The other day I asked my Braille student at the beginning of our session how she was doing. She said she was still grumpy after what had happened the previous evening at her church. Once a month her church hosts a DeafBlind group service, with plenty of volunteer tactile interpreters. On this particular occasion, the Deaf pastor thought he was presenting the group with a treat: A performance by a touring Deaf Christian theatre company. As soon as my student mentioned “theatre,” I squeezed her hand to signal a gasp, and said, “Say no more, say no more.”
“Right, that,” she said. “Afterwards, we were gritting our teeth and had our claws out!”
We shared a moment of patting understanding before agreeing that the pastor meant well and didn’t know how much DeafBlind people hated theatre.
That is, traditional theatre, the kind that involves multiple characters performing on a stage. A one-person show might be OK; poetry and storytelling are nice. But there’s nothing more alien to DeafBlind culture than a play on a stage. Sighted Deaf people love Deaf theatre, of course. Some, though not many, enjoy ASL-interpreted performances—they can view the hearing actors and stage sets. They can see an actor whip out a gun in anger and see from the interpreter why. Hearing blind people may derive pleasure from listening to the dialogue while receiving audio description. They’d hear the actor yell, “You stole my money!” and know from the description that a gun has now come into play. For DeafBlind people, there is no direct connection. It all comes through an interpreter, secondhand, in a jumble, and you’re lost.
Is it any accident that the worst thing that’s ever happened to the DeafBlind community is a play, William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker”? Not only does it portray the young Helen Keller as a savage, thus gratifying the public’s need for monsters and their eventual taming, the play is most responsible for extending Keller’s problematic legacy to such a point that her name is a stand-in for the entire global deaf-blind population.
Another social reason for distrusting traditional theatre is that many DeafBlind people have been put on display ever since Samuel Gridley Howe pushed his pupil Laura Bridgman to perform her tongue-aided needlework every Saturday. And often when DeafBlind people find themselves on the stage, presenting or sitting on a panel, they don’t have access to the event itself before or after their bit.
One picture of how deeply wrong mainstream public performance customs are for tactile people comes from Jack Clemo, a deaf-blind Cornish poet. On his wedding day, he was led to the altar and waited until someone tapped him on the shoulder before uttering his vows. He did not know what the minister was saying and did not have access to his hearing-sighted bride’s vows. He was there, but was he part of his own wedding? While culturally DeafBlind events (such as weddings) are much better and inclusive, and the Pro-Tactile movement has given DeafBlind presenters unprecedented access to audience feedback, Clemo’s experience still serves as a thumbnail of what theatre means to both DeafBlind people on display and those who are in attendance. They’re there, but they’re not part of it.
So I propose that a true Pro-Tactile theatre is, first of all, for a DeafBlind audience and is not meant to be viewed from a distance. This means there’s no stage. No rows of chairs. And it must be a theatre where DeafBlind people themselves can be directors, actors—all personnel. Hearing or sighted people who can speak Tactile ASL can be involved or attend, but my point is that no part of it would be out of reach.
My thoughts on what a DeafBlind-friendly theatre experience might be like began to form in 2008 when I attended Louisiana Acadiana DeafBlind Citizens’ annual April crawfish fundraiser. The event featured a DeafBlind clown from Georgia named Mark Gasaway, who, as it happens, is the current president of the American Association of the DeafBlind. He was the ILLY Clown, “ILLY” being a spin on the classic I Love You handshape and short for “I Love Loving You.” He did what hearing-sighted clowns often do: mingle. In this context, it made something click in my head. Of course! Take the act to everyone.
He dressed in an outlandish and a very tactile costume, with huge boots and a hat with a ski jump for its bill. He went around teasing and playing pranks on everyone, showing them things from his many pockets. We felt him making balloon animals and swords and hats. He had a dog puppet in one hand, and we felt his other hand scolding it and the dog tucking in his head, begging forgiveness. He made contact with every DeafBlind person there at least twice.
Soon after that memorable weekend in the heart of Cajun country--which could be said to be DeafBlind country too, for Louisiana has the largest DeafBlind population in the United States—Seattle’s Deaf-Blind Service Center hosted a fashion show in partnership with a local boutique, the Fashion Bug. Instead of having a runway, they had a banquet. The models, some of them DeafBlind, approached everyone. They interacted with each DeafBlind patron, showed off their outfits, pointed out interesting features, and often engaging in discussions about the fabric and prices. Yes, the models allowed themselves to be touched, but those unfamiliar with the community can be assured that we have our own etiquette concerning permissible touch. The staff from the Fashion Bug also matched each patron with an accessory or a hat they could take home. They may not have realized it then, but something historic had happened.
