could follow, and people let me know what was happening. If someone forgot something, we would use subtle cues. I remember a few times forgetting signs or lines and having someone else pick it up.
The thing about it is that it feels as though Shedders are part of a big family, and even when we go our separate ways, we still try to keep in touch and remember the experience. It changes you – I carry around the need to be inclusive and to celebrate diversity. Being inclusive might seem like a ‘buzzword’, but in practice, it is about including everyone, not judging people, making up your own mind, working together. It is about ability, not disability. Everyone is valuable.
At school, I didn’t feel as though I wanted to stand out, I didn’t enjoy feeling as though I was ‘known’ because I was deaf. You become aware of how people might be judging you, or may be stereotyping you. Being a teenager at the best of times can be so awkward! In hindsight, there were a lot of things I felt lucky to have – the support of my parents and my little sister (who is also deaf), the support teachers who became friends, the people I got to know in the HIU. I learnt a lot about being a strong person but knowing when to ask for help. My last year of A Levels was so much better, and at Chickenshed I had performed Romeo and Juliet for the second time. Since I was going to University in York, I left the theatre, but the memories and experiences have stayed with me. They now have outreach projects and regional groups and have touched the lives of many people.
To find out more about Chickenshed, go to: http://www.chickenshed.org.uk/
Lizzie is a cupcake baking, rock loving, blogging, writing, scrapbook making, theatre going, sci fi and fantasy obsessed geek-feminist. She is passionate about access to the world for deaf people and is clinging to the hope of peace, love and music. And libraries. Check out her blog, Cats and Chocolate and follow her on Twitter as @destinyischoice
The Limping Chicken is supported by Deaf media company Remark!, training and consultancyDeafworks, 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.