All My Sons at the Royal Exchange: captioning restores passion for the theatre

This week I took my step-father Brian to see his first captioned theatre performance, something we’d all been looking forward to for a long time. Brian is a regular theatre-goer in his seventies and has been watching plays at the Royal Exchange in Manchester since it first opened over thirty years ago.

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Recently though, he told me that he’d been having difficulty hearing the dialogue and following the plot. He has a moderate hearing loss and wears a hearing aid but he doesn’t use hearing loops, as no-one as ever explained how they work to him. He has increasingly been finding it a real struggle to hear the plays. He usually has to ask my mother to explain the plot to him, which is really frustrating for both of them.

I said to Brian a while ago that I thought that he would really benefit from going to see captioned theatre performances, which would make the whole experience much more accessible to him. He was really pleased to hear this and seemed really enthusiastic to go and try it out for himself. So we booked the Talawa Company’s production of Arthur Miller’s play ‘All My Sons’, produced by Michael Buffong and captioned by STAGETEXT.

I grew up in Cheshire and regularly used to go into Manchester, but I’d not seen a play at the Royal Exchange before. When we arrived there the other night, I was struck by how beautiful the historic building was from the outside, all lit up in colourful lights. It used to be the old Corn Exchange, and is a landmark building in the city centre with classic architecture and tall ornate pillars.

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Inside though, the modern theatre sits under the dome of the old building like a round spaceship on scaffolding. As we went into the theatre space and took our places I was wondering how the position of the caption units would work in such a round theatre space, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were three caption units positioned at eye level, with one of them placed directly opposite us. Also, our seats were perfectly positioned on the lower tier, close to the stage.

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The theatre was packed. I didn’t see a single spare seat that night, reflecting the popularity of this production, which had received rave reviews. There were people of all age groups in the audience, from pensioners sitting close by to lots of young people standing in the top tier. I noticed disabled people in wheelchairs sitting close by us and many elderly people with hearing aids. I was pleased at how accessible it all seemed.

The play was set in America in 1947 and this production featured an all-black cast. All the action took place in the Keller family’s backyard. Since we were so close to the stage, I felt that we could almost touch the set. I really like these smaller, more intimate theatres where you are so close, you almost feel part of the action. It reminded me of the Trafalgar Studios in London, which is really cosy and informal.

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The play is focused on the Keller family and is based on a true story. The father and main character, Joe Keller, played by the actor Don Warrington from ‘Rising Damp’ fame, has a dark secret, which he and his wife Kate (played by the actress Doña Croll) have been hiding for several years. Joe is a ruthless businessman, who during the Second World War provided faulty machine parts to the military, which resulted in the death of twenty-one pilots. In order to cover this up and save his business, Joe allowed his weak business partner to take the wrap for him, who is still in jail for the crime while Joe is thriving with a successful business and family.

Meanwhile, Joe and Kate’s son, Larry, a pilot, has been missing in action for three and a half years. Joe’s wife Kate refuses to believe that he is dead and is still waiting for him to return home. She thinks that if she recognises that he is dead, that would be like admitting that her husband is guilty of killing him, along with all the other pilots. The story becomes more complex as their other son Chris, has fallen in love with Larry’s girlfriend, Anna, who has agreed to marry him. Kate is horrified at this and tries to force Anna to leave their home without Chris.

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The main themes of the play are all about the selfishness of putting money and business above humanity, and the guilt that that brings. It’s also about the grief of loved ones and regret for things people have done in the past.  Arthur Miller wanted this play to appeal to the common man, and these central themes are universal and just as relevant today as they were in the post-war period.

The play was full of dramatic tension throughout and the dialogue was gripping. The First Act seemed quite slow-paced to me at first, but it was a slow-burner, building up to the highly dramatic and unexpected finale at the end of the Second Act.

I thought that all the actors played their characters superbly, but Don Warrington particularly stood out for me. He gave a really powerful, dramatic performance as the patriarch of the family, who believed that the terrible actions he had done in the past were justified for the sake of his sons and family. But in the end his actions came back to haunt him and ended up destroying him.

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Afterwards, I chatted about the play with Brian and he told me he thought it was wonderful and very well acted. He also said that without the captions, he would have found it very difficult to follow the dialogue, particularly as it’s a round theatre. He told me he was surprised that captioning is not more widely available, as he thought it would be helpful to everyone. He seemed really enthusiastic about it and told me he’d love to see more captioned theatre.

My mum, who doesn’t have a hearing loss, agreed with Brian. She told me that she too found the captions useful, particularly when the actors had their backs to us, as they did throughout a lot of the First Act, and she couldn’t always catch what they were saying. I too sometimes found it difficult to understand their strong American accents, which weren’t always flowing and convincing, so it was easier for all of us to read the captions while watching the actors.

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My family and I really enjoyed this performance and we all really benefitted from the captions, whether anyone had a hearing loss or not. It just made the whole experience much more accessible to all of us. Brian seemed to have re-kindled his love of theatre through seeing his first captioned performance. He’s now looking forward to seeing many more in the future.

 

 

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The Pride at the Trafalgar Studios: equality, diversity and inclusion

This week I saw the captioned performance of ‘The Pride’ at the Trafalgar Studios with my wife Joanna. I had been really looking forward to seeing this play for a long time, and I knew that this Jamie Lloyd production had been well received with excellent reviews. It is the third play in the four-run play of the ‘Trafalgar Transformed’ season of plays there.

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Ever since I watched the first Jamie Lloyd production there of ‘Macbeth’ earlier this year, my first ever captioned performance, I have really enjoyed going to the theatre again and watching his plays, which have universal themes, but are often acted in a surprising and different way. They always seem to make you challenge your preconceived ideas and assumptions about things, which I suppose is what watching good theatre is all about. I am so glad that I can enjoy these wonderful plays with Joanna on equal terms through live captioning, which I think offers an amazing experience for deaf and hard of hearing people.

When we arrived at the theatre, we met Christine Hathway, the Volunteer Manager from STAGETEXT there in the foyer with another volunteer. They were there to talk to people about captioning and were handing out mini-flyers in order to increase awareness of it. It was good to see them there and Joanna and I enjoyed having a chat to them before the play.

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When we went inside to take our seats we were disappointed to see that the caption unit had been placed really high above the stage, so that we would have difficulty seeing it from our seats in Row D unless we really craned our necks upwards. It would be like watching Wimbledon tennis, having to constantly bob our heads up and down from the captions to the stage. We spoke to Laura, the Deputy Manager of the Trafalgar Studios, about this, who quickly moved us and all the other deaf and hard of hearing people there to seats much higher up where we were able to see the captions at eye level.

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Laura was brilliant changing our seats like this so quickly, so that we were able to comfortably enjoy the performance with a good view of the captions. I realise how important it is to make sure you are in a good position to view the captions. Laura and the Trafalgar Studios staff really take this seriously to make sure that they have good accessibility. It is one of the main reasons why I really love going to watch a play there. Laura is really helpful and acted quickly to address our concerns and relocate us.

The play was written by Alexi Kaye Campbell in 2008 and is basically the story of a love triangle between two men, Philip and Oliver, and a woman, Sylvia. There are two stories happening within the play – the first set in 1958 and the other one set fifty years later, in 2008. The story keeps switching between these two simultaneous stories set in different time periods throughout the play.

Although this idea of two different plots and time periods seemed confusing to me at first, somehow it seemed to work. In the 1950s story, Philip is married to Sylvia, but he is having a secret affair with Oliver, a writer. In the present day story, Philip is openly gay and having a complicated relationship with Oliver, who is a promiscuous tortured soul. The modern day Sylvia is Oliver’s best friend.

I think that the 1950s plot seemed to work better and be more convincing somehow. Philip was living in a totally different society then where people were not open with their homosexuality, and he is much more repressed. He is facing an inner turmoil, trying hard to suppress his gay feelings for Oliver and to save his fragile marriage to Sylvia. I also think that the role of Sylvia, played by Hayley Atwell (who was in ‘Captain America’), is much stronger and more convincing as the 1950s wife rather than the modern happy-go-lucky best friend. There is a particularly awkward but very poignant scene where 1950s Sylvia has discovered her friend Oliver’s special pen in her marital bedroom and she confronts him about it as she suddenly realises what has been going on. This scene really plays to her superb acting as the deceived heartbroken wife.

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Some of the scenes I found uncomfortable and shocking to watch, but I think that the play is incredibly well written with very sharp dialogue. I think that the central theme of the love triangle and how attitudes to homosexuality have changed over the last fifty years was meant to be edgy, controversial and thought-provoking.

I also find it ironic that despite the fact that we now supposedly live in a more equal and tolerant society, the characters were still tortured, confused and no happier than their 1950s counterparts. Life is difficult, confusing and complex, no matter what era you live in.

There were also some humorous and entertaining moments in the play though, which lightened up the serious storyline. Matthew Horne, the actor who played Gavin in ‘Gavin and Stacey’, played three really funny cameo parts. In one really hilarious scene, he played the part of a modern day rent boy dressed as a Nazi hired by Oliver. When Oliver was trying to get rid of him as he realised he’d made a terrible mistake and Philip had walked in on them, Matthew’s character told him that there was no way he could get on the Victoria Line dressed as a Nazi without getting beaten up. The audience was in stitches.

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Undoubtedly thought-provoking, controversial but refreshingly different, this is a great play. I’m not surprised it has received so many great reviews since it first opened. I’m really pleased that I was able to see this play captioned by STAGETEXT. I am really impressed with Laura and the Trafalgar Studios staff for being so responsive and efficient in moving us so quickly. It is great that they take accessibility and inclusion for all at the theatre so seriously, as it should be.

At the end of the performance, as the actors came back onto the stage and received their well-deserved round of applause, they all held up banners which said “To Russia with Love” in direct defiance of Vladimir Putin’s stance against homosexuality in Russia. I thought this was great. You should accept people for who they are and not judge or repress them. Diversity is what makes us all human beings after all.

 The Pride_To Russia with Love

 

A Life Without Words at the Royal College of Medicine

I recently watched one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen. It raised a lot of questions in my mind. It made me realise just how much we take for granted in this country and how hard it really is for many Deaf people living in the developing world with no access to basic healthcare services, audiology, education and even language.

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The event was held at the Royal College of Medicine in Central London. They showed the documentary film and there was a panel discussion afterwards with the film’s Director, Adam Isenberg, and three other people. Dr Michael York, an anthropologist from University College London (UCL) chaired the panel discussion.

The auditorium where the screening was held was packed, reflecting how popular this event was. There were many Deaf people there. I was really curious to see this film ever since my friend Emily Bell from the charity ‘Soundseekers’ had told me about it. Her charity helps D/deaf and hard of hearing people, particularly children, in the developing world, so she was keen to see this film too.

It is a true story set in rural Nicaragua. It was filmed over a period of fifteen days and shows the life of three young siblings, Dulce Maria, who was twenty-eight when the film was made two years ago, and her brothers José Francisco (22) and Juan Andrés (14). The older brother and sister had been deaf from birth, while the younger brother had become deaf a couple of years before.

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 The siblings did not know any language, whether written, spoken or sign language, because they had never been taught it. They had not had any education and they lived in an isolated world of their own, being unable to communicate or express themselves with the outside world in any meaningful way.

Their parents and family tried to communicate with them in Spanish, but they had also developed their own basic home sign language and visual gesturing. It was obvious that the older brother and sister felt emotion and understood certain things. They both worked on the farm helping their parents and it was obvious from their body language that they felt really shy and uncomfortable around other people. Their mother explained that Dulce Maria was obstinate and rebellious, as she often didn’t do as she was told.

Then a Deaf teacher of Nicaraguan sign language came to their home in order to try to teach the siblings their first words of sign language. She spent several hours with them each day patiently trying to teach them basic signs related to the world around them, such as animals, plants and everyday objects in their home. Despite her compassion and patience towards them, it seemed like she was making little progress.

Although they seemed to be interested and curious about her, they were reluctant and shy to learn signing. It seemed as if they didn’t know what the point of it was and why they needed to learn it. This was very frustrating and upsetting for the teacher. In a very poignant and heart-breaking scene we saw her in tears as she explained how she loved the three of them, and it was unbearable for her that she couldn’t seem to get through to them.

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 I really wanted the teacher to have a “breakthrough moment” with the two brothers and the sister for them to realise how important learning sign language would be to them as a way of opening up the world to them. They could then express themselves properly, communicate with others and feel less socially isolated and uncomfortable.

 I hoped that over a longer time period than fifteen days more progress could be made, but I feared that it might be too late for them. Perhaps they really can’t understand why they need to learn to sign language to communicate as no-one has ever taught them it before and they don’t know of any other way of life. Perhaps they are just too scared and embarrassed to learn. We can’t know.

The panel discussion afterwards was fascinating and stimulated a lot of questions from the audience and interesting debate among the panel members. They talked about whether and how the brothers and sister felt emotion. Adam Isenberg said that it was obvious that they did feel emotion. He saw them look sad, happy, embarrassed and angry sometimes by their behaviour, body language and facial expressions. They just couldn’t express how they felt in words.

A member of the audience asked the Director if he knew how they thought if they had no language to think in like we do. He answered that we can’t really know, but they clearly had simple thoughts based on their family and the immediate world that they saw around them, as they had no access to the wider world outside. They didn’t go to school and they had no electricity, TV or access to the internet.

One of the panel members, Robert Adam, a Deaf BSL user, asked Adam if he thought the film might have been different if it had been made by a Deaf filmmaker. Adam said that it wouldn’t have made any difference as the issue wasn’t about deafness, but rather lack of communication and social interaction. Robert didn’t seem convinced by this argument as he thought that the film would have been different if it had been made by a Deaf filmmaker. Personally, I think it could have been interesting if it had been made by a Deaf filmmaker, as I think they might have had a real understanding of the importance of sign language.

Robert also asked Adam how he had gained consent from the siblings to film them if they were unaware of what was happening. Adam said that he had asked for consent from their parents, and that the girl, Dulce María, was happy to be filmed as she seemed to love the attention and wanted him to film her. The younger brother, however, didn’t like to be filmed, and in fact there were only a couple of scenes in the film with him it. Robert still wasn’t convinced that he could have gained consent from people who couldn’t possibly understand what the film was about.

Adam explained that he had shown the film to the whole family. He described how Dulce María suddenly cried when she saw her younger sister on the screen who had left a year before at the age of 16 when she got married and went away. She didn’t understand what had happened to her sister and that was the first time that she’d seen her since she’d left.

For me, this is an incredibly poignant and thought-provoking film. Sadly it is not on general release, but I would recommend anyone to go and see it if you get the chance. It is beautifully filmed, very moving and I felt sad at the hopelessness of the situation. I think that having access to education, language and basic communication skills should be a basic human right for every human being in this world. Sadly, for many Deaf people in the developing world, they are denied this, as this film shows.

To watch the trailer and get more information, follow the link below.

 http://www.alifewithoutwords.com