‘Me No Shame Language, Right? Wrong? No Matter, Don’t Know Me Try! Hope Talking Better Future!’ by Alex Lodge
I started thinking, about two books into my reading, that I had made a huge mistake in the whole premise of my reading list. Sign language in written form is not the same as a written spoken language. It is more like notations of a physical score for dancers – because the language exists in three dimensions: space, time and context. When you tell a story in sign, you paint the space around you with your ‘words’. You take on the characters of the people in your story. You physically create and inhabit a temporary imagined world that you share with your audience – so your story and your language become fluid parts of each other.
English doesn’t have that.
Then I began working with Equal Voices, an inclusive theatre company, as a hearing actor in a series of actor-training workshops with Deaf performers from the Waikato Deaf community. And I felt like the cogs were grinding into action and I thought, yes, sure, these things all exist off the page: live performance, Sign Language, Deaf culture. They are things you can’t experience or understand truly, completely, from a book. But it’s okay to scratch some notes for posterity.
So my reading list has a parallel experience list, because the reading and learning has existed in three dimensions. I was reading, I was frantically learning New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL), and I was fortunate enough to be immersed in Deaf culture by working on an Equal Voices show, At the End of My Hands, as a hearing actor with mostly Deaf actors telling their stories about their Deaf culture and experience.
Here’s another mistake I made: Kaite O’Reilly doesn’t write for sign quite as frequently as I thought she did. But she cares about language. A lot. She treats it like a first boyfriend. And she dresses up and strips down and gently strokes and fucks over all kinds of languages to shine light on people and cultures that she knows ought to be heard.
In her 2014 play, Woman of Flowers, O’Reilly retells the Welsh legend of Blodeuwedd – the woman who was magicked into being out of flowers as a bride for a cursed man and is eventually transformed into an owl as punishment for falling in love with someone other than her husband. O’Reilly’s Blodeuwedd, named Rose, is Deaf but speaks English and lip-reads fluently. She signs when she is alone, and the author’s note suggests that in her monologues there should be “moments when it is a fusion of visual and spoken languages”.
The performative potential of Sign Language is in a lot of ways, much greater than that of scripted speech. A monologue written for Sign has to be translated and interpreted – it doesn’t have the “word-perfect” requirement of speech. When a Deaf actor performs a written monologue there are three languages it may be performed in: Sign, Visual Vernacular, and dance. These three dialects of the body allow physical storytelling to range on a spectrum from functional to poetic. As Laura Haughey, the director of At the End of My Hands, often reminded us in rehearsal, dance is to sign what poetry is to prose. And Visual Vernacular lies somewhere in between, with the performer telling a story in a cinematic style, painting the space, shifting characters and playing with scale and perspective in an immersive and totally singular way. Here’s an example of one of Rose’s monologues from Woman of Flowers, performed by Sophie Stone, with the text spoken over top.
Rose’s bilingualism allows us to see her true, complex self – her expression in English is coarse and aggressive, but her signing is delicate, full of primal yearning, and otherworldly. O’Reilly also uses Rose’s relationship to sign language and her lack of memory about how she learned English to create a sinister sense of erased identity. When her lover questions her about this, Rose simply tells the audience: “I’m like this because flowers don’t have ears.”
Talking with Deaf actors, especially people who grew up with oralist education, I was struck by a phrase that kept coming up – that Sign is the language that Deaf people are born with. Even when people weren’t allowed to use it at school, and in some cases, when Deaf kids in hearing families had no-one at home who could sign – the language would erupt out of them, stories and opinions would spring out of the ends of their hands in their own language. There’s something universal and ancient about sign that makes it so right for a mystical character like Rose. Her monologues told through her body transcend the fixed nature of spoken storytelling and cut straight to the core of a spirit trying to be free.
As I’m typing this I feel that I should, at this point, explain oralism a little – because if spellcheck doesn’t recognise the word, chances are some of you won’t either. So back in 1880 there was a conference – the Second International Congress on Education for the Deaf, or as it’s now most commonly known, The Milan Conference. As these names suggest, it was a conference in Milan about the best course of education for the Deaf community. There were 164 delegates attending from across the world. Exactly one of these delegates was Deaf.
