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The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

Peter Craw­ley on the the­atre of sen­sory de­pri­va­tion

It might seem un­grate­ful, but there’s lit­tle point in ap­plaud­ing a deaf per­former. The equiv­a­lent ges­ture in sign lan­guage is to raise both hands up, as though wav­ing in stereo, and briskly twist them at the wrist.

I have this on good au­thor­ity. I was re­cently at the Nalaga’at Cen­tre in Is­rael, an airy com­plex by the sea with a the­atre and a restau­rant op­er­ated by deaf and blind staff. Nalaga’at is He­brew for “do touch”, a re­as­sur­ing in­vi­ta­tion for any­one un­used to com­mu­ni­cat­ing without words.

The Nalaga’at Cen­tre, though, doesn’t ask its pa­trons to be­have any dif­fer­ently. A show called Not By Bread Alone, per­formed by 11 ac­tors, most of them deaf and blind, was a gen­tly af­fect­ing tale about liv­ing without a full com­ple­ment of senses. It’s im­mensely mov­ing when a man ex­plains that his lone­li­ness is am­pli­fied into some­thing al­most in­tol­er­a­ble when he can’t just pick up a phone. The only al­le­vi­a­tion in a uni­verse of iso­la­tion is to be touched.

There was some­thing more trou­bling about the show. A beau­ti­fully lit pro­duc­tion, with scene changes, mu­sic cues, ar­rest­ing spec­ta­cles and broad phys­i­cal com­edy, it was meant to be seen and heard. Its per­form­ers couldn’t ac­cess it the way the au­di­ence was asked to.

When some­body ob­served that it makes you ap­pre­ci­ate your own life so much more, I found the re­sponse dis­taste­ful, em­bar­rass­ing and com­pletely un­der­stand­able. We were tourists to their dis­abil­ity, more pity­ing cus­tomers to be en­ter­tained and con­soled, than wit­nesses to their tal­ents.

A few days later, I was in the Un­sicht-bar in Berlin. (Yeah, I get around.) This is a “dark restau­rant” run by the blind, in which pa­trons are led by wait­ing staff to a din­ing area where not a sin­gle pho­ton of light in­trudes. You’ve never seen such noth­ing.

Sit­ting down in a void to a meal which is de­scribed only with cryptic clues by the menu (the soup: “For the rit­ual they filled the sea with golden grain and a hot green is rais­ing to a real treat”), I felt un­nerved to the point of panic. Then I tried a bread roll and never tasted any­thing so in­tensely.

It’s hardly the­atre, and it still struck me as dis­abil­ity tourism, but it shifted the pos­si­bil­i­ties in my mind of what a deaf or blind the­atre could be.

The Abbey The­atre does great work in fre­quently fa­cil­i­tat­ing as­sisted per­for­mances. Paines Plough, CoisCeim and co­me­dian Adam Hills have all in­cor­po­rated their sign in­ter­preter into their per­for­mances. And Pan Pan, now the most ex­per­i­men­tal and in­ter­na­tion­ally sought-af­ter com­pany in Ire­land, was founded to in­cor­po­rate deaf cul­ture into a the­atri­cal sen­si­bil­ity.

But a gen­uinely dif­fer­ent deaf or blind the­atre would pro­vide the same sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ence for ev­ery au­di­ence; some­thing that re­quired no in­ter­preter, some­thing that was touch­ing without be­ing sen­ti­men­tal; some­thing that could be gen­uinely en­light­en­ing while leav­ing us com­pletely in the dark.

I’m still not sure how it would work, ex­actly, but a tac­tile the­atre of pure feel­ing is some­thing I’d love to not see.

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