Writer/performer Erin Siobhan Hutching chatted with the lovely Tony Fisher at BBC Radio Essex ahead of our performance of People of the Eye at Harlow Playhouse on 23rd March 2018.
Listen now or read the transcript below.
Tony: Well, coming soon to the Harlow Playhouse is a company called The Deaf and Hearing Ensemble who are bringing a show called People of the Eye. If you’d like to go along and see it, it’s the story really from writer/performer Erin Hutching who is with me this afternoon, who grew up with a Deaf sister and has been communicating with sign language all her life. But when her sister Sarah was diagnosed with profound hearing loss at the age of 18 months doctors told her parents not to use sign language as they believed it would impair her ability to learn speech, which I found absolutely incredible. Well let’s get more details because I’m pleased to say Erin’s with me this afternoon. Good to see you, thanks for popping in to see us today Erin.
Erin: Thanks very much for having me.
Tony: Extraordinary, this. I had no idea that that was the kind of advice that was being given at that time.
Erin: It does surprise a lot of people, and I think that was one of the things that made me realise this would be such a fascinating story for people from all backgrounds is that you do think it’s an essential human right to be able to communicate but there was some debate amongst doctors as to whether the use of sign language was something that should be done. And actually sign language was suppressed for a long time from the 1800s right up until the present and now it’s being embraced as being really important for Deaf children.
Tony: And what was the thinking behind not using sign language?
Erin: So the thinking was that by using sign language you would stop the child from learning to speak but I think there was a lack of understanding that there is different degrees of deafness and that somebody who is very profoundly deaf wouldn’t be able to acquire language easily through speech alone or through lip reading. So as there has been more studies and more experience gained people have realised that actually sign language is a great asset and now it’s even used with hearing babies. You have parents learning baby sign because a baby can start to sign from the age of about five or six months so before they can speak they can tell you what they want through sign language.
Tony: That’s incredible, isn’t it? I’ve noticed that sign language is being used more now in everyday media as well. We see the options for subtitles or sign language, whatever you want, in various places. But also being a huge fan of CBeebies and CBBBC Justin Fletcher has done an awful lot with this, with sign language in his shows as well. Sot’s something that is a little bit more common now amongst young people, they’re growing up with it more now than they would have been when your sister was young.
Erin: That’s true, and I think that’s absolutely brilliant because having something that children are seeing all the time, it’s seen as acceptable, it’s seen as exciting and it’s seen as something that they should expect to be part of their everyday lives. And it really encourages people to want to learn it more as well because I think one of the most difficult things about deafness is isolation so being able to break down any of those barriers and encourage people to communicate in any way is a great thing. And learning sign language is so much fun.
Tony: Yeah, and that’s it. You’ve hit on it there. The idea that it’s fun. It’s not this chore that has to be learned. Let’s talk a little bit about the show then. How does the show work, exactly?
Erin: So I was back in New Zealand, where I’m from originally, about five years ago and my sister got married. And I was really inspired at her wedding. She had a sign language interpreter and half of the people there were deaf and half of them were hearing and it was just this really beautiful experience. And some of the members of my extended family remarked that they’d never really seen my sister’s personality before that, probably because they couldn’t communicate with her easily, and that sort of really struck me that this could be a really interesting story to make a piece of theatre out of. And you know I’ve been working as an actor for a long time but I had never thought about using sign language in my performance before. So, that was kind of the start of it, and I started to write a play which was about a family similar to mine that had had these experiences, and when I hooked up with Jennifer Bates who is the director of The DH Ensemble she really pointed out to me that actually it is an autobiographical story and it would be so much more interesting if I was honest about that. And so we actually include home movie footage of my family and myself as a baby from the 80s, and we start the piece with me talking directly to the audience. So it’s a very personal piece. And I have a wonderful Deaf actor called Hermi Berhane who also performs in it. So she takes on the role of my sister and a lot of other people in the story.
Tony: So what’s your sister’s reaction to this?
Erin: (Laughs) I mean, she’s really proud of me, but she’s not a very theatrical person herself. She’s much more straight-laced than I am. So in the beginning she thought the whole thing was a bit weird I think, but yeah, she’s really pleased that I’m doing something to help people see the beauty in sign language and spread that message.
Tony: Yeah, because the last thing you want to do with anything is to put fences up, and the moment that you start to say this is something different or difficult or awkward, people tend to stay away from it. Whereas, this is from the sounds of it, extraordinarily inclusive.
Erin: It is, and that was our aim, to make it a shared experience so we could have Deaf, hearing, hard of hearing, and people of all backgrounds to come along. And the major feedback we’ve had from people who have seen it is that they can relate to it in some way. Because the themes are about family, they’re about isolation and communication, it really works for anybody who’s experienced any kind of exclusion for any reason and that’s basically all of us I think.
Tony: Yes. It’s interesting as well because growing up with your sister it must have become sort of second nature how you communicate and not many people have that, do they, that closeness that you guys must have had growing up.
Erin: Exactly. We made up our own sign language actually, because it wasn’t enough that we could communicate just with the two of us in sign language because our mum could understand that so we made up a separate one that was just for us, like a secret language.
And I think it did make us very close because I’m a little bit younger than her but she relied on me a lot for interpreting for her and so that sort of brought another dimension to our relationship.
Tony: Yeah, and the acting side for you then, because you’re the actor of the family I take it?
Erin: I am. (Laughs)
Tony: So when did that all start for you?
Erin: I think, well I’ve been interested in acting since I was about 7 years old. We grew up in Singapore and I really got into acting when I was living there. My dad’s a bit theatrical himself, he’s an English teacher so I think that’s sort of where it came from and given another chance he might have gone into that. But I do think me being so comfortable expressing myself physically using sign language has had a big part to play in it because I do a lot of Shakespeare, I do a lot of physical theatre and I think that I’ve always been very comfortable working with my body in that way.
Tony: You mentioned earlier on about being honest in theatre. There’s a lot of that around now, isn’t there? There’s very much ‘heart on the sleeve’ productions going out there and I think people are appreciating – I don’t know quite what’s in the air at the moment, whether it’s because we’re living in this world of fake news and an awful lot of gloss over the top of what’s real, that when people see something from the heart, they kind of embrace it. Are you finding that as an actor?
Erin: Yeah I would definitely agree and I think that people – you know, you need to really trust your audience, because people can recognise when something is real and when it isn’t and when it comes from a place of truth, and they do really appreciate that honesty when we live in a world where we’re not sure what we can trust. When you really see somebody on stage speaking to you and telling you very personal things, I think it touches people in a different way that you don’t get from glossy movies and things which don’t necessarily have that truth at their heart.
Tony: It must be great though, taking this, because this is very close to your heart, isn’t it? Taking it out there.
Erin: Well it was absolutely terrifying I have to say, at the beginning. We did it at the Edinburgh Fringe for a month, so by the end of the month I think I really got to the point where I was not absolutely terrified every single time I went on stage because it’s very exposing when you’re like, okay, this is not a character I’m playing, this is me.
Tony: Yes, I mean the Edinburgh Fringe is a great place to do it though, isn’t it because it’s not for the faint hearted. How did you find the whole experience?
Erin: We found it really challenging but also really positive. So, at the beginning when we went up we had done the play a couple of times before, we’d done a run in London which had gone really well but when we first got to Edinburgh – it’s just so intimidating to see the thousands of other shows that are on. And it’s like you’ve got this little baby that you’ve worked so hard on, and you turn up and there’s everyone else with their little baby as well and you know, you really want people to like it and you want to get an audience. We were really lucky because we went with Northern Stage which is a theatre company from Newcastle and so they have a curated program and when you’re with their program, some audiences who are familiar with it trust them to choose shows that will be good, so we were able to go under their banner and get some support from them which really helped. But yeah, it’s definitely not an experience I’d recommend unless people feel they’re really ready to do it. It’s a lot of fun but it is terrifying and can be expensive!
Tony: (Laughs) Well yeah. We have quite a few performers, actors and musicians and comedians too, talking about the Fringe saying exactly that. You’ve got to really believe in what you’re taking there.
