One In Five for 7 July 2013 - Tribes
Katy Gosset checks out an acclaimed and provocative play that explores being deaf within a hearing family.
Katy Gosset: Good evening. I'm Katy Gosset. And tonight a look at disability as portrayed in the mainstream arts. We descend into the loud bickering heart of a fictitious family that's consumed by debate and drama.
Woman: So you think what I'm doing is just knitting narrative scarves!
Katy Gosset: Yet in many ways the family remains in denial about a key issue affecting one of their members – deafness.
Man: I'm talking about Billy. Billy is not deaf.
Woman: Billy is deaf!
Man: He is not. He's been brought up in a hearing family. He's been protected...
Katy Gosset: On stage at Dunedin's Fortune Theatre is Tribes, a contemporary play by Nina Raine that premiered at London's Royal Court in 2010. The central character Billy is deaf, but has been raised in a hearing family who refused to have him learn sign language. They believe they've done the best for him by teaching him to lip-read, but he still struggles to follow much of the family drama as it swirls around him.
Man: What happened?
Man 2: Nothing. Dad was being annoying, again.
Katy Gosset: And things are about to change...
Woman 2: Sylvia. It's lovely to meet you.
Man: Can I get you a drink? This is Daniel, who's writing a thesis that we all ironise. Red or white?
Katy Gosset: Enter Billy's new girlfriend, who is in the process of losing her hearing.
Man: Are you anything like your parents, Sylvia?
Sylvia: Do I like my parents?
Man: No, are you like your parents?
Sylvia: Sorry, was the question...?
Woman: Were your parents… are your parents deaf from birth?
Woman: And you're going deaf?
Sylvia: Yes. I'm turning into my parents.
Sylvia: No, I saw it happen to my brother first when he was 17, passed on from our parents. There was a chance it wouldn't, but it’s genetic. It started a year ago now. Eventually it'll all be gone. I'm not deaf yet, though. Just in denial.
Woman: Can you say anything you like in sign?
Billy: She can. You’re amazing at it.
Katy Gosset: She offers Billy a fresh perspective and the ability to use sign language – something some in his family are keen to discourage.
Man: So if you're in both worlds you can tell us which is better.
Man: Sign or speaking.
Woman: Why does one have to be better?
Man: Well, because one of them will be. Come on, Sylvia. Let's not be pious just for one second here.
Woman: No-one's being pious.
Man: Yes, I know. That's good. We're all being terribly open and politically correct and that's fantastic. What are the limitations of sign?
Woman: Who says there have to be limitations?
Man: The hypothetical or philosophical level, isn't that hard to do in sign?
Man 2: Or sarcasm? Isn't it hard to do sarcasm, 'cause it's all about tone of voice, not tone of face?
Katy Gosset: What sign language can or can't offer is something that's been brought home to the actors, in particular Nathan Mudge and Sophie Hambleton, who play Billy and Sylvia. The pair – both Auckland-based – began their training several months before rehearsals started, using a DVD of the sign language lines required for their roles. And both found it a challenge that has enriched the dramatic experience.
Nathan Mudge: I think it brings a huge awareness to a part of the community that I hadn't been exposed to before. And also learning a new language, obviously you don't really get opportunities to do that and it's kind of forced me to learn something I don't think I would have otherwise.
Sophie Hambleton: Yeah. You have a responsibility, I think, in terms of the community you're representing. But at the same time it's fictional and these are characters that are created by the writer and, us, the actors, so we're not representing deaf people. But we are playing characters... Well, Nathan's deaf and my character is going deaf. So we wanted to get things like the sign language right, out of respect for any language that you'd be speaking that's not your own. You don't want to fudge it over. It's still important. But it's been an awesome experience for us to have a challenge like this, in playing characters with a disability and learning another language, like you said. It's kind of enriched the whole experience for us.
Katy Gosset: Has it been difficult?
Sophie Hambleton: To begin with.
Nathan Mudge: Yes, at the start.
Sophie Hambleton: We were in Auckland together, starting our prep, so we were physically away from our interpreter and our sign coach, basically. We had her on a DVD.
