Songs My Mother Never Sung Me: an opera for a hearing son and a deaf mom

Songs My Mother Never Sung Me, Concrete Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

“I learned to sign before I could speak,” says Dave Clarke, who’s highly articulate, to say the least, in his second language. 

There’s an intriguing contradiction built right into the architecture of Clarke’s multi-angled theatre career (as he concedes amiably). As an award-winning musician, composer, sound designer (not to mention playwright/ actor), one of E-town’s busiest, his work is based on sound. His parents are deaf, from birth. 

Clarke’s unusual childhood in south London — a hearing kid with a deaf mom and dad, and a startling bent for music — is the wellspring of his new memoir, a through-sung bilingual “opera” in English and ASL (American Sign Language). Songs My Mother Never Sung Me premieres Feb. 13 at Sound Off, the ground-breaking deaf theatre festival that’s part of the 2019 Chinook Series.

“People ask, first, why I can speak, since my parents were not verbal,” says Clarke, who re-located across the Atlantic to Montreal in 1987 (why? “I met a woman, of course!”) and then to Edmonton in the early ‘90s. The answer: his grandparents were hearing people. “A piano showed up one day in the house, with no announcement. My dad’s mom had it delivered to our little council house…. It took up an enormous amount of room,” he laughs. His grandparents bought him a record player, too, and there was no stopping a musical kid. 

“The house must have been very quiet, people say,” continues Clarke. Actually, no. “My parents don’t know how loud things are.” Naturally when Clarke started playing in rock bands, the practices were always at his place. Only the neighbours complained. 

“I didn’t know it was unusual,” says Clarke of his pre-school years in  both the deaf and hearing worlds. Once he started school, though, a sense of difference was bound to happen. And seminal moments, borrowed from real life, find their way into his opera. “When the boy hits five, he and his mom are outside, and the boy notices some hearing people making fun of them….” And, in a way that parallels the tension of immigrants’ children, the boy becomes “his mom’s translator on expeditions to the doctor or the grocery store, or when someone knocks at the door.”  

But it wasn’t traumatic, he says. Au contraire, “it made me feel responsible and independent and grown-up.” And the challenges have a lighter side, like the puzzle of the produce section in a grocery story: if there’s no sign in British Sign Language for zucchini, how can you finger-spell the word when you’re too young to know how to spell?

The opening line of Songs My Mother Never Sung Me, after all, is “this is the story of how my mom helped me find my voice.” The boy, says Clarke, “is the main character. I don’t speak for the deaf…. Really, no one can.”

In the cast of the Concrete Theatre production, directed jointly by Mieko Ouchi and Caroline Howarth, are three hearing actors who sing, and a deaf actor. The boy, Clarke’s proxy in his opera, is played by Luc Tellier, with Kieran Martin Murphy as the Narrator. The role of Mom is occupied jointly by one of the country’s premier deaf, signing actors, Elizabeth Morris, and musical theatre/cabaret star Susan Gilmour, who sings the signs. Erik Mortimer is at the piano, “onstage as a character.”

The show stars with an empty stage, and elements are added,” says Clarke of the piece commissioned by Concrete Theatre. Its first life was as a 15-minute “sprout” at the company’s new-plays-for-kids festival of that name a decade ago. 

The music starts simple, and grows more sophisticated, more emotionally complex, along with the libretto, Clarke explains. The song Baby Signs, for example, consists of English words for basic-need signs: eat, drink, pee, potty….”  As Clarke describes his score, it embraces a wide mix of forms and musical allusions: “comic opera spoof, tango, Kurt Weill, Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, simple ballads.

The hearing actors have learned to sign as they sing. Kieran Martin Murphy compared signing to learning choreography for a musical, Clarke reports. There is an eloquence to sign language in the way it marries the conceptual to the physical. “A lot of signs are more expressive than their English equivalent.” And sign languages are local, with their own “accents, dialects, idioms …” he explains. In ASL, for example, the sign for playing a trick on someone and having it work, so you’re calling them gullible, is that they ‘swallowed a fish’. If you want to indicate ‘you missed the boat’, the sign is ‘the train is gone’.”

And since there are no pronouns or conjunctions, “no I or You,” facial expressions are crucial to communication. Distances in both space and time are “gestural, a relationship between the hand and the body,” says Clarke. A year ago is farther away than yesterday.

The show deliberately doesn’t have ASL interpreters. The idea, says Clarke, is to level the playing field, and put the hearing audience in the position familiar to deaf people. “There are good jokes that are only signed!” says Clarke. “So the majority hearing audience can experience being the minority.”

In one way, crafting songs to combine lyrics and visual language complicates composing, Clarke agrees. But in another, he’s found it it liberating, too. “The lyrics scan, but they don’t rely on rhyme very much.… The sung English is very direct and simple, and there’s a fair bit of repetition.” Additionally, the piano score is amplified acoustically in the lower registers (by sound designer Bobby Smale). “It’s a vibration experience when the piano gets below middle C,” says Clarke.

“For many born-deaf people, music isn’t part of their lives…. I’m proud of this,” says Clarke, of reactions of deaf people to earlier workshop incarnations of the piece. Some reported “it’s the first time I’ve understood what music is.…”

Clarke has a strong aversion to the sentimentality that often accompanies the hearing reaction to deafness. He’s thinking of the dated play Children of a Lesser God, or the deaf glee club on Glee. Songs My Mother Never Sung Me isn’t like that. “It isn’t heavy; it’s fun, very funny. A very accessible simple story, actually, with common parent/kid benchmark experiences.”

Kids, bring your parents. Parents, bring your kids.


Sound Off: A Deaf Theatre Festival

Songs My Mother Never Sung Me

Theatre: Concrete

Written and composed by: Dave Clarke

Directed by: Mieko Ouchi, Caroline Howarth

Starring: Elizabeth Morris, Luc Tellier, Kieran Martin Murphy, Susan Gilmour, Erik Mortimer

Where: Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: Feb. 13 to 17

Tickets: 780-409-1910,

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