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Feature: Deafinitely Theatre in NW5 - discovering innovative ways to help deaf actors find parts in mainstream productions

Double Sentence by Andrew Muir. The Deafinitely Theatre company use various meth

Published: 18 March 2010

THE story of Deafinitely Theatre – and it is not a misspelling – begins with two profoundly deaf actors, Paula Garfield and her partner Tomato Lichy. They have a daughter, Molly, who is also profoundly deaf. She was being treated by so-called educationists as a “problem”. Even worse, they were told she had to be “repaired”. 

But the couple refused to have their child treated as a misfit, and decided on a dramatic solution to the misconception of deafness as a disability. They set up a theatre company, with some deaf actors and some hearing, with productions that are a mix of the spoken word and sign language, and this has moved on from just about being deafness to all sorts of issues – but seen from a deaf perspective.

The anger and frustration Paula suffered has been channelled into something positive and exciting. She herself was born to hearing parents who were told by doctors that their child should not learn sign language. She had to learn how to speak, they were told. Paula couldn’t make herself understood, and became deeply depressed. Tomato Lichy tells the same story – he only emerged from his depression when he gave up hearing aids and learned how to sign. They were determined that Molly should not suffer as they had.

Deaf people, they say, are marginalised. We see a blind person in the street and are all compassion – we will help them across the road, pass the time of day. A deaf person may speak strangely, cannot communicate, is socially isolated – so is all too often treated with impatience or as an embarrassment. And in the world of the theatre, any effort to help is confined to someone stuck in the corner, signing. Why, says Deafinitely Theatre executive director Mark Sands, are there not parts in plays about deaf people, played by deaf actors? He is hearing, but his partner is profoundly deaf, and he says wryly that it is very strange to be thrown into a social event where everyone is deaf “and I am the one who feels isolated, from all the signing!”

Mark says he is not sure whether it is a good or bad thing that it is now trendy to put someone profoundly deaf into a TV soap. There is a deaf actress in Coronation Street; she signs, but she also speaks very clearly. “That’s a cop-out,” says Mark. “We have to find other ways of making deaf performances accessible to audiences.”

Up until recently, he says, hearing actors have had to learn sign language to play deaf parts. He believes this, quite simply, is all wrong. A hearing actor playing a deaf character is tantamount to blacking up a white actor to play a black one, a deaf activist has been reported as saying – an outraged response that is indicative of how far we have come in fighting discrimination in recent years. How many theatre-goers, only a generation ago, objected to Laurence Olivier blacking up as Othello?

Mark admits that Deafinitely Theatre faces difficulties, although he would rather call them challenges. Working with professional playwright Andrew Muir, the main body of plays he puts on are specially written to make them accessible to hearing audiences. They have commissioned deaf playwrights but they have no access to deaf training and therefore cannot compete with other playwrights. 

“They have started using captions at performances, and this becomes complicated – “captions, signing and talking all going on at the same time!”

The company, which is based in Kentish Town, put on a series of short plays recently and received a very positive response from their audience. One story had a deaf character who was forced to speak, but felt he had no identity until he learned to sign. Another had a comic situation whereby a deaf woman working in a bank, considered stupid by her colleagues, could lip-read villains’ intentions and uncover their plot.

One of the enduring difficulties, though, is that profoundly deaf people’s speech is difficult to understand. A scene between two deaf actors therefore can depend on signing, or actors shadowing them and speaking their lines, or, says Mark, you have to have a very clever script. “You have lines like, ‘What do you mean by that?’, or you use gesture, which is universal,” he adds. 

Andrew Muir has had the challenging task of translating a play from English to British sign language – it made him realise, he says, how much could be cut.

As for deaf actors being cast in mainstream plays, Mark admits that they are facing a very difficult task indeed. But at the end of a two-week course they have been running at the Drill Hall in Chenies Street this month, they will produce a showcase of plays already written that prove that deaf actors can play in mainstream works. 

“It will have to be very cleverly produced,” says Mark. “But we will prove that deaf actors do not need to be sidelined – and that there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be a deaf Hedda Gabler!”

Deafinitely Theatre is based at Deane House Studios, 27 Greenwood Place, NW5.
Visit their website for more about the company:


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