In Touch: international collaboration exploring deaf/blind experience

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National Theatre recently collaborated on In Touch – a co-production between Russia’s Inclusion Theatre Company and Theatre of Nations in association with Graeae Theatre Company and supported through The British Council and Sense. Liz Porter went to catch the one-off sharing on Saturday 14 October in the Dorfman Theatre.

In Touch National Theatre

In Touch at National Theatre. Photograph: Patrick Baldwin

The National Theatre are driving forwards to improve access and inclusion, including greater representation on stage of Deaf and disabled artists. In essence, In Touch is part of a long-term project with Inclusion Theatre and Theatre of Nations, which uses the arts to connect deaf/blind, sighted and hearing people in different spaces. The original production, Touch-Ables, based on the real stories of the actors and their interactions with the world, had its premiere in Russia in 2015.

At the National we experienced an international version, performed by actors from Russia and the UK. The cast was joined by Jenny Agutter (Graeae patron) and, from Russia, actor Yevgeny Mironov.

The afternoon was not high drama/theatre, but highly enjoyable nonetheless. Rather, the performance was a reflection on the shared cultural identities of Deaf/blind and disabled people’s lived experience and how this resonates. It was also a chance to learn about some fascinating Deaf/blind Russian historical professional characters. Olga Skhorokhodova was the first Russian deaf/blind scientist, who was born in 1911 and died in 1982. Her story was read/performed by Jenny Agutter whilst Yevgeny Mironov played Professor Alexander Suvorov a 64-year-old deaf/blind Russian psychologist, teacher and poet.

The historical stories were woven in and around the lived experiences of the actors on stage, connecting lived experience of deaf-blindness and reflections on barriers encountered, both attitudinal and physical. The platform gave an excellent opportunity to uplift the profile of Deaf/blind performers who were clearly enjoying their moment on the National stage to a packed audience.

In Touch cast

The cast of In Touch. Photograph: Patrick Baldwin

Importantly for all of the collaborating companies, the National provided professional space to creatively consider the role of communication in preparation for the show – a complex quest given there were four languages on stage, captioning and simultaneous translation description. This was achieved with a very short rehearsal period and vast differences in performance experience and technique amongst the actors. Planning the logistical practical access alone and navigational choreography would have taken much thought and an openness to adapt with the fourteen (or more) actors on stage.

Each performer’s story was told through an eclectic style of spoken, signed and physical theatre, exploring the emotional rollercoaster of being human, how we each navigate our lives and what happens when different worlds collide and unite.

Graeae have long pushed boundaries, in incorporating BSL and dual-role presentation between hearing and signing actors. Working with four languages on stage will have provided opportunity to consider broader adaptations. Jenny Sealey told me when the show had first been produced in Russia, many of the stories were told by hearing actors. She had worked hard to enable all actors to share their work themselves and to weave the access around that – perhaps a new approach for the Russian company. This meant that many of the actors worked in pairs and sometimes you had men voicing for women and vice-versa.

It was confusing at times having different people voicing for different characters (especially as the Audio Describers were having to fit in bits of AD within their translation), which was sometimes hard to follow. Willie Elliot and Di Langford did a great job on the AD, and as they are both from performance backgrounds, their emotional connection, integrity and intonation carried the stories well.

Given more rehearsal time, perhaps their roles could have been explored differently. They were really doing two jobs at once. It’s an area that still requires more funding for creative development, active collaboration and consultation. I’m hopeful that Extant’s current research and Chloe Clarke’s The Importance of being Described Earnestly will fuel the conversation.

The pre-show information was good and there was a mini-set available. A volunteer described this as I explored it. The features that stood out were two apple trees, one red and worn (stage left) the other heavy with leaves, full of fruit and thriving.

Centre stage a huge glowing orb – often reddish-orange – was used to convey changing moods. We were told that apple in Russian means eye socket/eyeball. Immediately this grabbed my attention as a reflection in metaphor. I understood that we were about to hear a lot of stories that could be read as triumph over tragedy. To an extent this was true, although they were honestly portraying life as it is for many people with the barriers society throws at us; in family life, transport, school and work, presenting moments of change and transformation, particularly focusing on creativity.

It’s essential for this kind of collaboration to happen and I hope this cultural partnership will flourish.