People of the Eye
"People of the Eye" is a play designed for the deaf and for hearing audiences. Created by Erin Siobhan Hutching it's based on her experiences growing up with her deaf sister, Sarah, in Christchurch. The production is being performed by the UK based Deaf and Hearing Ensemble, as part of the Now Festival of new plays at London's Yard Theatre. Erin talks about the genesis of the play.
RNZ Standing Room Only - Sunday 8 May
People of the Eye
Bryan Crump interview with Erin Siobhan Hutching
INTRO: "People of the Eye" is a play designed for the deaf and for hearing audiences. Created by Erin Siobhan Hutching it's based on her experiences growing up with her deaf sister, Sarah, in Christchurch. The production is being performed by the UK based Deaf and Hearing Ensemble, as part of the Now Festival of new plays at London's Yard Theatre. Erin talks about the genesis of the play.
Erin: And I came back, um, was a bridesmaid, and had this incredible experience of going to a hen’s party and being really welcomed by this incredible group of deaf women.
Bryan: Right. At a hen’s party?
E: Yes, and just being reminded of how amazing deaf culture can be and how you know some people label it as a disability but it’s also seen as a culture – cos they’ve got their own language.
B: There would have been all sorts of rival signing going on.
E: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly (laughs).It was very funny. There was one of her friends acting as her interpreter and she was, um, interpreting some of the stories that were being told and some of the signs were very amusing. (laughs). My mum was quite embarrassed to see some of it.
B: Now you say your sister was deaf but you ended up signing. Is that something everybody else in the family decided to do?
E Yeah. So, that was one of the things I decided to bring into the play, is that a lot of advice was given, um, particularly in the 80’s when my sister was born, was not to use sign language and that it would interfere with the child’s ability to learn to speak. Which of course now people are realising is not the case. And having a visual language alongside a spoken language really helps children to develop um their cognitive function. So my mum decided to, and was fortunately given advice that she should sign, and so was my Dad. So we – I’m younger than Sarah – so I kind of grew up signing. There’s a whole lot of home movie footage that my Dad has taken – an absolute goldmine as an artist. Like hours and hours of this footage of Mum teaching Sarah and I to sign - and speech lessons. She put a lot of work in to sort of create all of her own – she got all of this paper and she’s drawn pictures and she was getting us to get involved. And Sarah never wanted to do things by herself so I would, she would want me to be involved.
B: Cos she was the younger sister… no you were the younger sister.
E: No I was younger.
B: You were the younger sister. Did she want to help you out like any big sister does?
E: Yeah she did. She wanted to help me out and she also didn’t want to be excluded so, it actually became a really positive thing for our family because it was all inclusive. Something we all did together.
B: And your Mum and Dad taught themselves how to sign too?
E: Yeah. They went to night classes and they certainly found it challenging. I mean it’s not an easy thing to learn when you’re an adult. Um. And I’m really lucky that I just learnt to sign as I learnt to speak so I never had to consciously learn how to do it.
B: Sarah was born deaf?
E: Yes she was. But she wasn’t diagnosed until she was about 14 months because they didn’t have new born hearing screening then. So now a child would be diagnosed within the first few weeks usually. But um, my parents knew that she was having some difficulties. And they weren’t sure whether she may have been autistic or whatever it was that was delaying her speech. Um and the doctor just thought my Mum was a little bit of a hypochondriac and a bit of a pushy mother and sort of dismissed her for quite a while, until they finally managed to get a diagnosis. They’ve got these very funny stories of how they would run up behind her banging pots together and do all these home hearing tests and see whether she’d turn around or not. And
B: She obviously didn’t.
E: Sometimes she would and the nurse would come round to check her out. And she was very inquisitive and curious. So she would turn around but it wasn’t ‘cos she’d heard things. She just wanted to know what was happening.
B: But of course she can feel things can’t she.
E: Yeah. She feels vibrations.