Sophie Hambleton: So it was difficult to begin with, but once we got the basics down and we got more familiar and more comfortable with it, and you sort of stopped feeling like a dick, waving your arms around and, you know... And once we got into rehearsal and the characters came to life, it all kind of came together.
Nathan Mudge: So difficult, but it wasn't a difficulty that wasn't enjoyed, I guess. It was a good kind of difficulty, a challenge. Just like if you learnt any other language it would be difficult. It just so happens that sign is a huge part of this country, an official language.
Katy Gosset: When you became more immersed in the characters, and I'm sure this happens with every role that you play, but in this case because you were expressing yourself through sign language, did you start to customised the sign language a little bit?
Sophie Hambleton: Well, there's a part that I do in the play where I sign a poem that is said to me by one of the other characters. And that's more expressive sign than direct translation of the English. And I've customised that a little bit myself and how I interpret it and express what is in the poem.
Nathan Mudge: I wouldn't trust myself, too. I want facial expressions. But in terms of the actual language itself, I want to do it correctly and I don't think I'm at a place, in terms of my knowledge of sign language yet, to be able to...
Sophie Hambleton: Take shortcuts or anything.
Nathan Mudge: Yeah, I don't think that would be...
Sophie Hambleton: But it is different from person to person how much facial expression you use or what you're conveying, obviously, like speech is different with all of us. You get your own flavour. But the actual signing itself, we're pretty rigid.
Nathan Mudge: Yeah, we'll let Brydee handle that.
Katy Gosset: The ‘Brydee’ they speak of is Brydee Jenkins Strang – a sign language interpreter who provided the initial DVD to get the pair started.
Brydee Jenkins Strang: First of all, I just got the lines that needed to be translated. So it's like having to work with them without any emotion behind them, so the actors could put that in themselves. Really I had no idea, up until recently, where the play was going and what the direction was. So for me it was really just about the language and making sure that would be authentic and appropriate for the deaf community in Dunedin.
Katy Gosset: So you just, as you say, received the lines and you made a video of them for the actors to begin.
Brydee Jenkins Strang: That's correct. Yeah, I hadn't met them, didn't know who they were or how they would take to it, but did it slowly and without anything being added to it from my perspective except the language being in sign, and heavily towards the more fluid sign language side of things and further away from English, as possible.
Katy Gosset: So although you would have to have had some grasp of the scenes and the emotions, as you say, to make it the more colloquial sign language, to get a feel for the way those characters would talk. That mostly came when I was working alongside them – Nathan, Sophie and I. They really took to it, but if there was ever anything that they weren't sure of. If ever it felt like the signs weren't right for the emotion, we just changed it until they felt comfortable and edited it until they really made it their own. So they've done really well.
Katy Gosset: So when you say you tried to make it the most fluent form of sign language possible. Am I correct in thinking by that you mean colloquial, everyday sort of language?
Brydee Jenkins Strang: I suppose what I mean is that sign language can follow the grammar of English more closely or it can go more deeply into what is considered a more sign style of language. So it doesn't have as many words. There's a lot more use of facial grammar. There's a lot more use of movement in your body to indicate space, to indicate who you're speaking about, which is quite foreign for English, where it's the words that determine who you're gesturing to or how you define or compare things. So it's a whole different language. You can either be a lot more similar to English, or you can go into it in such a way that it's more expressive and visual.
Katy Gosset: You said at the start you didn't know how the actors would take to it. What were your feelings of anticipation when you first arrived and met them and then began to work with them?
Brydee Jenkins Strang: I guess that I was worried I was signing too fast. I don't tend to slow down when I move my hands. So I hoped they'd been able to take something on from the DVD. But also it's about whether or not you throw yourself into it. Learning sign language isn't just about learning the language. It is about being immersed in a culture and trying to understand it. And if you struggle not to mix with deaf people then you're probably not going to take it on as readily. But they both had been mixing with the deaf community in Auckland, so they were ready to go.
Katy Gosset: So you were quite pleased and impressed with where they'd got to?
Brydee Jenkins Strang: Yep. They asked intelligent questions and they were both really interested in getting it right. So it was a good attitude all round, really.
