By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The production that opens tonight at the Citadel is in its own special way a groundbreaker. For the first time in its 58-season history a play by a Deaf playwright will occupy a stage at the glass-and-brick playhouse downtown.
That play is Chris Dodd’s Deafy. And in his funny, moving solo tragi-comedy, the playwright himself stars as Nathan Jesper, a Deaf public speaker who lives in three languages (spoken English, sign language, and captioning), in a world fraught with absurdities, and obstacles large and small. Deafy invites us into that world, and Nathan’s quest to belong.
12thnight last connected with Dodd and his longtime director Ashley Wright about Deafy on the eve of its run at the 2021 Fringe. Have a peek at that piece here.
There are many firsts in Dodd’s career. He was the first Deaf student at Vic, Edmonton’s arts high school; he was the U of A’s first Deaf drama grad in 1998. He’s the founder and artistic director of SOUND OFF, the immensely influential seven-year-old national festival dedicated to the Deaf performing arts. Deafy, which made waves nationally at the 2019 edition of Toronto’s curated SummerWorks Festival, was the first play by a Deaf playwright to be pubished by Playwright Canada Press. The list goes on.
And now, Deafy is at the Citadel, in the Highwire Series designed to enhance the profile and fortunes of indie artists and companies. We caught up with the exuberant theatre artist this past week to get an update on his work, and on Deafy.
Nathan is so funny, so acerbic about the obstacles put in the way of a sense of belonging, to either the Deaf or hearing worlds. Can theatre embrace both? “Deafy is very much a play for both hearing and Deaf people. Everyone can equally participate … as it incorporates the spoken word, ASL, and captions. We’ve carefully crafted it in a way that ensures both groups can appreciate it equally. This aligns with the struggles of the play’s protagonist Nathan Jesper as he navigates his intricate existence between the hearing and Deaf worlds. Deaf audiences will identify with Nathan and his journey and hearing audiences will come away with a new appreciation of what it is like to be Deaf.”
Did you become a playwright because you didn’t find plays that reflected your experience? “I love writing plays that are accessible for all audiences. I really want my own work, along with the work of other Deaf artists, to reach wider audiences, one of the catalysts of founding SOUND OFF. Really, Deaf writers need to be the authors of their own stories. It is rather unfortunate that many tales that make it to mainstream theatre featuring Deaf themes or Deaf characters, such as Tribes or Children of a Lesser God, are written by hearing writers. So when we write our own stories, we are taking control of our own narrative….”
What are you working on at the moment? “I have a commission from a local company, as well as an ongoing project to help write a collective work featuring Deaf youth, a new version of a Young Audiences play Alicia and the Machine, with support from Roseneath Theatre. Plus I was selected by the Citadel to be one of four local writers for their Playwrights Lab.
Now that live theatre has resumed, will it jettison online platforms? “We’re still living in the age of digital performance and I don’t see that changing any time soon. The pandemic has really shaped howe we interact with the theatre we’ve usually gone to see live…. Even with most basic accessibility through automatic captioning over Zoom, this has opened a whole range of ways to participate that weren’t previous available for individuals like myself.”
COVID cancelled exciting destinations for Deafy (including the 2020 Edinburgh Fringe, an Ontario tour and Toronto dates). Are there new plans for Deafy going forward? “After the Citadel we have an invitation to the IMPACT Festival at MT Space in Kitchener in the fall, then possibly a festival in Australia. We aim to be touring this show in the next few years in different cities across Canada, and we’re already in discussions with a number of companies.”
What’s happening with SOUND OFF this year? “Our seventh annual festival returns to the Arts Barns this year, March 28 to April 2. We’re continuing with our hybrid format … both live and online shows and events. We have a huge line-up for this year, which will feature two new dance performances in separate venues (La Cité francophone and the new Good Women Dance studio). We’ll also continue our partnership with Rapid Fire Theatre, and will bring back our popular Theatresports show adapted to both Deaf and hearing improvisers. All this plus staged readings, workshops, panels, talk-backs, and more!”
Deafy runs at the Citadel the Citadel through Feb. 12. Tickets: citadeltheatre.com, 780-425-1820.