In late 2002, Adina Tal did not plan on founding a theatre company and a non-profit organization named Nalaga'at (Hebrew for "Do Touch") or to populate that theatre company with a dozen blind/deaf actors suffering from Usher's Syndrome who can only communicate with each other and the rest of the world through touch. She was already running a successful theatre company, busy writing, directing, and even acting, and felt that she had reached a point in life where "I understood what life was about."
But underneath the satisfaction with her accomplishments buzzed a small desire to do something new, and when members of a non-profit organization that had just received a grant asked her if she would do theatre workshops with a group of deaf/blind people, to her surprise she found herself saying "yes."
The surprise was genuine. "No one in my family suffers from blindness or deafness," she said, and while she had seen her share of theatre done by disabled people, going to see it felt like "doing a good deed," and she never felt any need to go beyond that level. Yet there she was, driving from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv for her first meeting, partly hoping that something would happen to postpone or cancel this commitment about which she was having second thoughts.
When she walked into the room she noticed that none of the dozen people there noticed her because they had no way of knowing she had entered the room, "and this was my introduction into what being deaf/blind means." It also marked the beginning of a phenomenal story about theatre-making, human inventiveness, and the power of personal narrative.
Not that this beginning was easy or clear. A primary problem involved how to communicate with her participants. Each of them had an assigned interpreter/social worker, and the interpreter would talk to his or her charge by signing into that person's hands. Shouting, gesturing, demonstrating, conversational interplay, the usual tools of a theatre director -- Ms. Tal could not use them. So on that first day she formed them into a circle and simply began with physical movements -- hand-waving, foot-stomping, and so on -- to get them to feel their bodies in space and in relation to one another.
On the drive back to Jerusalem, the initial sense of surprise had morphed into something else: she found that she had fallen in love with them, which made her think back to Carl Jung's ideas about the human spirit and "how that spirit really has no limit except for the limits we place upon it."
After three months, events took a funny but decisive shift. Yuri Tevordovsky, from the Soviet Union, stated categorically that everything they were doing was "stupid." "Why are we doing all this pantomime?' he complained. Ms. Tal asked him what he wanted to do. "Gorky," he replied immediately. And how are we going to that? she persisted. "That's your problem," Yuri shot back, "you're the director." She answered that the problem was his, too, since he was blind and deaf. "Okay," he agreed, in a tone of voice that said, "Well, let's do something together about this." This "something" became Nalaga'at.
During those three months, in talking with their interpreters before, during, and after their weekly meetings, Ms. Tal got the sense that while they genuinely cared about these people, these caregivers were often cautious -- perhaps too cautious -- in letting them engage with the world. When Yuri spoke out, and the others concurred that they would like to do something more than what they were doing, Ms. Tal realized that they felt good in being pushed and not just accommodated. Just as any other artist would. Including herself.
But as the idea of making theatre with them began to crystallize, she thought that while she wanted to do serious work, she didn't want to do Shakespeare or Brecht, or have them resemble a deaf/blind version of a hearing/seeing company. The source of their theatre would have to come from themselves, from their lives and their dreams. And that was the spark that led to gathering material, writing, rehearsing, and eventually performing their signature piece known as "Light Is Heard In Zig Zag."
Along the way, Ms. Tal and the others who worked with the troupe learned and unlearned a great deal about the (dis)abilities of their actors. For one, "I had always had this fantasy," she states, "that deaf/blind people were more sensitive to the world" and thus had greater insights and intuitions. But she found that, at least with sufferers of Usher's Syndrome, who are not born deaf and/or blind but whose hearing and seeing decay over time, they were not entirely used to their own afflictions and were often still learning after many years how to cope with the world. In other words, they had their own "blind spots" just like the rest of us.
But their sensory deficits did not make them feel like victims or pawns, or even necessarily handicapped. One of the actors, Gadi Ouliel, has the desire to one day drive a bus. When Ms. Tal learned this, she asked everyone else to board Gadi's bus in a way that showed something about themselves. When Yuri Tevordovsky got on, he did so with a limp. When she asked him why he did that, he said he did it so that he could get the fare-reduction given out to disabled people. Obviously he didn't consider being deaf/blind a proper "disability"; it was so much a fact of his life that he felt he had to add something on it to make himself appear more eligible for the rebate -- something even a crafty sighted/hearing person might do.