B: so if you bang too loudly she’s just going to feel a vibration isn’t she?
E: Exactly. And that’s the humorous sort of thing we’ve put in the show – with little physical sequence of the parents doing these ridiculous things to make this child turn around. And then you know she finally turns around ‘cos her Dad is using a drill, you know, to drill into the wall. And the parents go ‘thank God. She’s alright’ but there’s that sort of thing about what the parents will really tell themselves to reassure yourself and that sort of thing.
B: Do you think it affected you as a performing artist?
B: The fact that you were communicating things with your body in a much more vigorous way than most of us would be.
E: I think so. Definitely. I think it really taught me how to commun… a visual language and how to communicate and really to read people. My sister is incredibly perceptive and a lot of deaf people are about reading body language, um and she always knows if we catch up with people, she always 'oh this is happening or that’s happening,' and I think ‘how’s she picked that up?’ But I think it really does teach you how to read visual cues, and that’s incredibly useful as a performer. Even if you’re performing in a very naturalistic film type of style. Being able to do that. And that’s something I work with when I’m teaching um, drama, is these elements of how you can teach hearing actors to really take on board this really really useful way of working.
What I’m really interested in is how you give people an equal experience. So rather than – putting a sign language interpreter on the side, which you know, can be very useful and beautiful in itself. But you know the deaf person still needs to watch the performance and in turn it. A deaf person described it as being in a tennis match – ‘cos you’re constantly watching the show and back to the interpreter to try and get meaning. It can be the same with captions up the top.
B: Yeah. Yeah. Which is the same when I watch opera.
E: Yeah exactly.
B: ‘Cos most of opera is sung in a different language to English. And even when they sing in English I still struggle to understand the words.
E: Exactly. So that’s the, the kind of – my idea was how do you integrate it? So how do you actually make it part of the creative process. So considering it from the very beginning. So we use what we call creative captioning. So there’ll be captions that obviously do say what the spoke – the text is. So they still convey meaning but they also convey like emotion and tone. So with they’re size and the way they move and – it’s almost like we’re developing it through projection mapping – but it’s almost like they surround the characters on stage. Like their thoughts are surrounding them. So…
B: Really. How do you do that?
E: Ah, well, with really good people who know what they’re doing (laughs). Through projecting mapping software it’s amazing what you can do these days. So …
B: Are these things appearing like they’re almost in 3D?
B: Following the actor around the stage?
E: And you can do so much with that. ‘Cos if you imagine a character is sort of having a moment speaking to the audience about her guilt about something. And then the text of what she’s saying is appearing next to her. It’s like her thoughts that she can’t escape from – and she can kind of interact with that and it actually brings such an extra layer to the performance for everybody watching actually – hearing audience as well as deaf audience because it’s, it’s adding meaning.
B: Is it a bit of a recreation or influence by your experiences of Sarah growing up?
E: It is. I mean it… I sort of pretended it wasn’t in the beginning because I was slightly in denial about it and I said it was a fictional play about a family that sounds very much like my family. And I’ve kind of come around to ah, to the realisation that it is strongly autobiographical. But I did a lot of research to start with. So I spoke – I interviewed a lot of people in deaf community, ah some audiologist, interpreters, a lot of parents who had recent – found out their children were deaf recently. Things like that. And I pulled all of their experiences in. And I’ve also got a phenomenal theatre company called the deaf and hearing ensemble, who I’ve developed it with in England. And they – all of the artists in that company have brought their own experiences in.
B: I was going to ask you, it’s one thing to have this idea but then to make it work who did you persuade? But is it a group that already exists?
