Signs of Change
In December of 2019, PTC’s WrightSpace residency program put Catherine Joell MacKinnon and Heidi Taylor in the Studio for 10 days to work on Catherine’s play Inaudibility World. This was PTC’s first engagement with a bilingual ASL/English work. The journey to the residency included initial ASL access explorations by Davey Calderon and many conversations with playwright and Deaf cultural leader Landon Krentz. Jess Amy Shead led a year of research to increase our Deaf cultural competency. Jess turned those explorations into a series of documents to point the way forward. Dramaturg Kathleen Flaherty sat down with Heidi Taylor to talk about the Inaudibility World workshop and some of the discoveries she and Catherine and the team made during those ten days in December
KF: I know it was a long time ago, but can you tell me what inspired you to investigate Deaf theatre in Canada in the first place?
HT: Before we set out on the year of Deaf cultural competency training, I was just seeing that there were artists in the community that we didn’t have the capacity to engage with – not even have a conversation with, never mind work with. And so, I thought we should dig in and find out what we didn’t know. Which is how I would characterize our last season (2018-19). With Jess Amy Shead leading that, the documents that she created for us, our experiences at Awakening Deaf Theatre and the Sound Off Festival, as well as Dawn Jani Burley’s keynote at the PuSh Festival gave me some context for where Deaf theatre is at in Canada.
“there’s a history of Deaf performance in Canada but it hasn’t been a part of the indie theatre world in a significant way.”
KF: Did you see anything across the country that you could say characterized the state of Deaf theatre in Canada?
HT: Yeah. I think it’s where we were thirty years ago with any other equity-seeking group that were seeking training. And Deaf artists excluded from training. So, there are a few pockets where, particularly for folks who have access to English or French training, there’s ability to code switch and work in both environments. And for those folks who don’t have that facility or that access, there’s a gap in terms of theatrical literacy. So the genesis of a lot of the work is coming from improv and, I think, there’s a lineage from the performances that were popular at the Deaf clubs in the early part of the 20th century. Deaf social clubs existed where people would create performances. So there’s a history of Deaf performance in Canada but it hasn’t been a part of the indie theatre world in a significant way. I think Adam Pottle’s Ultrasound was a real turning point. Adam doesn’t primarily use ASL, he uses English to communicate. So, it’s again, that wedging –people who are a part of the community but who can function in the mainstream are the ones who get opportunities. Saskatchewan Playwrights Centre …invested in a really major workshop for that play quite a number of years ago. But because the performers that he had written for included a Deaf ASL-signing male character and a hard-of-hearing bilingual English and ASL-signing female character, there was a need for those actors. And those actors do exist, but they were working more in film or in classical theatre or doing ASL interpretation or Deaf interpretation rather than working in indie theatre. So, that production also spurred the production of the Deaf Artists Toolkit that Cahoots Theatre created [with Catherine].
KF: So, a year’s worth, at least, of digging around to find our capacity.
HT: What I think we discovered was that we had really no capacity to engage with the Deaf community in a general way because we don’t have the capacity to do that kind of ASL training for our whole staff. And I think we’ve had this happen when we’re trying to figure out how to engage with a particular community – some of our first attempts are not successful or not well-designed because we’re trying to respond in the moment and then we’re like, “Ohwahoooh, actually, this is….”
“…there’s a kind of false construction of the Deaf community. It’s such a diverse community and there are lots of different ways that people live as Deaf Canadians and some people are really trying to revolutionize the way that deafness is constructed as a social category right now, and that’s really exciting, and it’s something that we don’t really have a role in because it’s to be led by people from the Deaf cultural community.”
KF: We don’t know –
HT: We don’t know what we don’t know. And I think the other thing is that there’s a kind of false construction of the Deaf community. It’s such a diverse community and there are lots of different ways that people live as Deaf Canadians and some people are really trying to revolutionize the way that deafness is constructed as a social category right now, and that’s really exciting, and it’s something that we don’t really have a role in because it’s to be led by people from the Deaf cultural community. But then there are a whole lot of people who are hard of hearing, or who are late-deafened or who are not accessing ASL because of language deprivation from when integration was imposed from the ’50s forward and ASL was really not offered. There are a lot of intergenerational conflicts, there’s a lot of rural and urban conflicts, there are a lot of challenges in and around identity within that community that are really not our business. Do you know what I mean? It’s our business to understand that differences exist and to respect the perspectives of the different artists that we’re engaging and to understand what the politics are when we’re trying to bring different people into the room – we need to be attuned to what that means. There’s a lot going on in those communities and it’s up to us to be in a learning position. So we are. And I feel like we’re actually in a real learning position, we’re actively doing that, and that was only possible because we had someone [Jess Amy Shead] in a position to focus on it and leave the documentation behind about what she learned.