Another lesson, more pertinent to the making of theatre, came from Ms. Tal's realization that they lack an essential actorly skill: mimicry. In one exercise, she had each person take an actual grape and eat it. Then, using that sense memory, she wanted them to eat a pretend grape -- and she was astonished to see one dozen different ways of eating a grape. Since none of them could see each other, they also could not copy each other -- so each had to invent wholesale his or her singular grape-eating style. This excited the director in her because it made the act of acting fresh and innovative. Unlike with seeing/hearing actors, who can rely upon past gesture-memories (and thus become lazy or derivative), Ms. Tal saw that they had to "re-invent the world all the time," and in re-inventing it, see it anew. "There is an energy," she explains, "that I have never felt with any professional actor. I was discovering a whole new world."
She also realized something new about noise, that is, the noise that usually accompanies any kind of theatrical process. "I'm sensitive to noise," she confesses, "and even though I myself always talk loudly, my concentration can get thrown off if there is too much of it in the room." In working with the company members, noise was obviously not a problem since communication had to be by touch. Thus, everybody could become much more concentrated on the work at hand, leading to a level of focus and deliberateness rarely achieved in more "normal" rehearsals.
But perhaps the greatest challenge came with trying to find a way to establish with deaf/blind actors what is taken for granted in more usual theatrical circumstances: the umbilical relationship between actors and audience. "Theatre," she explains, "is about creating a moment of meeting between actors and audience." But with deaf/blind people, "their sense of stage-presence is completely different." Until there is a touch of some kind -- actor to actor or interpreter to actor -- they exist in something of a limbo because they do not have access to any visual or auditory cues that place them in time and space. Only touch puts them in the present moment. The challenge, then, was to create some form of virtual touch that linked the present momentness of the actors on stage with the being-in-the-present-moment of the audience.
The problem solved itself in an unexpected and unforced way. For the actors, the more they worked and performed, the more able they were able to build a sense of audience responses (which Ms. Tal labels as nothing short of "magical"). After performances, they would tell her that they felt that the audience that night was "dry" or "non-responsive" or "warm." She didn't know how they knew this, but she knew their assessments usually hit the mark.
In turn, the force of their confidence on stage spilled into the audience, which prompted the audience to react to the stage-action differently. Normally, the audience looking through the "fourth wall" of a play is an eavesdropper, a voyeur, at something of a distance. But watching and responding to a troupe of deaf/blind actors who cannot, in turn, respond to the audience's responding to them, forces the audience to rely less on the "outer" and to move more inside themselves, and this inward journey, in some "primary" way (to use Ms. Tal's word), blends with the actors' energies coming off the stage to create that umbilical so unique and essential to the act of theatre. "I am not a mystical person," she avers, "but I also can't deny what I've seen -- it is magical."
(And another small but important discovery about applause. Ms. Tal realized that the actors would have no way to know when the audience applauded them. So she devised a way of having the interpreters taps the actors' knees to indicate when the audience was clapping, and each actor would pass this tap down the line, hand to knee, hand to knee, until everyone got the message.)
It took about a year to create the first performance of "Light Is Heard In Zig Zag," which puts the actors on stage with their interpreters as guides. Since then the production has changed a great deal without losing its core focus on the personal dreams of the actors. And these dreams, as Ms. Tal points out, are no different than the dreams "normal" people have about what they would like to accomplish in their lives. There is Gadi Ouliel's desire to drive a bus. Yuri Tevordovsky "dreams that one morning he will wake up and take a look at the sky, and if the sky is blue, he will go fishing." Bat Sheva Ravenseri wants to become a famous actress and singer, Shoshana Segal would like someone to make her a birthday party, Zipora Malks wants to be a chief-of-staff in the army ("a particularly Israeli dream," Ms. Tal notes dryly), Marc Yarosky dreams of walking into a local pub, ordering a drink, "and being treated like a king."
After each show, actors and audience have a chance to mingle and talk, and on a promotional DVD about the show, an audience member, during one of these post-show meetings, states that "I'm bewildered by the capabilities, how far humans can reach." And this sentiment of wonder and respect is echoed without exception by the audience members. As Ms. Tal says, "A lot of people are coming to see and hear us and want to be part of the group because they want to be near these people who had the courage to get up and do something."