These two events suggested to my mind one kind of play—the mingle. What you have is a social event and you let everyone eat and have a good time while a play unfolds in their midst. The actors are like out-of-state visitors or, if they’re historical characters, they are like they’ve just been dropped off by a time machine. The actors’ task is to build the same basic story in the minds of everyone they meet. They have a set of messages to get across while working the room. Say you have a love-triangle story. We get to meet all three parties, listen to them rationalize or wax lyrical or bad-mouth another party. We get conflicting stories. We are asked what we think, to take sides, to give advice, even to intervene. “If you see Jean, tell her I never did it!” I’m sure we’ll gossip with our fellow attendees in between our turns with the actors. There could be all sorts of formats. For example, there could be three very brief acts, which might mean the actors each do three rounds, while the attendees experience nine interactions with the story as it mounts toward its climax.
I think it’s important to note here that the attendees would know that there’s a play, and that Bill, Jean, and poor Luke are not real people. Theatre should never be about fooling people completely. There needs to be an element of cooperation from the audience, where the audience can choose to be drawn into the experience. Isn’t theatre an instrument of self-deception on the part of the captivated? Yes, collusion is the key to illusion.
However, we do need assistance in fooling ourselves. But traditional theatrical illusion is very visual and almost never holds up to touch. I remember being invited backstage one time to feel the props. The experience was underwhelming. Everything felt worse than fake. I couldn’t tell what half of the things were supposed to be. Take a knight’s suit of chain mail. It was a piece of cloth with shiny paint on it. The costumes and props used in Pro-Tactile theatre would need to be tactilely appropriate. The chain mail doesn’t have to come from the British Museum’s Second Crusade collection, but it better be chain mail!
When the Pro-Tactile movement blossomed, I was thrilled with the possibilities it added to my dreams of DeafBlind theatre. There are now presentations, workshops, and staff meetings being conducted without interpreters, following patterns of small group discussions and rotating people around so that everyone gets the same information directly. This spring, Gallaudet University has two classes that are done in this way, without the traditional set-up of a professor lecturing in front of students. I hope this means we’ll have various Pro-Tactile plays soon!
To explain a simple version: It would be like a series of monologues, which do occur in traditional theatre. Only there would be a room with the actors arranged around the room, ideally sitting on chairs with two chairs near each one of them. Tactile ASL allows for speakers to “double” what they’re saying by having both hands function as dominant hands. Thus, two tactile listeners can take in the message at the same time. If the order of interactive monologues isn’t essential, the DeafBlind attendees can go ahead and sit with all of the performers and rotate from there. If the order is important, then there is a queue.
That’s the bare-bones version. But this template can be built on in any number of ways. For example, there can be parts where, instead of having two tactile listeners following a single actor, an attendee can take in two actors talking primarily to each other or having a fight or romancing each other. There can be acts. Act One, attendees go into the room in turn, come out and socialize until Act Two opens, and they go in there again to find out what happens next. You can go anywhere with the costumes and props, from minimalist to elaborate. Unlike the mingle, the theatre room allows for more complex productions, such as Shakespeare adapted to suit a fixed number of turns round the room.
If I could have my dream play become reality, as it were, I’d like it to extend beyond just one room. Why not a house, especially an old house? If it’s a murder play, we attendees would be arriving at the house as if we were the detective. We meet the cop first, who briefs us on the situation. With our cop as our partner, ready to ask the right questions or offer safe speculations if our own faculties fail us, we meet the weeping father, and then the mother, who is cooler. We inspect the corpse, which is still warm, and we ignore the fact it’s still breathing. We handle the murder weapon, which isn’t made of cardboard. During the intermission in the dining room, while we’re enjoying refreshments and debating which suspect killed the gardener, there’s a crash and the plot thickens. As we interview the suspects a second time, it dawns on us who did it.
In other words, my dream play would make me part of it. The wily playwright has decided who the audience is to be, and the audience, who is I, suddenly becomes an actor.
Cover Graphic: “Creative Vision” - Adrean Clark - www.adreanclark.com