KF: So, once that had all happened and the documentation was in place from Jess, you were more ready to put out the call. What were you looking for?
HT: We did do a limited call because we had limits on what we were able to address from a capacity standpoint. We can’t fool ourselves that we are able to engage with artists who have no relationship with theatre and no relationship with English. It’s just like if we’re working with someone who is using Cantonese or Punjabi or any other language in their work, we don’t work in monolingual work in other languages; we’re not equipped to do that. We’re not equipped to do that in ASL either. So purely from a linguistic standpoint, we have to be realistic about what kind of work we can engage in. And that’s a tricky thing because, I don’t want to put limitations on what we don’t know anything about, but at the same time, I think that the way the call was constructed, it was realistic about what we had the capacity to do and I think that that was why we didn’t get that many submissions but that the submissions we got were actually the ones that we could consider.
KF: Wow. Isn’t that good!
HT: That’s good. And I still have some consulting to do about the way we’re working, but I also feel like we need to be aware of where we are in the spectrum of social change and where we are in our ability to support and collaborate with artists in the Deaf community. Now we have a better understanding of what a good interpretation context is, what kinds of language issues arise when we’re working between ASL and English, some rehearsal and dramaturgical strategies for tracking material that’s being developed or improvised in ASL and how to code that for the performer, or to speak about it in a similar way as one would for dance. You know, you have to come up with the vocabulary for the kind of dance that you’re doing so you can talk about what’s happening in the different sections, so you have language around what you’re trying to do. You create a shorthand. So, we needed to do that within Catherine’s process. I feel like I have some more strategies and that I could potentially work with someone who is using less English, but I’m not sure that we’re in a position to work in a fully monolingual ASL environment yet. Or if that should be our goal. I’m not sure.
“Catherine’s play is about her experience finding her language, ASL, and how the experience of being raised in an aural culture as an English speaker created barriers for her to join the Deaf community and how she has engaged with that question.”
KF: Can you talk a little bit about Catherine’s play and where it was in its development?
HT: Yeah. The play is called Inaudibility World and we didn’t actually talk about the title in the development, which we will, because it’s not very accessible for English speakers. It’s a concept; if you look at the definition, it seems clear, but it’s not a word that people are familiar with, so it’s like an unheard world, or a world that can’t be heard, but that’s not really what it is. So….
KF: It’s like mumbling?
HT: Yeah, that’s the thing that it’s not about. So we didn’t get into that because I wanted to be in a generative place and think through what the material needed to be and then the title conversation can happen later. Catherine’s play is about her experience finding her language, ASL, and how the experience of being raised in an aural culture as an English speaker created barriers for her to join the Deaf community and how she has engaged with that question. It’s also about the conflicts within family when there’s a non-bilingual family, because her family doesn’t sign, so what it’s like to try to navigate family relationships across languages when it’s only going one way.
“To write in ASL is to sign…So for Catherine, I was trying to discover a way of working that would support her writing in ASL, which is a visual language.”
Catherine brought a short version of the play that I’d seen in a reading at the Sound Off Festival in Edmonton. And when I saw it, I thought, “Oh, I could work on that play.” Because it’s a solo play, it has a lot to do with cultural experience and cultural dissonance, so just in terms of the work that I’ve done with Tetsuro [Shigematsu], there were a lot of common strategies that I thought might be useful. I also discovered that Catherine’s writing process is similar to Tetsuro’s in the sense that in order to create in ASL, you have to sign it. If you’re trying to write it down in English, you’re writing in another language. To write in ASL is to sign. Similarly to Tetsuro’s practice as a storyteller – he might write a few things, but he usually would speak his text and then transcribe it. And then work it and shape it, but a lot of it was coming from oral storytelling. So for Catherine, I was trying to discover a way of working that would support her writing in ASL, which is a visual language. It was interesting because, of course, the grammar of ASL is different from the grammar of English, and so in many ways the English grammar that was in the English aspects of the play was reflecting an ASL worldview. It’s like if you’re listening to people who have another mother tongue, often you can identify some of the thought patterns by the way the language is constructed. Not that it’s not correct English; it’s just that our thought order is really impacted by our grammar. I had learned a lot from Jess about ASL grammar, but as I started to apply that to the way the stories were constructed in English, I was like, “Ah, okay, you need to take this idea, and then tell the story in ASL.” So a lot of it was about story craft, about the difference between talking about something and taking us into the moment of something and letting us see it happen.