Katy Gosset: At the moment, I guess this is a play that is about deafness and that culture and experience and exposing people to it. Do you look forward to a time when maybe a play wouldn't be about deafness, but there will be a deaf character because that's how life is?
Brydee Jenkins Strang: Well, I think, really, it's about language. And it uses deaf characters to express that struggle that we have to communicate and how important that is. For us, that not being able to communicate is almost the most difficult situation to find yourself in as a human being. I think, really, any story that talks about deafness touches on that theme, and any story about language can touch on what it is to have a deaf experience, as well.
Katy Gosset: The play will undoubtedly get the audience thinking, is it an accurate portrayal of a deaf person's experience? Marty Roberts is the play's lighting designer and is himself deaf.
Marty Roberts: It affects my speech pattern. Without my hearing aids I can be quite in my own bubble, much like Billy is in the play. But it's borderline, in that I don't sign – I don't rely on sign, I lip-read, and my hearing aids are very good at compensating for sounds that I need.
Katy Gosset: So I’m interested to know what you think of this production, and particularly any questions about the authenticity of the experience, and also the sign language, how it's being done.
Marty Roberts: Well, I can't speak for the sign language mainly because I don't sign, but as far as the authenticity, I think anything that attempts to depict another way of seeing or hearing or living is always going to have an element of a fictionalised reality. So I would say that, sure, there might be people who have lived in this kind of world, of Tribes. My own experience is that I grew up with my sister, who was also hard of hearing and my older brother who wasn't. So we grew up in a household where I guess we were normalised in the sense that hearing was something that was just part of our life in that we did not go to a signing school. We went through the normal school system, which was a part of the '70s. I went to a school where I guess it was difficult for the teacher to understand how to incorporate hard of hearing kids into a fairly new system, at the time. So I didn't really know any different as a result. We all did our best. It's a hard question to answer. It can take me down many different roads, I guess. In terms of this play, I think what is interesting is the way that Billy reaches a crisis point with his communication with his parents, which I am surprised he hasn't reached before he does. And that's probably part of what the play is trying to do. He's trying to create a moment where it all explodes. But I would say that that kind of crisis probably might have happened earlier in someone's life – how to navigate that fine line between not hearing and hearing and overcoming the difficulties you have of being dismissed, not being able to keep up with the rapid conversation, knowing what to say five minutes after and going, 'Yep, that would have been great. If I had said it then it would have been perfect'. But having to catch up because every fourth word is missing from your conversation.
Katy Gosset: And that has been your experience?
Marty Roberts: The best way I can describe my hearing is imagine every fourth word is missing and your bass is up and the treble is down on your stereo. And try to navigate a conversation around that. It just is what it is for me. I was born deaf so I haven't been in a situation where I know what I’ve lost. And I think that's probably going to be something that some people will identify with Sylvia’s character, because she is moving from a hearing world to a deaf world. Whereas Billy is born deaf, like myself, and therefore knows no different.
Katy Gosset: So does it please you to see this kind of play being brought to the mainstream?
Marty Roberts: Yeah, I am pleased to see it. And I think the way it can open up a conversation around hearing loss and deafness and maybe removing some of the concerns around that, I think there are a lot of people who I’ve come across who are drawn to a conversation around their hearing loss, when they know that I’m deaf and they see my hearing aids and they get into a conversation, they either say 'I can't hear things like I used to' or they know someone who is losing their hearing. And how to bring the conversation around to getting hearing aids. And I’m a great advocate to say, 'Well, just get them, because it's better to have them than have this bubble increasingly close in on you as you lose your hearing'. So if it does something like that to a wider audience and gets people talking about hearing loss, then I think that's a good thing.
Sylvia: I can't hear music anymore. I recognise that it's music, but I don't understand it. It's just a sort of roaring sound, like laughing, shouting, crying, they all sound the same, just a sort of roaring.
Woman: There's no chance you'll get it back?
Sylvia: No. Who plays?
Man: All of us, apart from Billy.
Sylvia: I used to play.
(Piano plays softly)
Katy Gosset: Tribes deals with language on many levels. And, as the play unfolds, it becomes clear that the hearing members of Billy’s family are themselves poor communicators and suspicious of any change to their family dynamics. His garrulous father Christopher is played by Paul Barrett.
Paul Barrett: With good writing, you automatically get a sense – I’ve always found – of how they sound, because of the nature of the language, you know? His language is hugely colourful, hugely obscene, hugely violent in his emotional expression. And I couldn't wait to get stuck into him. (Laughs)
Katy Gosset: Very erudite and violent, as well.
Paul Barrett: Yes, he's not physically violent, but he's an emotional bully, Christopher, and great fun. (Laughs) I get most of the best funny lines, which is great.
Katy Gosset: So do you, though, in a sense, represent an old-world view of deafness, an old, oppressive view of...?
Paul Barrett: I think that's simply because, in terms of Christopher’s attitude, his prejudgement of it, I think every parents wants their child to be normal, so I think Christopher’s character just wants his kid to be normal, in sofar as that means ignoring him a lot of the time, taking him for granted. At one stage Billy says, 'I'm your mascot'. Of course we protest, but in a way we have, we've taken him for granted in the worst sense.
Man: It's a kind of denial in a lot of ways, I think.
Paul Barrett: We love him to bits, but we've just taken him for granted.
Katy Gosset: Ben Van Lier and Sarah Thompson play Billy’s siblings Daniel and Ruth.
Ben Van Lier: Yeah, it's about language in all forms, whether that is sign language... Without giving away too much, there are some characters that, even though they're hearing and speaking, they have a harder time communicating than the deaf characters in the play. And I think that's one of the themes of the play, that the struggles to communicate even in a family, even in quite a tight-knit family, a tribe, there can still be real struggles of communication and it's not necessarily just physical disabilities or whatever causes that.
Katy Gosset: So it definitely is much larger than a deaf world versus non-deaf world. It's the different ways of communicating and how they bond people together, but also exclude people and put people into hierarchies, and how that can affect your personality and where you feel you fit in the world, which is kind of something that has been placed and put on to Billy, but he might want to shed that and find his own one.
Ben Van Lier: Well, I think the most combative relationship in the entire play is between Christopher and Daniel – my character and Paul’s – and they're two hearing people.
Sylvia: Am I different? Am I turning into somebody different? I'm becoming a miserable person. I feel like I’m losing my personality. I can't even be ironic anymore. I love being ironic. I feel stupid. When I lose something in the house I have to put my hearing aids in just to look for it. I have these dreams where I’m talking on the phone again and I can hear perfectly. It's all so clear. I don't know who I am anymore. I’m going deaf.
Katy Gosset: And while the characters on stage experience a transformation, the actors – Nathan Mudge and Sophie Hambleton – say the play has also changed their views about deafness.
Nathan Mudge: I want to keep studying sign after this. I’d really like to learn how to speak it fluently and potentially interpret in the future. 'Cause, obviously, you can't always rely on acting, you need something else. I'm interested in that.
Sophie Hambleton: And it's always, I think, interesting to begin to understand how people with a disability or people who speak a different language live. It kind of makes you think about families and about your own family and how we all communicate and how we take for granted what we're doing right now.
Nathan Mudge: And if I were to ever go deaf, I’ve been taught a lot of things that... You wouldn't be 100% okay with it, you're losing a huge part of yourself, your hearing, but it seems a lot more doable because of the deaf people that we've met. It's actually amazing how different my attitude is towards that, and my understanding of it now, compared to before. (Laughs) We made some terrible mistakes while we were learning, just 'cause we didn't know about the world.
Sophie Hambleton: We left a voicemail for somebody from Deaf Aotearoa asking for help and then realised that she couldn't hear it. So just simple things like that. We went, 'Oh, we'll just leave her a message and she can get back to us', like you do. And then we were suddenly like... She sent a message saying, 'Voicemail doesn't work. Duh'. And we felt terrible, but she found it hilarious.
Nathan Mudge: Completely honest mistake. (Laughs)
Sophie Hambleton: And things like that – turning away to pick something up out of your bag while you're continuing to talk to a deaf person that lip-reads. They miss the second half of what you're saying, stuff like that. Your awareness changes, eh?
