An edited version of this blog appeared in Limping Chicken on 10th June 2016: http://limpingchicken.com/2016/06/10/go-see-people-of-the-eye-by-the-deaf-hearing-ensemble-in-london-tonight-and-tomorrow/
The theatre production People of the Eye is inspired by the story of writer Erin Siobhan Hutching’s family, who had never met a deaf person before when her sister was diagnosed in 1983. Struggling to get a diagnosis from dubious doctors and then receiving conflicting advice from experts about whether to use sign language, the family found their own way through the Deaf world. This poignant, often humorous, production focuses on memories, feelings of isolation and how we find the joy in difference.
Erin also drew on the experiences of others in the international Deaf community, particularly other members of the theatre company The Deaf & Hearing Ensemble.
The performance is accessible to both Deaf and hearing audiences through the use of projections, sound, live performance and creative accessibility (BSL, spoken English and creative. captioning). The video projections are created by award winning Deaf filmmaker Samuel Dore, working in tandem with Emma Houston’s soundscape to bring a new layer to the piece.
The piece was originally devised with deaf actress Sophie Stone and performed in work in progress versions at venues including The Roundhouse and Forest Fringe in 2015.
With the Arts Council supporting The Deaf & Hearing Ensemble to produce a full production for The Yard Theatre’s NOW’16 Festival in June 2016, the team has expanded to more than ten Deaf and hearing artists.
A few members of the team shared their thoughts on working on such a personal story, and what they brought to the project.
Erin Siobhan Hutching, Writer/Performer
This story is inspired by my family, but it’s not a documentary – I do show real footage of my childhood in the 80s, but there are many other people’s stories who also influenced the play. I grew up using sign language with my sister (in New Zealand) but I haven’t used as part of my theatre performances until now.
I’m honoured that The Deaf & Hearing Ensemble, The Yard Theatre and so many talented artists are interested in being part of this production. I strongly believe that high quality theatre should be created for Deaf and hearing audiences on an equal basis, and I tried to do that from the very beginning rather than adding on some captions or a sign language interpreter at the end. The BSL, captions and projected video are such an important part of the play that it couldn’t exist without them.
It’s important to me to do justice to the experiences of both Deaf and hearing characters in the play, and the contributions of the Deaf artists in the Ensemble have been invaluable in that respect. It’s a joyful, fun show, with lots of humour, but it tackles something we are all passionate about.
There are only two performers in this show, and I’ve been really lucky to have had two of the best Deaf actresses work with me on it. Sophie Stone was a very big part of the development of this project, and Emily Howlett has brought a fresh perspective and her own style of playing the characters (she’s also brought along her hearing dog George, who has brought joy to our rehearsals). I’m deeply indebted to both of them, along with the other artists, for challenging and questioning me when it is needed but also supporting me.
I believe this is a show everyone can relate to in some way – the themes of childhood memories, sibling relationships and parental responsibility are universal.
Jennifer K. Bates, Director
There’s a joke in the rehearsal room (that I started). It began as I told a story about a conversation I had once heard. The conversation is between a well-known director and his parents. It goes something like this:
Director: So, what did you think?
Parents: it was brilliant, loved it. Why weren’t you on the stage?0
Director: Well, that’s the actors’ job, to perform. I directed it.
Parents: Right, so you did the set?
Director: Well, no, that’s the set designer and I…
Parents: Ah! You did the lights?!
Director: No, I didn’t do the lights, the lighting designer. I directed it.
Parents: O-kay… but what does the director do?
In our rehearsals, my job is to listen, then steer. In a collaborative process it’s about allowing everyone to have a voice, to have an artistic opinion, listening to everyone and then it’s my job to make a decision.
The team for People of the Eye is incredible. I’ve lost count of the many times I’ve been inspired by a new visual from our videographer Samuel Dore or a composition from our sound designer Emma Houston; a new insight from Emily Salter (our intern) or from Bev (our SLI); a rehearsal shot photo from David Monteith-Hodge or an improvised line from actor Emily Howlett; a new idea for a scene from Erin, a lighting idea from Ollie Savidge; valuable feedback from Rachel Sampley our technical manager and design input from Mydd Wannell our designer.
Not to forget our days spent with Nadia Nadarajah on movement and our supportive and helpful mentor, Ira Brand. In three weeks there’s been a lot of people in and out of the room. This piece began creation over two years ago with Sophie Stone and Erin and a little 10-minute scratch. The line in the play “this is our story” has never felt so right.
Emily Salter, Intern
I feel very privileged to be working with The Deaf and Hearing Ensemble on their upcoming project, People of the Eye, because as a young emerging artist I get to see an insight of working artists, how they rehearse, develop ideas, create symbolism, the creative accessibility and all of the creative materials in their own unique production.
During the project my role as an intern was seeing the progression of People of the Eye performed by Erin and Emily. Having been inspired by real events it really hits home significant moments that played an important part of my life experiences and some of the jig-saw that has built the character I am today.
The discussions everyone participated in were one of the most valuable and crucial resources throughout the journey of rehearsing and performing. While this is based on a personal story, there was time to share and reflect on each individual’s opinions, feelings, experiences and a chance to compare similarities or differences. This was to aid the company in delivering a whole truthful picture of their characters and story. As an artist I have learnt the discussions held were essential in analysing each and every character in the story itself for all performances.
Samuel Dore, Videographer
Erin and Jennifer contacted me through Sophie Stone who had recommended me. I’m actually a Deaf filmmaker and I’m also a graphic designer as well so I’ve got different skills which they thought would add to the project. We had a chat and I brought a few ideas which had to be put on hold for a while until they were told they had funding and that is when I became properly involved. For the past three weeks we’ve been really focused and run with it.
I saw some video of the work in progress performances but I didn’t want to be influenced too much by them. I had a read of the script and a chat with the director, writer and actors and got a feel of the style of it. They wanted to create an 80s feel which is perfect because I grew up in the 80s. So I explored colours, designs, computer games from that time, clothes, different fonts, writing styles – all of those things influenced the videos I then created.
It’s been an interesting process because I’ve had to create a lot of video and slides and get that ready for the projection which happens throughout the play. I have worked in the theatre before as a writer and director, but this is the first time I’ve been part of the technical team. I’ve had to really think about the subtitles being clear and to make sure that the videos don’t take over the live action on stage so they can work together in a balance. I’ve learnt a lot throughout this process. Jennifer the director has a lot of creative abstract ideas and it’s been really interesting to work with her to put these into the video projections.
David Monteith-Hodge - Photographer, Videographer, General AV guy, shoulder to cry on
Working with The Deaf and Hearing Ensemble over the past couple of years on this project has certainly opened up my eyes (and ears, and heart) to the Deaf community. This project has made me change the way that I make decisions when I shoot theatre, playing around with trying to incorporate movement and the nuance of capturing sign language in stills.
It’s been a massive learning curve with everyone involved and those from the community coming in to lend their support, being so open and accommodating. The entire project has been a test bed for all sorts of ideas, feedback, writing, direction, creative suggestions, photography and filming, to name but a few, to all be thrown into the mix to see what sticks, what doesn't and how to make it all accessible to everyone.
You can see People of the Eye at Summerhall at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (with Northern Stage’s program) 6th -27th August, 1pm (except Wednesdays)