But current realities press in on these moments of revelation and acceptance. "We are working on a new production," she points out, "that will use drumming extensively." Drums, she has found, have been an excellent way to build communication in the group because the actors respond well to the vibrations as cues for action. And this new production will risk more than "Light Is Heard In Zig Zag" because there will be no interpreters on the stage with the actors, as there are now. "Only drums," she says, "and cooking." During the performance, the actors will prepare and bake bread; the show's length will be the time it takes to complete that process. And, of course, at the end of the show, everyone will break bread with everyone else.
Ms. Tal is also deeply involved in building a center in Tel Aviv to further the work of Nalaga'at. At the moment, the center will work with sufferers of Usher's Syndrome to improve their physical independence and integrate them into the community and the arts. The center will also function as a performance venue, and in the future, it is hoped the center will generate profits that will allow more deaf/blind people to find gainful roles in society. "We have a building, in Gaffo, in Tel Aviv," she explains, "which we are in the process of renovating." They have about $150,000 to start the work but will need about $500,000 more to fully complete it. On the drawing board is, of course, a fully equipped theatre, but the center will also boast something quite unique: a restaurant, staffed by deaf/blind people, where diners will eat in complete darkness. And as a way to further the center's mission of integration and acceptance, Ms. Tal explains that they will also establish a new group of actors, made up of Jews and Arabs.
The stage in darkness. A double row of chairs. A voice -- male, reverberant -- speaks to the audience. Stage right a young man steps into the light, and his hands carve the air with signing. The stage brightens, and from stage left, in double single-file, the dozen actors enter, the one behind with a hand on the left shoulder of the one in front, guided in by the interpreters. They take their chairs. The performance begins.
It is a great performance, by turns madcap and touching, always committed and clean and direct. Each actor gets to tell his or her story -- simple stories about simple wants and desires -- and the staging of the stories, like the actors themselves, uses broad strokes to convey meaning: balloons, bubbles, blond wigs, blue cloth for the surface of a lake, over-sized foam-board cut-outs of flower bouquets, a pair of drums, and, at the end of the show, a sing-along. All of this is good the way good theatre is good: vaudevillian, unmawkish, inviting, unheady, clued-in -- the jadedness cleansed away, critical distance cracked.
The most powerful pieces, to me at least, came when, at various times, one of the actors, stepping forward on the stage, the person signing to his or her left, the interpreter to the right at a microphone voicing a translation for us, "spoke" directly about being blind and deaf in a world not built for the sightless and soundless. We "able-bodied" in the audience, in an interstice between the rush-rush of our important day and how we have to get home after the show lets out to prepare for the next important day, are allowed to enter the space of "the other" and both forget about ourselves and remember ourselves, that is, drop the armor of ego and recover the power of a primary human-to-human connection by way of a shared frailty of being. We are all alike, like it or not, when it comes down to the struggle to make it all make sense.
This performance also has a second show just as spectacular as the first: when the actors and audience mingle afterwards. The lobby is jam-packed. The interpreters, umbilicaled to their actors, sign furiously into the actors' hands as person after person comes up to offer praise and congratulations. Many in the crowd sign themselves, so while the usual post-show verbal buzz fills the air, pockets of gesturing humans create a kind of post-show physical buzz as well, the audience member singing to the interpreter who signs to the actor who signs back to the interpreter who passes it on to the audience member, all of this speeding along the way flocks of startled starlings wheel and spin through a cloudless sky.
We should support theatre like this -- not because it's "feel-good" or because we want to soothe ourselves as "do-gooders", but because it is good theatre, that is, theatre that not only satisfies our aesthetic demands for craft and pleasure but also is enmeshed in, and drawing sustainable inspiration from, the world that faces it. Nalaga'at is embodied theatre, theatre from the body -- not just from the bodies of the actors and their shepherding interpreters but from our bodies as well, a call to us to bind ourselves each to each, since that is the only salvation we have as humans, and the only salvation worth having.
More information about Nalaga'at can be found on their website at www.nalagaat.org.il
Michael Bettencourt is a writer and playwright
©2005 Michael Bettencourt
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine