Tuesday, 19 July 2016

People of the Eye Dramaturgy: Erin Siobhan Hutching @ Edfringe 2016

 Northern Stage at Summerhall (Venue 26)
Aug 6-9, 11-16, 18-23, 25-27 1.00pm

'Of course, you shouldn’t use sign language'. Inspired by real events, this personal story follows a family finding their way through the Deaf world. A story about parents, about sisters, and about the complex love that binds families together. Using projections, sound, live performance, and creative accessibility, this unique, poignant performance is about memories, feelings of isolation, and finding the joy in difference. Selected for London’s acclaimed NOW’16 Festival. This piece is accessible to D/deaf and hearing audiences through the use of British Sign Language, spoken English and creative captioning.

What was the inspiration for this performance? 
My sister is Deaf and I grew up using sign language with her, but I when I moved away from home as a young adult I didn't have much to do with the Deaf community apart from my relationship with my sister. In 2014 I was back home in New Zealand for her wedding and I had a wonderful experience with the Deaf community. The wedding was attended by both Deaf and hearing and was accessible to both sides, being interpreted by an amazing sign language interpreter, and the wedding party itself was predominately Deaf, with myself and my other sister being the only hearing members of it. For some of my extended family, this was the first time they had really be able to see my sister’s personality due to an inability to easily and fully communicate with her when we were growing up.  I started to think about using sign language in my own artistic performance practice. Having studied acting and worked in the industry professionally for nearly ten years across six countries, I had not personally come across many Deaf theatre companies or companies making interesting accessible theatre (of course I have discovered quite a few since then, but this is due to having sought them out) and my sister had never had the opportunity to see me in a performance which was fully accessible to her.

I had specialised in experimental physical theatre and then gone on to study imaginative text-based realist performance at Stella Adler. I had always been interested in personal, autobiographical performance, but it had not occurred to me until this point to look to my own background - a family that communicates using a mixture of spoken English, New Zealand sign language, sign supported English and home sign - as inspiration for my work. With the basis of theatre being communication in its many forms, I find it particularly fascinating to explore what happens when communication breaks down. I began to speak to my parents about what their experience was like, finding out that their toddler was deaf when they had never met a deaf person before. They were advised not to use sign language (advice still given to this day for new parents of deaf children) but fortunately they became aware of the benefits of using all the available forms of communication to develop relationships and language.

How did you go about gathering the team for it?
I had worked on an early draft of a script and returned to the UK with the idea that I would like to produce and perform in it. Serendipitously I met Jennifer K. Bates (director) in unrelated circumstances, and told her about my idea. At that point, she had founded and been working with The Deaf & Hearing Ensemble who had made several scratch performances with the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Roundhouse and Northern Stage, and were searching for a piece that had the potential to be their first full scale production. Jen brought Sophie Stone (co-founder of the Ensemble) on board to begin playing with my script, and we created an early 10 minute scratch performance for the Battersea Arts Centre which garnered positive feedback and told us we were onto something special with this piece.

Credit: David Monteith-Hodge
From there started to assemble a team, and with support from LimeWharf cultural innovation hub and Arts Council England, we conducted a 2 week Research & Development followed by two sharings of the work. We worked with sound designer, Emma Houston, videographer, Gerry MacGuire and technical manager/lighting designer Oliver Savidge, as well as drawing on the  wealth of knowledge  from the other members of the Ensemble who acted as outside eyes: Nadia Naharajah, David Sands, Stephen Collins and Tessa Parr. We also had one of the best theatre photographers, David Monteith-Hodge (Photographise) in the room to capture the action, an essential step to promoting the piece and providing evidence for further funding. This work in progress piece continued to develop across 2015 with performances at The Roundhouse, Pulse Festival, Shuffle Festival and Forest Fringe.

We realised that in order to achieve our aim of making the work creatively accessible to a Deaf audience as well as giving our hearing audience insight into a Deaf experience, we needed to pull in a Deaf videographer and through recommendations we met and instantly fell in love with award winning Deaf filmmaker Samuel Dore. Sophie had to step out of performing due to other commitments but remains a key part of our team and instead we auditioned for a Deaf actress to take on her role. That was when we found Emily Howlett, founder of PAD (Positive About Deafness) Productions, who like Sophie has brought her personal life experiences to the role, enriching the piece and ensuring we have a balanced perspective. We also pulled in Rachel Sampley to work with Oliver Savidge as technical managers, both of whom completed their Masters at Central School of Speech and Drama with Jennifer.

We are passionate about developing young artists and giving them the opportunities we have been given during our careers, so we now have 2 interns - one Deaf (Emily Salter ) and one hearing (Rachael Merry), both of whom sent us emails of interest in the company and wanted to learn by getting involved.

We work with several trusted Sign Language Interpreters whose opinions we always invite in the rehearsal room, and finally, we have Emily's hearing dog George who is adored by us all and upstages everyone else whenever he is around. 

How did you become interested in making performance?
As an actor, I’ve always been interested in creating my own work, running a company in Australia straight after leaving Drama School. I do a lot of freelance work with other companies as well, but I am compelled to write and devise my own work for both pragmatic and artistic reasons!

In terms of the company’s motivations – we didn’t often see ourselves represented on the stage or on TV/film so we decided we would make that kind of work ourselves. We love the live audience and the risk involved in live theatre. We love working as an Ensemble, and as a bilingual company, and we feel this brings an innovation and real point of difference to our work, making it risky, vital and important.

Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?
This process used a lot of the techniques and tools that the Ensemble uses as our trademark style, initiated by Jennifer K. Bates in the early stages of the Ensemble’s development. We use Play Theory which involves setting rules then devising within those rules. We use a lot of long form improvisation to generate material and give ourselves space to try all ideas to see which one sticks.

The difference with this production is that it began with my script. In the past the Ensemble had entered with a theme or a question to explore then created a performance based on that. This process involved a fluid relationship between a written script and devised material.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?
We hope they will see the world from a new perspective, or perhaps feel they’ve finally seen themselves and their experiences on the stage. Of course we hope they engage with the material, the characters and the story. We'd love for the audience to experience the feeling of 'otherness' and celebrate that. The experience of the piece will hopefully be transformative, encouraging them to approach the world with a bit more joy and empathy.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
We wanted to make sure both the Deaf and hearing audience have an equal, although perhaps different, experience. To ensure this we embedded access for both into the creative process from the start, allowing the projected captions and video to add texture and layers to the piece rather than just conveying straight meaning.

Once these rules of access and communication are set up, there are points where they deliberately break down.  There are many reasons for this, one being to give the non-BSL users in the audience the experience of not understanding and feeling on edge.

We also use a bit of audience participation, both to challenge the audience and as a tool for them to engage on an active level. Another aspect of the audience experience is sensorial in using subwoofers and our sound designer selected specific tones including infrasonic tones that can be felt and not always heard, and so are experienced by all. We also use some bass tones that can be felt regardless of hearing ability.

Much of the piece is quite abstract and this is deliberate to keep the audience thinking about what is going on and allowing them to tease out meaning and interpretation for themselves.

We want this experience of the Deaf world to be portrayed as a real, meaningful way. To do this we drew upon many of our experiences growing up as Deaf people, siblings of Deaf people or siblings of disabled people. 

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?
This piece draws on a mix of theatrical traditions, from physical theatre and mime to realism. The projections are so important in the piece that you could describe it as mixed media. I enjoy moving between genres and performance styles to ensure the audience isn’t allowed to get too comfortable, and to find the best way to tell the story. In this sense, the piece is very modern and experimental.

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