Deaf theatre: 'we realised we can be political without a capital p'
It's lunchtime at Heathlands, a school for deaf children and young peoplein St Albans – rows of primary pupils are staring, wide-eyed, at a witch with a great bulbous nose, a dress made of rags, and a love of tall tales. This is Baba Yaga: the pint-sized puppet star of the latest show by Krazy Kat Theatre Company – one of a small but determined number of theatre groups making work for and by deaf and hearing-impaired audiences and performers.
Deaf theatre is not a new phenomenon: mime-trained performers Kinny Gardner and the late Alastair Scott Macmillan founded Krazy Kat 30 years ago, and the company has been building its shows around sign language for 13 years. Several other deaf-focused companies – including the London-based Deafinitely Theatre, founded in 2002; andGraeae, the theatre company championing both deaf and disabled artists, founded in 1980 – have also been in operation for many years. But it's undergoing a notable expansion, both in terms of audience numbers, and in the inventiveness and critical reception of the shows themselves.
Krazy Kat perform regularly at Heathlands, inspiring a fierce devotion among the pupils – before the performance, several older children, excluded from the Baba Yaga show as it's aimed at younger classes, linger sulkily in the hall, telling Gardner how disappointed they are.
It's not difficult to see why: Gardner and his fellow actor Jim Fishintegrate both British Sign Language (BSL) and sign-supported English (a method of communication more closely linked to English syntax) seamlessly into the performance, blending it with speaking, puppetry, music and movement. Almost all the children, some of whom also have learning and behavioural difficulties, seem entirely absorbed for a full hour.
The company's key aim is to make work that's accessible for both deaf and hearing children – Gardner isn't deaf himself, but each show is directed by a deaf artist, and all performers must be fluent in BSL. "We started as a hearing company," he says. "About 13 years ago, we did our first signing show – a commedia dell'arte-based, very visual piece. We found out very quickly that there isn't very much theatre for deaf children.
"It's complicated by the fact that most deaf children have a sibling or best friend who is hearing. They'd want to go to the theatre together, but the deaf child wouldn't understand it – and if it was an entirely signed piece, the hearing friend wouldn't understand it. So we started to look at integrating both sign language and spoken English."
Gardner is disappointed that more theatre companies haven't followed suit – but he's not surprised: "People have dipped their toes in, and jumped back. You've got to have a thick skin to work in the deaf world. There's a lot of suspicion, and understandably so. There's a whole history here of what we can only really describe as oppression of hearing to deaf. Krazy Kat were lucky – we had a good reputation as a children's theatre company already, so people trusted us."
Paula Garfield, the artistic director of Deafinitely Theatre, takes a different approach in her own work. Her company uses BSL and visual modes of storytelling, without the added factors of spoken English, voiceover or captioning (the latter are most commonly used by mainstream theatre and opera companies to improve accessibility for deaf audiences).
In the summer of 2012, this approach paid dividends: Deafinitely's production of Love's Labour's Lost played at London's Globe as part of the theatre's Globe to Globe festival, to considerable acclaim from both deaf and hearing theatre-goers.
"It helped people to recognise what we're about," Garfield says, "and helped us to focus on what we're going to do next, which is to make things as visual as possible without worrying too much about additional access, for example voiceover and captioning, which compromise the artistic vision. We, as deaf people, go and have a look at hearing theatre; we don't understand everything, but it opens our eyes to new experiences. I feel like it should be the same for hearing people. Audiences should be prepared to be brave."
As a deaf theatre-maker, artistic director of Graeae, and the joint architect of this summer's opening ceremony for the Paralympic Games – an event that helped put deaf and disabled artists firmly on the cultural map – Jenny Sealey shares Garfield's frustration with captioning and voiceover as entry-points for deaf audiences into hearing productions: "I personally prefer watching signed performances over captioned shows. I simply love it when either interpreters are integrated into the show, or there are deaf actors in the show signing. There is just not enough exploration of artistic possibilities with signing, or even the creative positioning of the captioning box within the main theatrical picture."
Opportunities for deaf performers, directors and writers within mainstream companies remain extremely limited – a situation that all these groups are working to address. Deafinitely Theatre run Deafinitely Creative, a training scheme for deaf writers; Krazy Kat have an associate artist programme, bringing in deaf artists on secondment. Graeae also work extensively with deaf and disabled artists and technical crews, and run a wide-ranging programme of training and professional development.
But Sealey believes the arts industry as a whole needs to go much further. "The industry needs to actively see the work of Graeae and other companies [working in this area]," she says, "to book the work onto their main stages and support us in building new audiences. They need to be proactive in forming collaborations, exploring working with deaf and disabled people and allowing people who know how to work in an inclusive way to lead the artistic process."
Historically, a criticism of deaf theatre – at least from hearing audiences and reviewers – has been that productions have sometimes seemed too bluntly political, prioritising agit prop over aesthetics. Garfield agrees that deaf theatre companies need to continue to move beyond pure politics, something that Deafinitely and these other companies are already proving is more than possible.
"I'm always going to focus on the politics of the deaf community," Garfield says. "The politics is within our language and our style of theatre; it's who we are. But I've realised that you can be political without a capital 'p'. Perhaps the most potent political statement comes through the art itself. Hearing people might think that deaf people can't do certain things but then they see our work, see that deaf people have a beautiful language, and that they can act, and it opens up their perspective."