By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In an age of probing questions about inclusivity in theatre, here’s a model of accessibility — forged in the fire of experience, years of it, of being marginalized, and finding alternate pathways to communicating.
SOUND OFF, Canada’s unique and influential national Deaf theatre festival, born in Edmonton five winters ago, returns Wednesday, bigger and brighter than ever, for a five-day 2021 edition (in collaboration with the Chinook Series and Fringe Theatre) that’s exclusively online.
Deaf and hearing audiences are both welcome at a multi-disciplinary multilingual (ASL and English) showcase dedicated to Deaf artists and their stories. And there’s nothing circumscribed about a 22-event lineup that includes seven mainstage performances from here and across the country, seven live workshops; two staged readings; one Q&A, two panels, two digital “lobbies,” and one big wrap party.
The “pivot” into the digital realm that has engaged the creative wits of our theatre artists in these pandemic times, isn’t really an exile into foreign territory for the Deaf performing arts, says founder and artistic director Chris Dodd, a playwright/actor/activist, who became the U of A’s first Deaf drama grad in 1998. “The Deaf community was already well positioned at the start of the pandemic to shift their work into the digital realm,” he says. “We were already making use of video logs, video platforms for communication, and creating digital performances for many years….”
“The pandemic has been especially interesting for me as a Deaf artist because it’s opened up many opportunities for participation…. Going digital means that we truly reach a national (and beyond) audience for the first time ever after previously being a local event. That in itself brings new energy to the scene.”
The mainstage guest artist at this year’s festivities, which gather Deaf artists from here, across the country, and beyond, is Chisato Minamimura from the U.K. Her work Scored in Silence, which explores the perspectives of deaf people who survived the atomic bomb atrocity over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, brings another language into the SOUND OFF mix. BSL (British sign language). And the production unspools, as Dodd describes, in three formats: in BSL with English voice-over, audio-described, and English voice-over with captions. Your ticket includes access-on-demand to all three versions.
The five years since the first SOUND OFF have seen “a growing engagement between Deaf artists and mainstream theatre companies as they (the latter) turn their focus to diversity,” Dodd thinks. “Increasingly theatre companies are providing ASL interpretation and captioning…. There are often more events each week than I have time to participate in. Which is something that never happened pre-COVID. I hope that going forward we are able to strike a balance, that the theatre community retains some digital events as they transition back to live theatre.”
Having said that, though, Dodd adds that “people across the country who are Deaf, artists or not, are still marginalized and misunderstood.” Which is one reason, he says, that “I feel it’s important to (bring) my own lived experience to the stage.”
As a theatre artist, Dodd, a wry and insightful sort in conversation and in his writing, has often explored the experience of the Other, the outsider looking in. He finds the Deaf characters in the popular theatre repertoire, as written by hearing authors (Tribes or Children of a Lesser God, for example), are “pretty good” but lack authenticity. By contrast, one of his “favourite experiences onstage” was playing half a married Deaf couple (who communicate in ASL) in a 2016 Toronto production of Ultrasound, by the Saskatoon-based Deaf playwright Adam Pottle.
Dodd’s own solo show Deafy, a tragicomedy (in ASL, spoken English, and captions) about belonging, will become Playwrights Canada Press’s first published script by a Deaf author in October. It’s been grounded by the pandemic. But Dodd says he’ll return to the stage in it, when theatre is back live.
Meanwhile, his new play Please Remain Behind The Shield premieres at SOUND OFF, in a production (in “English, ASL and integrated subtitles”) by Follow The Signs Theatre, the company he shares with Ashley Wright, who directs. Originally commissioned by Canadian Stage and SummerWorks, it could hardly be more topical; it explores, as billed, “Deaf identity in the age of masks.”
Other MainStage offerings include ComMUTE from Kingston’s Deaf Spirit Theatre, a collection (performed in ASL) of diverse short pieces created by Deaf artists across the country.
Gaitrie Persaud and Natasha Bachus, the high-contrast Deaf pair that brought last year’s SOUND OFF the original comedy The Two Natashas: Our Life in Guyana, are back with a sequel, a new comic adventure called The Two Natashas: Visiting Aunt Natasha.
And, yes, to anticipate your festival question (we are, after all, in Edmonton!) there’s improv. Toronto’s enterprising Outside The March has custom-made an ASL version of The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries, especially for SOUND OFF. In the original version of their intriguing, much-travelled immersive mystery hit (200 cities, every continent), an “inspector” solves an actual “mundane mystery” from a single participant’s own life — in a series of personalized phone calls at a pre-arranged time every day for a week. The SOUND OFF edition, starring Connor Yuzwenko-Martin and Thurga Kanagasekarampillai (Miranda in the Citadel deaf-hearing production of The Tempest) happens on Zoom, in the course of an hour, for a general audience.
The six-member troupe Deaf Antlers Improv brings an ASL show, cued live by the audience, to the festivities.
From its debut edition SOUND OFF has partnered with Rapid Fire Theatre on an improv show that’s invariably one of the festival hits, with both Deaf and hearing audiences. It mixes Deaf performers from festival offerings and hearing improvisers from RFT. “It’s been a process in evolution but the results have always been hilarious,” says Dodd, a quick-on-the-uptake improviser himself. “Our first two years we separated into Deaf and hearing teams. After that, we mixed up the teams with equal numbers of hearing and Deaf performers on each. This year we’re using the Maestro format … which eliminates teams and pits performers against one another for points.”
“The one constant,” Dodd says, is the rule that the performers can’t use sign language or speech…. It forces them to express themselves solely through their bodies and gestures.”
“It’s the great equalizer…. Humour has become our shared language.”
SOUND OFF Festival
Where: online, fringetheatre.ca
Running: March 31 through April 4
Complete schedule of events: soundofffestival.com
Tickets: pay-what-you can, tickets.fringetheatre.ca