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.