Play opens curtains on the Deaf world

24 May 2012

TRIBES, written by Nina Raine and opening at the Maidment Theatre in Auckland on 8 June, will blend the English language, New Zealand Sign Language and subtitling.

Jodie Hillock and Leon Wadham in "TRIBES"A Silo Theatre production, TRIBES provides insights into Deaf culture as we watch the central character, who is Deaf, struggling with the prejudices and social mores of his dysfunctional, contemporary family unit.

The production will include two sign-interpreted performances for the public (Monday 11 and 18 June), and one school matinee for students (Wednesday 13 June). Late last year, Silo Theatre was one of 11 arts organisations and venues to receive one-off grants from Creative New Zealand to improve their access. The $3000 grant will support the sign-interpreted performances.

The cast of TRIBES includes Leon Wadham as Billy and Jodie Hillock as Sylvia. Both actors are hearing, and portray Deaf characters. Other members of the cast are Michael Hurst, Catherine Wilkin, Emmett Skilton and Fern Sutherland.

Arts Access Aotearoa interviews Abbie Twiss, who has been employed by Silo Theatre as a Deaf Cultural Advisor to the play.

Q. What does the job of Deaf Cultural Advisor entail?

A. I am an advisor for the hearing actors, Leon and Jodie, who play the Deaf characters Billy and Sylvia. The actors use New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL). I ensure they are using signs correctly to match the script, and I assist them while they are practising their lines and learning about Deaf culture.

I also teach them about Deaf identity and customs, beliefs, values and attitudes, encourage them to meet a variety of signing and oral Deaf people, and to attend Deaf events. It is very thrilling to open the curtains of the Deaf world to the hearing world, especially to actors.

Abbie Twiss, centre, with Jodie Hillock and Leon Wadham in TRIBESQ. Have you ever done anything like this before?

A. No. It was a new challenge offered to me. As a child I had dreamed of working with a theatre company. I am a massive consumer of books on classic cinema history.

A few years ago I did drama on stage in front of a huge Deaf audience. I was wearing a mask, and using mime and sign language. But I froze on the spot and forgot my lines. I had stage fright! I realised I hadn't trained long enough for this role. I tell you, it was more terrifying to perform in front of Deaf people than performing in front of hearing people. I quit doing this.

Q. What is Deaf culture and what is your experience of it?

A. I am profoundly Deaf and have limited lip-speaking skills. Deaf culture is a part of my life because NZSL is my main communication language. If someone doesn’t understand me, I write to communicate.

My mother taught me Signed English. Signed English is English on the hands, with English word order and grammar. My family decided on Signed English and reading because NZSL was not generally available until the 1990s.

In 1989, I became associated with Auckland Deaf Society and formed friendships with Deaf and hearing people, through mutual interests such as politics, art, history, and travel. We use technology to help access the hearing world. We watch subtitled TV and DVDs, text on mobile phones, and use internet relay service and virtual relay service with online interpreters as part of our Deaf identity. It is very important for us to have access to the hearing world with a sense of equality.

I have many Deaf friends of various ages. I still have many friendships I made at the Deaf school I started attending when I was 5. I also have a few good hearing friends. One hearing classmate from my mainstream high school became an interpreter, and we still keep in touch.

Q. Do you think the Deaf and hearing impaired communities should go to the signed performances?

A. Definitely – and also hearing people. NZSL is New Zealand’s third official language. People in the Deaf community would like to see hearing communities learn more about what it’s like to be Deaf. This play – and the signed performances –is a great opportunity!

It’s all about family issues – and just like in real life. It shows the communication differences and conflict between people who have experienced life with hearing loss and deafness. I’d recommend this play to anyone who wants to learn about NZSL and Deaf culture.

When and where: TRIBES plays at the Maidment Theatre from 8 to 30 June at the Maidment Theatre, Auckland. Tickets are available through Maidment Theatre (T: 09 308 2383) or online. NZSL viewing seats are discounted to $25 each for people who require them at the sign interpretation performances.

play opens curtains on the deaf world


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