So, 163 hearing people got together to talk about Deaf people, including Alexander Graham Bell (whose official job title, I believe, was Probable Patent-Stealer and freelance General Shady Fellow). The outcome of the Conference was an international ban on sign languages in schools. That was in 1880, and was still in effect when some of my Deaf collegues were going through school in the 1960s. Students were taught to lip-read and speak, to fit into a hearing world, and they were taught every subject in spoken and written English. I cannot imagine the frustration that this oppression of the basic ability to express oneself in one’s own voice would feel like.
And this is what O’Reilly’s writing gives us: voices for people to speak in, opportunities for actors and stories for audiences. I could rave for hours about her elegant and frankly fist-pump-inducing use of language and narrative structure in telling the stories of trauma, civil war, oppression and family dynamics, but that’s not strictly what I’m here to rant about. So in the spirit of gushing on-message: O’Reilly’s plays always serve intertwined purposes for two sets of audiences. Take a play like Henhouse, for example, where the action is presented backwards, the first scene taking place twenty months after the last scene. The play begins in an absurdist tone, with characters in seemingly separate realities and strangers to each other. As the play goes on and we travel back in time, we see them as they once were: a family, on a farm, surrounded by war and a slowly shrinking safety zone. The effect is like watching a bullet smash a window-wall in reverse. On one hand, to an audience who don’t have a frame of reference for the play’s context, this gives a beautiful and sinister sense of puzzle to the whole piece. If an audience member had experienced a similar trauma to the characters though, the articulation of this experience through the narrative device would have a very different effect. Maybe triggering, hopefully validating and cathartic. Simply, Henhouse shows us trauma in action. And like most of O’Reilly’s work, an audience’s reaction to that showing would vary widely within any given audience grouping.
This of course comes down to the inherent social nature of theatre as a form. We watch it in crowds, we react as an inconsistent mass and then the show finishes and we scuttle outside and quickly criticise it as a group before the actors come out. In O’Reilly’s peeling, the character Alfa describes live performance as “a collaborative act, the dynamic created by the relationship between the spectacle and the spectators.” It’s a bang-on description of successful theatre, but like most of the best things that are written about, I didn’t entirely appreciate it until I experienced it first hand recently. After two of our performances of At the End of My Hands, we held forums with the audiences, and were blown away by what a wonderful revelation it was for Deaf and hearing audiences to see NZSL on stage. It reminded me of ATC’s 2003 The Songmaker’s Chair by Albert Wendt, where the dialogue was half in Samoan, and as a non-Samoan speaker, I was in the audience minority. It was the first show most of us had ever seen in Samoan in New Zealand, and the Samoan speakers’ joy at hearing the language on stage was palpable. The show was more than actors on a stage. It was an event.
This is the form that O’Reilly’s peeling plays with, in a rowdy, epic and hilarious ride. I like to imagine O’Reilly rolling up her sleeves one day, and announcing to herself, “You know what I’m fuckin sick of? Fuckin marginalisation of disabled actors by smug theatre companies who call themselves inclusive. THAT’S what I’m sick of.” Then she takes a deep breath of crisp morning air, sits down and furiously stamps out peeling.
Like the name suggests, peeling has about a billion layers. It’s written explicitly for three actors with specified physical and sensory impairments. These actors then play actors who have been cast (out of well-meaning tokenism) as a chorus in The Trojan Women. They perform as the actors, as Audio Descriptions of themselves, as Chorus members. Over the course of the play, they remove their sumptuous, disability-cloaking costumes and talk frankly about living with a disability and how casting directors are dicks. Also lipstick and abortions. It’s real great. I feel like I only have half of an understanding of it as a piece from reading it and not seeing it performed, though, and don’t really know how much I can add to the dialogue about its use of British Sign Language with my tiny pie-slice of understanding.
I will however, shamelessly drop its most-quoted line in here, without context, because it’s a big girl and can stand by itself: “Cripping up is the twenty-first century answer to blacking up” (If this is a sentence that gives you some feelings, you should read O’Reilly’s blog post about it here ).
Reading O’Reilly’s work, while getting to hang out with the Deaf community and be welcomed into it despite my crude signing, has reshaped a lot of things for me. I feel lucky that I get to make so many mistakes and people keep helping me learn things anyway. I feel pissed off that many of the intelligent, brilliant Deaf actors that I work with don’t get that luxury. Mostly I feel that I shouldn’t end this essay by farting on about my feelings. So I’ll sign off with the words of a Deaf character from peeling about being constantly expected to interpret herself into English:
“It’s not a secret language. It’s in the public domain. I’m not going to cheapen my exquisite signing with your words.”