Nathan Mudge: Yeah. And I’m finding it so much easier to just look at people while I’m talking, 'cause in this play I can't. Billy lip-reads so he needs to be looking at someone straight in the face while they're talking to him. In a lot of acting projects the director might get you to talk with your back to someone just to make the blocking a bit nicer to look at, but in this play to be direct, face to face, you get a lot more comfortable with that, as well. And just interacting with people in general.
Katy Gosset: Tribes is being performed in the Fortune's smaller 103-seat theatre, the Studio. The play's director, Lara McGregor, says it's the first in a series of works to be performed under the title 'True Grit'.
Lara Macgregor: ‘True Grit’ really meaning gritty, contemporary, maybe challenging, maybe coarse language, maybe challenging subject matter. And I thought that Tribes would be the ideal piece to put into this intimate space, which, as you can see, has seating banks on two sides and an entranceway. So, essentially, this play is set in a London apartment, the house of Billy’s parents. All of the children are home post-university and haven't got anywhere to go and everyone is driving everyone else nuts. The play essentially takes place only in their apartment. There's one scene in there which goes into Sylvia’s apartment. Because of the intimacy of our space it really feels like you're in the apartment with them. And that's one of the appealing things to me, is to really be in amongst it.
Sylvia: He says this is the only way you were ever going to take any notice. He says when you learn sign then he'll talk to you again.
Mum: I think we need to try to understand this.
Katy Gosset: Lara McGregor says the play has clearly got audiences thinking about deafness.
Lara Macgregor: We've had an incredible amount of feedback from people that have family members, friends, that are deaf or going deaf, that it's really opened their awareness up to the obstacles that somebody who is hearing impaired or deaf, what they face every day, and trying to be heard within a hearing world. And one of the main highlights that's sort of come to my attention, and we've had quite a few people who've assisted us through this project, and our understanding as a hearing cast of what it is to be deaf, is when hearing people having a conversation, and somebody who is deaf or hearing impaired within the room will say, 'What did you say? I didn't catch that. What was that?' And they say, 'Oh, don't worry about it'. Because to a hearing person, what they feel they've said is not of any significance. But that can be quite a big thing to somebody who is deaf or hearing impaired and doesn't catch that. They feel that they're being left out of the conversation quite considerably. So that's one thing that's been brought to my attention.
Sylvia: The bland level of conversation – 'How is work? How are you?' You never explain your arguments. You're all laughing about something and I have to say 'What? What? What?' 'Oh, nothing. It was about a book'. I'm tired of saying, 'What? What? What?' all the time.
Christopher: You mean you're tired of being deaf?
Sylvia: No, that's not what I’m saying.
Christopher: Well, that's what I’m saying.
Sylvia: I don't have to feel deaf.
Mum: But we do explain it.
Sylvia: No, you don't. I've had to fit in with you. I've waited and waited. I kept thinking I’ll wait and you'll come to me. But you never do. You can't be bothered.
Katy Gosset: And Lara believes this first ‘True Grit’ production contains a wide range of thought-provoking themes.
Lara Macgregor: As a director, I don't often feel as confident about each production as they come up. But this one, particularly, has been a really, really fantastic process. From the fantastic script through to the actors I got to work with to immersing myself within the deaf community here in Dunedin. And the feedback for the show has been spectacular. I couldn't ask for anything more.
Katy Gosset: And you think, as you say, when the audience come in here, they will feel cocooned in this little family experience.
Lara Macgregor: Yes, absolutely. And they become part of that bombastic, verbose, idiosyncratic family. (Laughs) There's no way out.
Katy Gosset: Do they all run out the door at the end? 'I've got to get out of here!'
Lara Macgregor: (Laughs) No. It's really interesting, because there are so many themes within this play and so many shifts within the nature of it. So you've got a lot of hearing people that can't communicate and actually don't listen. (Laughs) And a lot of people that can't hear, that can't communicate, but are endeavouring to. And so that all sort of does a flip throughout the play, which actually changes the nature of it from beginning to end. It's really cleverly crafted.
Katy Gosset: Tribes runs until 13 July at Dunedin's Fortune Theatre. Well, that's the programme for this evening. You can get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll be back with you again at the same time next week.
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