Emily Howlett: What It’s Really Like For Hearing Artists to Work With Deaf Artists

Posted on May 12, 2016

Last month, Positive About Deafness (PAD) Productions were delighted to devise and present two new shows aiming to educate young people about staying safe online.

There has been an alarming increase in the number of young people being abused, harassed, misled or groomed online in recent years, particularly among the d/Deaf and disabled communities. It’s time for action.

Titled ‘The WISE Project’, and commissioned by the Derbyshire Police & Crime Commissioner, the production consisted of two separate shows. “Are We Still Playing?” was an imaginative adventure into a computer game, where all is not as it seems, aimed at those of a primary school age.

For the older age groups we presented “Reality Bytes”, a hard-hitting drama showing the potential dangers of online communication. Both productions were fully accessible to all audiences.

The shows were a resounding success, and The WISE Project has already been recommissioned for a summer tour, starting in the Midlands in June.

But that’s not all.

Our aim at PAD Productions is not only to support and promote d/Deaf and disabled talent, but to educate and encourage mainstream companies and individuals to think about working with d/Deaf and disabled professionals.

We have found again and again that people are not actually against the idea of working with ‘us’; they just don’t know how, or whether they can.

And, of course they can! And should! It’s easy, and being more open-minded means they can tap into the rich, alternative, hugely under-represented pool of d/Deaf and disabled talent. This can only ever improve and enhance their work, because, frankly, we’re bloody good, you know.

So, alongside our wonderful Deaf talent, we allowed a few hearings into the WISE production team. As Director, I was obviously the most obnoxious person in the team (not necessarily related to my deafness), but I was ably supported by our Producer, Sarah Gatford, who is also a fully-qualified interpreter – this, along with the presence of another interpreter, was hugely important for communication.

Working alongside our Deaf actresses, Donna Mullings and Vilma Jackson, was Lowri Jenkins, a hearing performer with no previous experience of the Deaf community, or BSL.

Lowri said of the process; “It’s a real pleasure and privilege to be invited to work with the Deaf community, and it’s also teaching me a lot about the advantages I didn’t realise I had as a hearing person. I’m the only person in the studio who doesn’t use BSL but I’ve rarely felt so welcomed and listened to in a rehearsal room!”

Our composer, John Chambers, and technician, Simon Jackson-Lyall, were also new to this integrated approach. Both hearing, they found themselves having to be infinitely adaptable when it came to making their respective work accessible for all audiences.

Simon said; “From a technical perspective the show went very smoothly. Working with the whole PAD team was a real reminder that inclusive theatre is a springboard: encouraging everyone to think about telling the story in as many mediums as possible. Many colleagues I know would be anxious about working with a Deaf director, but with small adjustments in working practice and good, flexible interpreters, the process was seamless!

“Designing the lighting and visuals to tell the story without pulling focus from the actors was an exciting challenge. I had to keep lighting levels fairly bright throughout for the audience to really see emotion, so instead I played with colours and textures in the darker moments.

In one passage where two characters are texting, we mirrored their conversation on screen with ’emojis’ but in another, the conversation on screen was blank speech bubbles, enabling the audience to focus in on the body language and actions of the characters themselves.

He added; “I just needed to remember not to blackout the space before my Deaf colleagues had been warned visually! It’s these tiny changes that can make a real difference.

That to me is really exciting: realising, if you’re open-minded, these things are easy and far from impossible! I do hope this project continues to gain momentum as the message of internet safety is so important for young people to know, and telling this through theatre is very powerful.”

John Chambers, our composer, had the trickiest job of all; helping to tell the story through sound and music that would still enhance the experience of Deaf audiences.

John said; “There were many technical and creative challenges: making the audio flexible enough to fit with the Deaf performers actions, exploring sub bass so that audience members could have a tangible experience of the suspense. Plus it was a totally new experience working with interpreters in the rehearsal room and theatre. But mainly it was just a blast, working with a super-talented team on such a worthwhile show.”

My goodness. It seems as though they liked it. It seems as though they gained a lot from the experience. It seems as though this whole thing about d/Deaf and disabled artists working together with mainstream artists might just work. (Particularly when they have an amazing yet modest director who can eat three pizzas in one sitting, of course.)

Now, how do we convince the rest of the world of this?

For more information, or to book ‘The WISE Project’, contact hello@sarahgatford.co.uk

Emily Howlett is a Contributing Editor to this site. She is a profoundly Deaf actress, writer and teacher. Emily is co-director of PAD Productions and makes an awful lot of tea. And mess. She now has not one, but four grey eyebrow hairs. C’est la vie. She tweets as @ehowlett

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