E: Yeah. It was absolutely crazy. It was really fortuitous. So I um – I actually, when I moved back um, to London after the wedding; I spent a few months in New Zealand with the family and I went back and was looking for work and I used to teach Zumba. So I went to a Zumba instructor interview and I met this girl. And she ‘oh, I have this theatre company called the Deaf and Hearing Ensemble. We’re looking for a project to kind of take us to the next level’. And they had actually started – they’d been borne out of a week with the Royal Shakespeare Company, so they had received some funding to look at how, um, Shakespeare’s verse can really work with sign language, and how the visual interpretation of it can happen. So they had a lot of really interesting projects but they hadn’t made up a proper big show – and they were looking for that show. And I said ‘well I have a show I’m looking to be made’. So, through developing it with them over the last year or more – we’ve really – I mean there’s been a lot of strong input from – so the girl who plays my sister in show, there’s just the two of us in it and we play all the characters – um – she’s a quite well known deaf actress in the UK. She was actually just on Dr Who so – she’s becoming a bit of a celebrity over there. So I’m trying to hold onto her.
B: Really? Has that episode made it to New Zealand yet? It can’t be that far off.
E: I don’t know. Are people really into Dr Who here?
B: Ow Yes! Oh Yeah! People talk about who’s the next Dr Who.
E: Well they’ll – Any Dr Who fans, the series which is just the last one, so that’s was just on in England at the end of last year. She’s in – she’s stars in two episodes as a deaf character and she’s the caption of a ship and she’s fantastic in that. But like, she has brought a lot of her experiences into, into the work, and um, there’s a lot of other actors in the company, who don’t appear in the show, but who have sort of shared their experiences.
B: How many performances so far?
E: So far we’ve performed it in about seven different places – ah and we call them ‘work in progress’ performances. So the first one was about 10minutes. And then we got some arts council funding from England to work on it for about two weeks. And then we devised – I had a script that we started with but we also devised a lot of stuff based on my ideas. And we shared that with the audience over two nights and then had an open forum discussion afterwards and invited feedback which was really interesting and really useful. We had two sign language interpreters and it was about 50/50 deaf and hearing. And by the end people in the audience were just asking each other questions instead of asking us, ‘cos you know a lot of the deaf people were saying ‘I can really relate to that’ and the hearing people in the audience were asking them questions. So that was great. And from then we did the Round House in London as well as two festivals and Forest Fringe which is part of Edinburgh Fringe. So we did that last year. Um so it got further and further developed each time. And we’ve just got funding again from the Arts Council to create the full show so this will be the final polished version.
B: I haven’t asked you yet, but I want to, ‘cos we talked about the hen’s party so I want to ask you about… you can swear and cuss in sign can’t you?
E: (laughs). You can! You can indeed. And infact one of the stories I was told when I was interviewing interpreters, was, you know a pet peeve a lot of them have is, um, that when they get on stage with a comedian, if they’re interpreting a comedy show, is that the comedian may decide to just make them part of the show and just start swearing and sort of um, make them do the sign (laughs) which they can be a bit embarrassed by or feel a bit like they’re put-on-the-spot. But yeah, there’s definitely um, that’s something that I think is really interesting and fun to play with in how you visually communicate certain things, like, um, swearing.
We had this little scene in the show which we were deciding whether to keep or whether to change but where it was actually a deaf comedian who was signing something quite rude and it’s the hearing interpreter who has to do the voice over. You know that once again can, can, there’s a lot of comedy where if, people see the sign first and they think ‘oh I think I know what that means’ and then they hear the commentary, so, there’s a lot of humour in there both for a deaf audience and a hearing audience. And sometimes it’s different things and sometimes is the same thing. And it’s really interesting I think for the audience themselves to think ‘oh why are they laughing at that’ and you know it really opens people’s minds to a different culture.
B: Do you find towards the end of the play that maybe they’re all laughing at the same time?