We discovered lots of interesting differences between storytelling in ASL and in theatre performance. Because role switching in ASL is very codified. And, if you translate that code into theatre, it looks like amateur improv. The body signifiers are the same. You can’t see this on the tape, but if you’re switching like this (facing back and forth), “I said this and she said this and I said this…” if you’re doing that in English…
KF: Well, you can do it twice and then….
HT: But in ASL, because you don’t have access to timbre or pitch, you can’t change your voice up or down, you use body position. It’s kind of a corollary that body position gives you timbre. There are other things that can do that, but in a shorthand in regular day-to-day ASL communication, that’s what you do. So, trying to interrogate that a bit and going, “Okay, well, how does that read when you’re trying to create a theatrical situation and are there moments where there are other strategies that will still give the information for the ASL signers in the audience and also work for English members of the audience? So a lot of the performative strategies we were trying to assess from both English and ASL at the same time and then come up with a few different modes of performance that included some character exploration in physical theatre: so, trying to come up with representations of her own character at different ages, representations of her mother, representations of her aunt, representations of her terrible teachers. Trying to find what those bodies were so that then she could do some mimed performance that was precise, as in “we’re sitting in a car”. As opposed to the ASL sign for driving, you’re actually miming driving – to get the distinction between those was really interesting. And then there were some sections that Catherine wanted to write that were in English because they were coming from her English-speaking experience. And we flowed, in conversation, between moments when Catherine wanted to speak in English and times when she wanted to sign and be interpreted. So, having an interpreter who knows her really well and understands her mixed communications style was really essential. Andrea Konowalec just flowed.
KF: You mean back and forth between English and ASL?
HT: She would interpret for me and she knew when to just drop out if Cat was going into English. Or if something was indistinct, she would test things in sign. In order to create a fully bilingual creation process, we needed an interpreter who could flow between and who really understands theatrical performance. I’ve got a video of the performance that Cat did, and it was a half hour straight through, and it was really interesting to watch how Andrea was coming “on and off stage” [based on Cat’s script]. Not interpreting when the interpretation was not necessary and then, in some moments doing a really kind of “plain” interpretation and in other moments performing the interpretation because the vocal performance needed to be expressed in the ASL performance in order to understand the connotations. Catherine and Andrea designed strategies around that. For instance: In one moment, Andrea had to fingerspell the word “pronunciation” in the character of a speech therapist that Cat was portraying. There are really strong boundaries around interpretation as performance, which raise some really interesting dramaturgical questions.
KF: Can you talk a bit more about that?
HT: This goes back to some of the social justice questions that are happening now around the interpreting community being dependent on Deaf people for their livelihood, but because it’s a highly specialized training that requires years of investment, it’s quite a well-paying position. This is not universal of course, but the perception is that it’s a well-paying profession that’s dependent on a community that has a very high level of poverty and social exclusion. And there are opportunities available for Deaf people to be signing… if you need somebody who is performing in sign, you should be hiring a Deaf performer and then using a Deaf interpreter. It’s like the difference between having a native English speaker who is fluent in another language translate for you and having somebody who is translating into their mother tongue, which is usually the way that you work it. You go from your second language into your first as opposed to the opposite. If you think about simultaneous translation, the idea is that they’re just conveying content. If you’re in a legal situation or a medical situation, you’re just trying to relay the information. So there the idea of the neutrality of the interpreter is very important, that they’re not adding to or subtracting from the communication. But in performance, how do you separate emotional content or timing or any of those things from the interpretation? I don’t know.
You can have a sign (illustrates) and it’s positive if you do it like this [change eyebrow] and it’s negative if you do it like this [change eyebrow]. Eyebrows are part of the grammar. So you can’t strip that away. It doesn’t mean anything otherwise. So it’s a very different kind of embodiment.
KF: From what I observe of sign, it has an emotive aspect.
HT: It’s part of the grammar. You can have a sign (illustrates) and it’s positive if you do it like this [change eyebrow] and it’s negative if you do it like this [change eyebrow]. Eyebrows are part of the grammar. So you can’t strip that away. It doesn’t mean anything otherwise. So it’s a very different kind of embodiment. And I did have this idea that there were some challenges to expressing subtext because so much has to be written in the body. But I feel like that’s not really the case. It’s totally possible for someone to be ironic in sign. It’s more challenging for somebody to be circumspect. But it’s also… if you think about methods of expression in many different languages, some languages are very clipped and short and culturally people speak quietly or abruptly, every language has different ways of being perceived, within its own culture and externally. And some of those things stray into the realm of stereotype, but there are often roots to those stereotypes, how gesture works within a particular culture and how that’s connected to verbal expression. So, I think, similarly with ASL – it’s a gestural language so it requires a more emotive aspect to function, but even within that, there is still a range of expressiveness.
