BBC World Service's Weekend reporter Molly Guiness chatted to People of the Eye actors Erin Siobhan Hutching and Hermon Berhane in rehearsals for the show. The final performance this Spring is at Nottingham Playhouse on Saturday 7th April.
Listen here (at 40 min 25 seconds in)
Audiogram of a short section of the interview
Host: You’re listening to Weekend from the BBC World Service. It’s 5.46 GMT. Now when Erin Siobhan Hutching’s older sister Sarah was diagnosed as deaf, her parents were given conflicting advice about the best way to educate her. Well, now Erin has written a two-woman play based on her family’s experience. The play, People of the Eye, is partly performed in sign language. They are part of a theatre company called The Deaf and Hearing Ensemble and they are performing around the UK at the moment.
Weekend’s Molly Guiness went into one of their rehearsals.
Erin: This is a play called People of the Eye and it’s an autobiographical story based on my family’s experiences when my sister was born deaf. So, my parents were told not to use sign language, which was common advice which was given in the 80s and is still even given now, but fortunately they received other advice saying that sign language was something that they should try. So, the story that we’ve created mirrors their journey as they learnt about sign language and the Deaf world and Deaf culture, and how that informed my relationship with my sister.
(Section of the performance from rehearsal. Elizabeth – the mother – is played by Erin Hutching. Michael – the father – is played by Hermi Berhane)
Elizabeth (singing): The bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain (sounding increasingly worried and getting louder and louder), the bear went over the MOUNTAINNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN……..
Elizabeth: She really loves those dolls. She’s so engrossed in them.
Michael: Yes. So focused! Such a focused child.
Elizabeth: Well that’s good! You know, a good attention span!
Molly: This idea that learning sign language impinges your ability to speak, is that nonsense?
Erin: The reason for thinking that is that the time that is spent learning sign language could be focused on learning to speak. However, there have been many conflicting studies saying that children should have access to language as early as possible and actually the delay in access to language is really what affects children’s ability to access, you know, the world itself. So there’s a recent study that I was reading that was saying that most audiologists and doctors do agree that it is preferable for deaf children to have sign language and speech at an early age.
(Section of the performance from rehearsal. Elizabeth – the mother – is played by Erin Hutching. Michael – the father – is played by Hermi Berhane. The stage directions for radio are read by Jennifer Fletcher)
*Sound of hands clapping
*Sound of person coughing
Elizabeth: Hello sweetie. HELLO SWEETIE!
*Sound of glass breaking
Stage Directions: Michael and Elizabeth look behind them and then turn back to the child who has not reacted or moved at all.
Michael: (playfully) Daddy’s coming to get you!
Molly: Erin’s sister Sarah is played by Hermi Berhane, who also plays her father and a doctor and several other characters. On stage, as you’ve heard, she uses her voice but she felt more comfortable speaking to me through a sign language interpreter.
Hermi (through SLI): So I actually grew up as a hearing child and when I was 7 I became deaf. So first I was taught speech. There was a lot of focus on that. And I learnt sign language a lot later actually, when I was 12. And that’s really when I found my identity.
Molly: How did you lose your hearing?
Hermi: I don’t know. We never found out. It wasn’t just me. I have a twin sister and we both lost our hearing at the same time. And I have a little brother who is deaf as well.
Molly: So sign language between you and your siblings must be an incredibly important part of your lives and the way you communicate with each other and your relationship?
Hermi: So, my little brother didn’t bother too much with sign language. He went to a mainstream school. But me and my twin sister went to a Deaf Boarding School for 6 years. There was sign language there constantly and I really fitted in. I felt really, sort of, at home as if it was my second family when I was at boarding school. But when we’d go home on weekends we had to speak again and our mum said you’re not allowed to sign when you’re at home. So me and my sister felt very comfortable talking to each other in sign language and that was a natural way for us to communicate. And slowly over time we sort of showed my mother, “This is the Deaf community; these are my friends from school; this is why we sign”. And she actually came to see our performance People of the Eye and at the end I asked my mum, “Well, what do you think then?” And she said, “It was powerful and had a serious impact on me and I do understand why the two of you growing up were choosing, almost, the Deaf world over the hearing world as you got older”. And I said I know I can’t blame you because you didn’t know any better. And when she came to the play she started learning sign language for the first time!
Host: Molly Guiness speaking to Hermi Berhane through a sign language interpreter. And before that, you heard Erin Siobhan Hutching. I suppose what that illustrates is that we are constantly learning more, aren’t we, about how we educate people particularly in the field of those where there are communication disabilities. I wonder if you had any thoughts.
Guest 1 (Bruno): I thought it was very interesting, this idea that you would actually prefer to use sign language if you had a choice, if you only lost your hearing at age 7. Clearly, to me, this shows that there are many different worlds that we don’t have access to that sometimes can be just as wonderful, just as complex, as the world we know. I was listening to it and thinking, well maybe it should be thought also as a great adventure to enter this world of sign language, with its own rules, with its own ways of feeling, ways of thinking even which are different to this way of thinking that we are using now.
Host: Roni, what struck you as you heard it?
Guest 2 (Roni): How wonderfully impressive the sisters are, and how much the different worlds that they live in, as Bruno said, and how the signing was such a part of their identity, and the split between how they had to speak at home and yet sign at school. And I wondered about the transition between those two worlds and how that affected them.
Host: And the reaction of Mother, having been to see the production was rather interesting.
Host: Having thought that it can only be done one way. Maybe it’s time for a rethink.