E: Yeah. I hope so. ‘Cos that’s one thing that I know a lot of um, maybe find a bit difficult, is that if they go to a comedy, a hearing comedy show, they’re always going to get the jokes just a little bit after everybody else, so there’s always just like lag and then you get the laughter from the deaf people, ‘cos they’ve got to wait for the interpreter and um, that’s something I wanted to take away – is to take away that time and just to give people the opportunity to experience something on an equal basis at the same time – and perhaps even play around with the other way – so – there are other ways – so there are moments that people – who have had nothing to do with deaf culture wouldn’t understand. Like Sarah and I used to go to a lot of hearing tests, ‘cos she had to have her hearing tested quite regularly. So in the show I’ve sort of turned this into almost sort of a video game – if you know what it’s like to have a hearing tested then you’ll know the x’s and o’s and what they look like and, with children they get you to um, you’d either raise your hand if you heard a sound or sometimes they’d get you to play a game. So you might have to, I don’t know like, a connect four, and you’d put the thing in everytime you heard the sound, something like that, so they tried to make it fun for children.
So I’ve created something like a movement sequence that the hearing audience might think ‘what on earth are they doing?’ This is some cool choreography but I don’t understand – and the deaf audience are like ‘Oh yeah, hearing test.’ (laughs). And so, by the end everyone’s sort of understood. So I like that idea of sort of turning the tables a little bit.
B: Has Sarah seen the play yet?
E: Not yet (laughs)
E: Well she lives in New Zealand. I sent her a message on Facebook this morning and said that they might ask me on the radio this morning what you think of the play?
B: Yes. Of course. That was going to be the next question.
E: (laughs) She says to say that she’s very proud of me and um, she hopes that she and her friends will be able to see it one day. So we’ve got to try to bring it to New Zealand or at least send a video. But –
B: Well that was going to be the next question after that. When are you bringing it here?
E: Yeah, well that’s what we’re hoping to do. I mean I would absolutely to. Obviously it’s a matter of funding and getting things across. But I have had some really supportive chats with Creative New Zealand who are just very very helpful. We’re taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe and that is a fantastic opportunity to get lots of people along to see it. So the plan is to just to invite everyone and then just hope somebody goes “wow, that’s amazing. I’d like to help you.”
B: Are there accents in sign?
E: Yes there are. And I mean there are different sign languages. So American sign language bears very little relation to British sign language. Infact, if I watch someone signing in ASO I would really struggle to understand what they’re saying. Um. New Zealand sign is very closely related to British sign language because I guess it came over with spoken English so, it is, but there are a lot of differences in vocabulary. So you, the structure is very similar. So you could have a conversation but you’d certainly have moments of ‘what! Hang on. What’s that?” And I liken it to people who have got a really strong accent, or who speak with a lot of slang. Like if you went with a strong kiwi accent to England, people would, you know there’d be moments when people would go ‘what on earth are you saying?’ It’s a bit like that when you’re signing.
B: Can Sarah tell where somebody is from by the way they sign? The way I can tell where somebody is from by the way they speak?
E: Yeah, She probably can. I mean it’s more distinct somewhere like England which has a lot of regional variation. And they have a lot of regional variation in their sign as well as their accents. So Scottish sign is really different to the sign in London. And I find that really confusing.
B: Really? How?
E: They just have different vocabularies. So, there’ll be individual signs will be different. So structurally. You know, they can certainly understand each other but, like you know, the sign for a particular word will be something different.
B: And the Deaf and Hearing Ensemble? Is that going to be your acting career? Your dramatic career for the next few years?
E: We’ll see. I mean, I think one of the brilliant things about working in the UK is that you can have a really long life with projects. So I’m seeing projects that are on and you know, a show that’s at National theatre in London now, may have been initially created five years ago and it’s done, sort of a trek around the country to the Fringe Festival and been picked up by somebody else and then someone else and so – they just have enough people and enough theatre going audiences for that to be possible. So we are hoping that this particular production will have life of at least another year or two. Um. Then we’ll see after that. I mean we’ve got a lot of exciting opportunities. I think people are really interested in this type of work but I still work, act professionally for other companies and things as well and have an acting agent and all that stuff.
B: Erin, thank you very much for joining us.
E: Thank you. It’s been lovely to speak to you.
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