KF: I went to a workshop once where Landon [Krentz] was saying something about how he would love to have a script that was in English and in ASL…
HT: – gloss.
KF: Did you run into any of that kind of question?
HT: We weren’t using gloss because the script was just for Catherine. The English sections were being spoken in English and the signed sections were being signed so there wasn’t a need to translate between the two. She did transcribe a lot of the ASL sections, but the ASL sections weren’t ever glossed (which is basically like writing down the descriptions of the signs). It doesn’t mean a lot to an English speaker, but it’s a way of tracking the ASL in a written way, which makes it faster than having to do it in real time by watching. Catherine’s response to that is to write it in English, but it’s starting in ASL.
“…we did a big wall map. That was my code for what the improvisations would be. And we’d have check-ins to say, “Well, what’s on the wall? what parts of the story do they address? are they in English or ASL? Do you want to switch any of those? Which ones are missing?”
KF: You did say something about having to design a process around how to save the material that was developed in the workshop. Do you want to talk about that? What did you find?
HT: I think it took a little while for me to figure out how important video was going to be to the process and getting the systems sorted for that. That was something that we definitely needed a production assistant for. It was challenging for me to manage the video and to be in response to what was happening as well as track all of the content. But we did a big wall map. That was my code for what the improvisations would be. And we’d have check-ins to say, “Well, what’s on the wall? what parts of the story do they address? are they in English or ASL? Do you want to switch any of those? Which ones are missing?” It sort of evolved in that way. And we had a couple of central questions to ask about the relevance of a particular story or the take that might happen on a particular story. Which was about the journey to freedom through access to language. It was always coming back to “What moment in the process or what moment in the story does this represent?” And that just kept opening up more and more points. It was great because there were some really interesting, uh, it feels like ‘weird’ coincidences. You know the film Johnny Belinda? It’s based on a true story of a woman in PEI, where Catherine is from. And very close to where she grew up. Based on this woman Lydia, who was Deaf and had no language. A doctor moved to town, who recognized that she was Deaf and could learn language, and who had a book of signs. He taught her to communicate. Later she was raped and became pregnant, and was exiled from the community, but she raised her child. There was a playwright who would summer in PEI, who wrote the play for Broadway, which was turned into a film. The first play that Cat saw when she was eight or nine was Johnny Belinda. She had no idea what was going on because she couldn’t hear it. But there were these sections where she could see this woman communicating in sign and she was like, “I want to do that. I want to be on stage signing.” Not just “I want to use sign language”, but “I want to perform”. So there’s this whole arc to her life – how she’s come full circle to be doing that. And the challenges for her family of her doing that. So we went into this big investigation of Johnny Belinda. There’s the story of going to the theatre. There’s the story of the woman it’s based on, and the story of how the play got made. So we explored both telling each of those and figuring out the relationship to ASL or English in those stories and what sort of performance was appropriate to each. Oh, and she also recreated one of the scenes from Johnny Belinda, which was awesome. The doctor, in the first scene where he was showing Lydia dirt and the sign for dirt, and tree, and the tree grows….It’s all very simple sign but to see Cat perform that in the way that Jane Wyman did… it was so hard for Cat to watch Jane Wyman in the film, “oh my god, she’s terrible.” (laughs) It’s like listening to somebody speak French in an American film, and you’re thinking, “Oh my god, they’re just killing the language here.”
“It’s always a question for me of trying to forget that I’m a dramaturg and be a theatre maker in the room and ask, “What’s the right theatre solution to what we want to do right now?” Because often it’s to get up and move. Like when we were trying to connect to Cat’s inner 8-year-old, so we all lip synced to Cindy Lauper because Girls Just Wanna Have Fun was one of Cat’s favourite songs.”
KF: Right. Right. So, aside from the deep vocabulary questions, has this experience added anything to your dramaturgical philosophical repertoire?
