The Deaf Hearing Ensemble’s show People of the Eye, an autobiographical piece about my family’s introduction to the Deaf world when my sister was born deaf, is going on tour around the country after successful runs at Battersea Arts Centre in October, plus The Yard Theatre and Northern Stage at Summerhall in 2016.
I’m often asked where the title People of the Eye comes from. It’s not, as one Edinburgh reviewer amusingly noted, deceptively Science Fiction-styled, perhaps designed to pull in the Star Trek crowd.
It actually comes from this quote from a man called George Veditz’s presidential address to the American National Association for the Deaf in 1910:
“(The deaf) are first, last, and all the time the people of the eye.”
Veditz lived at a time when signed languages were under serious threat with the rise of Oralism, a system of teaching deaf people to communicate and learn through speech and lip-reading rather than signed languages.
In my People of the Eye, a doctor tells a character based on my mother (much as a doctor told my real mother in 1984) not to use sign language with my sister because it would “impair her ability to learn speech”. Unfortunately this advice persists today, despite experts recommending the use of sign language alongside speech, even with deaf children who have cochlear implants.
I chose the title because the show, and indeed our company as a whole, advocates and is fascinated by all forms of communication. Our starting point to create this piece with an ensemble of D/deaf and hearing artists was to consider what it means to experience the world visually and how we could represent that theatrically.
We utilise creative captioning and video projection extensively, both to aid access and to add another layer of storytelling. We actually consider the projector as a third performer in the space, alongside myself and actor Hermi Berhane.
Our videographer Samuel Dore, an award winning Deaf filmmaker, worked with our sound designer Emma Houston to create projections which represent sound in a literal and abstract way. Through an interpreter, she described the sound and he created visuals that represented that sound for him, with input from the rest of the Ensemble.
Woven through the piece is also real-life home movie footage of my family in the 80s, telling the “true” story alongside our theatrical one.
The live action takes place through a series of vignettes that tell the story – as I say in my opening speech, “fragmented, like a collage”, like memory is.
Hermi and I employ a mixture of British Sign Language, spoken English and movement to create a number of characters, centred around the relationship of two sisters.
In order to develop these elements, we worked with expert BSL performers Nadia Nadarajah and Stephen Collins and choreographer Jennifer Fletcher to find ways to convey the narrative as visually as possible, so that our D/deaf, hard of hearing and hearing audience members can all access it – perhaps differently, but on an equal basis.
Working in this way, as an ensemble of equal voices where access is an integral part of the creative process from the very beginning, is central to the ethos of The DH Ensemble.
Our director Jennifer K. Bates says, “A primary aim of our work is that it is not only accessible but also a shared experience for D/deaf, hard of hearing and hearing audiences. To do this we must always question what each audience member is able to receive from the performance, so our general rule is: whatever is seen is heard and whatever is heard is seen.”
Formed in 2013 to make work for D/deaf and hearing audiences by D/deaf and hearing artists (when far fewer companies were doing so), most of our work has not addressed the subject of Deafness directly. People of the Eye is an exception in this respect. I was fortunate that the company members not only felt it was a story they connected to and wanted to tell, but freely offered their own experiences, some of which are woven into the narrative.
Actor Sophie Stone (a Lead Artist in the company) performed in and devised sections of this piece in its early work in progress versions. She says, “This project and being part of a collaborative team has taught me that my perspective is my voice, which can be “heard” within every aspect of the creative process as much as everyone else’s.”
Having learnt New Zealand sign language from early childhood, it might be natural to assume signing on stage would not make me nervous. However, by the time I started writing People of the Eye, I had been living away from New Zealand for seven or eight years, without opportunity to sign with anyone other than my sister.
Fortunately, New Zealand Sign Language is around eighty percent the same so I was able to start learning BSL from a reasonably fluent level (and am now completing Level 6), and I was welcomed into the Deaf community in the UK through The DH Ensemble.
In the early incarnations of the piece, I left the longer, more complex signed sections to my co-performer. As the piece has developed and my confidence with BSL has grown, my character in the show goes on a journey to rediscover her own identity as part of the Deaf world which mirrors my own journey in the “real” world.
Building the confidence to share a pivotal, intimate monologue with the audience in sign has been a challenging and empowering experience for me as a performer and as a person.
Jennifer Bates says: “Watching Erin discover this part of her identity, something that she has always been aware of but never truly marked in herself has been utterly rewarding. It’s like that when working with any artist who discovers the courage to put a part of themselves on stage. The vulnerability that that takes is really very powerful. Erin has discovered a BSL voice in her that can express herself in a way that English never allowed and it’s wonderful.”
I am honoured to tell this story of my family’s discovery of a language, a people and culture.
People of the Eye has been performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, Battersea Arts Centre London and The Yard Theatre London, and will soon be embarking on a UK tour.
Upcoming Tour dates:
Saturday 11th November Wilveliscombe Community Centre Somerset (through Take Art)
Thursday 16th November The Seagull Lowestoft (Suffolk)
Saturday 18th November Attenborough Arts Centre Leicester
Monday 20th November Stamford Arts Centre (Peterborough, Lincolnshire)
Friday 24th November Old Fire Station Oxford
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne.
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