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> > > Unlimited: Kaite O'Reilly on Deaf and disability arts
a black and white surrealist-style photograph of a woman wearing a mask and holding a face

Kaite O'Reilly's Peeling (2011) deliberately played with ideas surrounding how Deaf and hearing characters operated in the performance's scenario. Image courtesy: Kaite O'Reilly

Coinciding with the London 2012 Paralympic Games, Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre in London is an eleven-day extravaganza which ‘celebrates and rejoices in work produced by Deaf and disabled artists.’ It is an event Jude Kelly, the artistic director of Southbank Centre, hopes will provide ‘breath-taking physical feats to rival the athletes in the Olympic Park.’ Kaite O’Reilly reflects in this context on the trajectory of Deaf (and disability-art) production, programming and marketing.

One of the first events on the opening day of the Festival was a panel discussion I was part of on 30 August: Making Creative Performance for Deaf and Hearing Audiences. The discussion centred on using both ‘voice and sign language within live performance.’

Ramesh Meyyappan, Sophie Woolley, Jenny Sealey (who was hot from co-directing the spectacular Paralympic Opening Ceremony the night before) and I gave examples of our work and from engagement with the audience. This yielded some pointers for the future.

Ramesh began with a fascinating presentation of his work and what he coined the visual theatre vocabulary he utilises, including puppetry, clown, bouffon, sign mime, animation, circus, mime, mask work, and other unidentified elements, which would reveal themselves organically in the process.

For him, clearly communicating the story or the content of his work was the prime objective; it would be counter-productive if he believed he was communicating one idea, but then found the audience were confused, or misled. Owing to this, his focus is on visual theatre and storytelling, using the techniques listed above, rather than using British Sign Language. BSL will, of course, inform and influence his work, he insisted. But his focus was on a broader, more inclusive audience, not just a Deaf or signing one, which is why he uses the visual theatre vocabulary rather than signed performance.

Next up was Sophie Woolley who spoke about the creative captioning she incorporates into her work. For all contributors, these access devices were not add-ons, but rather a central and integral part of the work and the fabric and aesthetic of the piece. Sophie described how the captioning she uses is part of the visual design and is becoming increasingly innovative, using images, pictures, animation and visual jokes rather than simply projected text.

Her current production, Bee Detective, is the first time she has incorporated sign language into her work, which was necessary as the production’s audience includes young children who may not be confident readers. To encourage engagement and audience participation, she said they had developed ‘bee signs’ which built on existing BSL vocabulary, but were more playful, fun, and ‘bee-autiful’.

For Jenny Sealey, making creative performance for both Deaf and hearing audiences has been a major preoccupation for some time. She spoke about how frustrating it was not to have sign interpretation integrated into performance and proved her point by asking us all to look away from the panel at a fire extinguisher in the far corner. ‘Ramesh, Sophie and I could be involved in a ménage a trois over here on the stage, and you wouldn’t know,’ she said, ‘as you’d all be so busy looking at the sign-language interpreter away from the action on the other side of the stage.’

She insisted that the play must influence how to ‘do’ access, not the other way around. It should be organic, creative, and central to the aesthetic and ‘not just shoved in.’

Jenny gave some examples of when she has chosen not to use interpretation in a production, citing my 2002 Graeae Theatre commission, Peeling, which she directed. We wanted to reveal the isolation of the Deaf female character, who spent much of the script desperately trying to catch up with the fast-flowing conversation of hearing characters. Jenny said choosing not to use interpretation was a difficult decision, but necessary to be true to the experience of this character and the heart of the piece, which was to her about miscommunication. We chose, however, to caption the performance throughout, except for one sequence in sign performance, which did not have an immediate translation or interpretation. I chose to do this as I wanted one moment in the performance where the usually privileged hearing audience experienced the all-too-familiar frustration for Deaf audience members, of being left out.

As the sole hearing person on the panel, and a viz imp to boot, I thought it appropriate to speak last, and emphasised my involvement at this event, and within Deaf arts, was largely owing to the generosity of talented Deaf women dancers, performers, and choreographers who were willing to collaborate with me over the years: Jenny Sealey (from 1987), Denise Armstrong and Ali Briggs (from 1992), Jean St Clair (from 2002) and, most recently, Sophie Stone, in In Water I’m Weightless, with National Theatre Wales, from 2011.

I spoke about the impossibility of translation, and my interest in bilingual work which aims for equality on stage for both languages, BSL and English, and both cultures (Deaf and hearing). As a playwright, I have been increasingly involved in complex dramaturgies, where we might have two narratives, in two languages, where the audience gets the same information, just not at the same time.

After this fascinating sharing of process and different approaches to making work for Deaf and hearing audiences, we opened up to questions from our audience. One in particular about marketing and how to label the work, from a member of Deafinetely Theatre, threw light on current and future developments.

Both Ramesh and Sophie said they never mention that they are Deaf or that the work might be identified as Deaf arts in their publicity. There are often negative assumptions about the quality of work made by Deaf or disabled artists – and both Sophie and Ramesh were aiming to make work for the broadest audience possible. Disability arts and Deaf arts aren’t seen as sexy, or innovative, or for the ‘mainstream’ – and increasingly that is where these artists are making their work or have ambitions to be absorbed by the mainstream.

Jenny, as artistic director of Graeae is, of course, in a different position owing to the history and standing of the company and mission statement.

My heart, however, sank when I heard so many artists were now ‘dropping the words Deaf and disability’ from their marketing and identity of their work, and I became quite emotional in my response. I fully understand how challenging it is to get the marketing right and reach those audiences whose attitudes will be changed once they experience the quality of the work – but it does feel to me like there is a possibility of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Our disabled sportsmen and women are currently being embraced and reinvented in the public imagination as examples of excellence and skill – the ‘inspirational supercrip’ aside – and there is a revolution occurring in attitudes towards impairment in sport. We are not perhaps so needy, and scrounging, and useless and requiring sympathy and help as the lies which have circulated about us in the past suggested.

With Unlimited having this extraordinary profile and visibility, perhaps now is the time for us to celebrate our difference, and be proud and boasting of who and what we are, and that includes our involvement in disability culture and Deaf arts? Perhaps this is the moment to challenge those negative prejudices for once and for all…? 

I may be naïve about this, and I certainly don’t want to enforce a cultural identity onto anybody who doesn’t want it, but to use a sporting analogy – with the finishing line so close, is this really the time to be ‘dropping the words Deaf and disability’?


Read our interview with the cast of In Water I'm Weightless and DAO's review of the production when it was shown at Wales Millenium Centre.

There is still time to catch these performances during Unlimited Festival by the artists on the panel of Making Creative Performance for Deaf and Hearing Audiences:

You can follow more discussion about the issues Kaite focuses on here through the Creative Case discussions, features and case studies.