HT: It’s always a question for me of trying to forget that I’m a dramaturg and be a theatre maker in the room and ask, “What’s the right theatre solution to what we want to do right now?” Because often it’s to get up and move. Like when we were trying to connect to Cat’s inner 8-year-old, so we all lip synced to Cindy Lauper because Girls Just Wanna Have Fun was one of Cat’s favourite songs. It was just at the time when you could start to get lyric sheets and so her friend taught her the lyrics so she could sing along. So, it’s just these things like, “Let’s not forget about play and about being embodied.” Also trying to figure out, especially in solo performance, how to energize the room and how to take the pressure off the solo performer, who is driving the whole thing and has so much emotional work to do and so much focus work to do. Trying to create the right space so they can feel like they’re in dialogue. The interpreters we had were just amazing. They both love theatre. They’re both comfortable in theatrical practice. So when I say, “Can we all play tag?” (laughs). Cause we were looking at, “What were the games that you were included in as a Deaf child in a hearing environment?” “Oh, we always played tag.” so we played tag. You can’t really play tag with two people, so the interpreters got in there and we had an awesome time. And that helped Cat find some of the body character in that. So there are some things that are really challenging to discover in a solo creation environment. We were really privileged to have these interpreters who understood that we were creating theatre and not just trying to write something down. That had a big impact on being able to use theatrical tools and that’s something that I access more and more as I try and figure out “what does this creative process need? Let’s not forget all the creative tools we have. Hmmm? Do I have another writing exercise for that? Yes, it’s called ‘roll around on the floor’”.
KF: Yeah yeah yeah yeah. Physicalize. Can you talk a bit about the translators a little more? Normally wouldn’t you need two translators?
HT: We had two translators. Well, this was a special circumstance in the sense that…. and they prefer “interpreters” to “translators”, I don’t know why. I guess ‘cause it’s live. I was prepared to hire two (or however many we needed) local interpreters. But because of the particular relationship Andrea and Cat have developed over multiple collaborations and because Andrea worked on Inaudibility World in Edmonton last year, Cat really wanted to work with her. And I asked Andrea, “How do you want to organize this? We can get someone local and we can bring them into the process” and she said, “I have an idea.” So we checked with Cat and it was okay with Cat, so Andrea had a practicum student, Trisha, come. Her family just happens to live in Surrey and a friend lent her their car, so it all worked out that she was able to be there 100% of the time as well. So, it was a heavier interpreting load for Andrea but she often is interpreting for longer periods, especially when she’s in educational environments. I don’t think it was ideal, to be honest. It was ideal in terms of the fluidity of the conversation and the high level of understanding between the interpreter and the playwright. But it was challenging in terms of the social periods. I would try to not have Andrea or Trisha interpret during lunch hours, but they would. Automatically. Because we’re all just sitting around having chips. But it’s challenging in those environments to just bring someone in for lunch. We haven’t figured it out. We had a scheduling challenge for the evening when we had eight folks come in to watch. And we didn’t have another interpreter for the audience response, then we did and then they cancelled the day before. It made too big a day for Andrea. We shortened the day and we tried to come up with some strategies to reduce the load. I set up video stations for people to respond to the performance so she wouldn’t have to do all the response interpreting as well. And Trisha also supported in that context.
KF: How did the video stations work?
HT: Oh, I just set up an iPad and a laptop, and just did it on Photobooth and gave people instructions and just did it at tables…had to make sure the background was good for filming, and other than that, just said, “Hit Record and Done when you’re done.” And they signed. And it meant that we could have people do it simultaneously and it gave the interpreter a breather while we had some snacks and then we came back for a group conversation. I tried to rein it in, but that was also challenging.
I think there’s lots of new discoveries for us to make in how to organize the making of it…And to be able to take the practices that we developed in this context and to apply them to some other residency contexts. To be able to say, “This is what we need in the room…”
KF: I would never in a million years have thought of that. Congratulations!
HT: Thank you. It worked really well actually. We haven’t had all that translated into English yet, but that’s next steps. I guess I would just say that it’s the beginning for this project. There’s hope that we can continue working together because I think it was incredibly productive and Cat’s got a huge facility for digging in and really “going there” as a performer and as a writer. I think there’s lots of new discoveries for us to make in how to organize the making of it. We did a little brainstorm and looking for other residencies is the next thing we’re trying to do. And to be able to take the practices that we developed in this context and to apply them to some other residency contexts. To be able to say, “This is what we need in the room. We need somebody in charge of video. We need Andrea and another interpreter. We need somebody interpreting for social contexts.” I feel more confident in the design coming out of this process. And I guess I would say, and I can let Catherine say it in her feedback form, we talked a fair amount about how the context was working and acknowledging the stumbles along the way about getting outside interpreters and what other contexts she would like to work in. And she said she really didn’t want to have to work in the context where she had to be the one to train people up on Deaf cultural competency, so it was a real relief coming into this context. I felt, “oh my god, we are so under-resourced for this”… it tells me something about the broader context, but it also tells me that the research we did last year was really useful, it a worthwhile investment. Even though it’s small, we had a successful collaboration – the material is good, the relationship is good, there’s potential for it to go forward, so I feel “Phew. Okay. Step one.”
KF: Thank you.