Erin: Yeah absolutely, and you’ve got to have a bit of a tough skin because you are doing to maybe have some – we were lucky that we didn’t have any shows with just five people in them but that does happen. You know, you can have very few audience members and there are a lot of people who write reviews who maybe aren’t that experienced in reviewing theatre – a lot of blogs – and some of them are great and some of them less so, and so sometimes the criticism can be very harsh so you just have to be a bit tough I think.
Tony: Yeah, I think most actors are quite tough, but as you say they’re tough if it’s other people’s stuff they’re doing because it’s down to them. Whereas if you’re acting and it’s your own stuff you’re doing as well…..
Erin: It’s really hard not to take it personally in that situation…..
Tony: Yeah exactly, because you’re carrying the whole lot around. So whereabouts in New Zealand are you from?
Erin: I’m from Christchurch originally.
Erin: Yeah, that’s where we had the big earthquake about six years ago.
Tony: Of course. Because I love New Zealand. I’ve been a couple of times to New Zealand. And the first time I went we toured the north and the south island, and one thing I found amazing – and this is quite a few years ago now – is how cheap it is to stay in the little motels in New Zealand.
Erin: Oh okay. Is it?
Tony: It’s really cheap!
Erin: That’s good to know.
Tony: I mean, I’m going back to the ‘90s now so I don’t know whether things have got more expensive, but if you want to see the island, and get around, just staying from motel to motel and just driving around is actually a lot cheaper than you might imagine.
Erin: It’s a great way to see the country, driving around. My boyfriend is British, and I took him back at the end of last year, and he absolutely loved the experience. He’s a photographer so being able to see the beauty of New Zealand –
Tony: Oh, yeah!
Erin: We went everywhere driving round the country, it was really wonderful.
Tony: I can never get over the fact that wherever you’re staying, you get up in the morning and there’s a mountain behind you.
Erin: (Laughs) Yeah, basically.
Tony: Do you….you know…oh there’s a mountain over there! And then you go a bit further and there’s a beach. All to yourself. There’s nobody else on the beach.
Erin: Yeah, where my parents live in the centre of Christchurch, within a 10, 20 minute drive I could get to the mountains, I could get to the beach, I could get to a lake, basically anything that you would want to…
Tony: And that’s why there’s all the creative people come from New Zealand, because there’s all this space to be creative in! Not enough venues, unfortunately!
Erin: And then we all move to London!
Tony: Exactly! You take all that calmness with you and you bring it over. That’s the best thing all round. It’s so good to see you today. Now if people want to come along and see the show, when’s it all happening?
Erin: So, we are doing the 23rd March at Harlow Playhouse and then we’ll be off for another couple of dates which are in different parts of the country.
Tony: Lovely, so Harlow’s the place to go. Tickets are available right now, by the way, from the Harlow Playhouse website or at the box office themselves as well. So, how big a tour is this for you? How far are you taking it?
Erin: So, this section of it, we’re only doing three venues this time. We did our big UK tour in the Autumn of last year, so we were at Battersea Arts Centre in London then we went around to about 6 or 7 other venues, so this was just a little add on. If people keep wanting to book the show, we’ll keep doing it!
Tony: Fantastic. Well I do wish you all the very best with it.
Erin: Well thank you very much.
Tony: Are you easing in other work alongside all this then?
Erin: Yes, I am. Because I’ve been working on this show for a while now. So the company – The DH Ensemble – we’re currently working on a children’s show which we’re very excited about. It’s an adaptation of a children’s book called Mathilda and the Orange Balloon because we think there’s just not enough theatre that’s accessible for young people, for very young children. And we’re also working on our own version of Macbeth, which hopefully we’ll be touring next year.
Tony: Right. That’s not for children I take it?
Erin: (Laughs) That’s definitely not for children!
Tony: Because that I would pay good money to see. The Scottish Play for children!
Erin: I’m sure it’s been done!
Tony: (Laughs) I bet there is somewhere down the line. A pleasure Erin, thank you for your time this afternoon.
Erin: Thank you for having me.
Tony: Erin Hutching, my special guest this afternoon. Don’t miss it – it’s The Deaf and Hearing Ensemble brining the play People of the Eye which is coming to Harlow Playhouse. Tickets are available right now by the way if you want to go along and see that.