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Theatrical Roots: Edmonton’s Sound OFF Festival by Heidi Taylor

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A month ago, on a crisp February afternoon, I touched down at Edmonton International Airport, and was immediately awash in waves of nostalgia. I grew up on Treaty Six territory, in the small town of Spruce Grove just west of the City of Edmonton. A traditional gathering place for diverse Indigenous peoples including the Cree, Blackfoot, Metis, Nakota Sioux, Iroquois, Dene, Ojibway/ Saulteaux/Anishinaabe, and Inuit, the land and waters I grew up calling Edmonton are now also host to an annual gathering of theatre makers from across the country.

The purpose of my visit was not a nostalgia trip, but the opportunity to attend SOUND OFF, Canada’s national festival dedicated to the Deaf performing arts, presented by Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre at the Chinook Festival. SOUND OFF brings Deaf artists from across the country to share their stories, their talents and the beauty of American Sign Language on stage. Led by Festival Director Chris Dodd, the festival ran from February 13th to 17th, 2019 at the ATB Financial Arts Barns in the heart of Edmonton’s historic Old Strathcona neighborhood.

The Arts Barns that house the theatres where the festival took place were a revelation. When I cut my theatre teeth in Edmonton in the late 90s, the towering warehouses were still rigged up with temporary seating. Theatre makers took advantage of the cavernous space with installations like Lynda Adams’ direction of Mou Sen’s File 0, complete with electrified fence between the actors and audience and giant industrial fan splattering tomatoes and apples across an expanse of concrete, or Trevor Schmidt’s Tales from the Hospital creating long vistas with multiple performance spaces. My first solo performance installation was at the bus barns and involved a 25-foot scaffold that still didn’t reach the ceiling.

Now, the complex hosts a theatre, a studio, and the more casual back space, with a welcoming lobby big enough to host salons and a flex space for meetings. And lest folks from outside Edmonton consider that a bustling theatre district, these were added attractions to the historic Walterdale Theatre, the Varscona Theatre, and the original home of Catalyst Theatre on the other side of the tracks, where they developed their unique aesthetic with the Abundance Trilogy and other early works. In Edmonton, you can never have enough small theatres, and the intimacy of the 50-200 seat house is nurtured.

In a delightful déjà vu, one of the first folks I encountered in the lobby was Workshop West Artistic Director Vern Thiessen, who provided the launch pad for Chris Dodd’s festival three years ago. Vern and I served on the board of Northern Light Theatre together, and he directed me in Tiger’s Heart at the Walterdale before going off to win the Governor General’s Literary Award for drama and making an international career as a playwright. He returned to Edmonton in 2014, and has made a huge impact with the creative and intersectional programming at Workshop West.

Entering the world of SOUND OFF, I was joined by Jess Amy Shead, PTC’s Community Engaged Producer, who is focusing her Early Career Development internship on increasing her Deaf cultural competencies and sharing that knowledge with the team at PTC. Her affinity for ASL was well-demonstrated, as she engaged in conversations in the lobby with the many Deaf artists who gathered by the shores of the North Saskatchewan to share their work and their visions for the future of Deaf theatre in Canada.

Songs My Mother Never Sung Me3_Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography

Still from “Songs My Mother Never Sung Me , a Deaf Opera for Families” (signed in ASL & sung in English). Music & Lyrics by Dave Clarke. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography.

With projects from across the country, SOUND OFF is a unique opportunity for artists, presenters and producers to encounter the breadth of Deaf theatre practice in Canada. From the sketch comedy delights of Deaf Spirit Theatre (Kingston) to the physical theatre brilliance of Deaf Crows (Regina), there were multiple approaches to centring Deaf experience and aesthetics on stage. Some projects presented ASL performance with simultaneous English surtitling, some used English intertitles, like a silent film, between ASL scenes, and others used physical theatre and ASL in combination with surtitling. The aim in all cases was to explore Deaf culture on stage using storytelling methods that are meaningful for a Deaf audience.

In the conversations, salons, and workshops between shows, several themes arose: the need for Deaf-led theatre training across the country; the lack of infrastructure for connecting Deaf artists to each other; and the incredible artistic energy in the community. Building on the conversations that happened at Awakening Deaf Theatre in Montreal last November, the leaders of the Canadian Deaf theatre community continued to build their vision for a more robust network – for artistic exchange, advocacy, and mutual support.

As I encountered the work with the recent PuSh keynote by Dawn Jani Birley in mind, it was exciting to consider myself a linguistic minority in this context, and to immerse myself in an ASL-rich space. Just as the Francophone theatre in Vancouver, Théâtre la Séizième, offers surtitled performances that give me as an English-speaker access to the uniqueness of Francophone theatre, Deaf theatre often offers ways both for hearing audiences, and for people who are Deaf but don’t use ASL, to access the performance. Language expresses culture in unique ways, and is considered by many to be the root of cultural protection and nurturance. An expansion of Deaf theatre in Canada will offer a platform for expression of Deaf culture that serves members of that community, and offers hearing audiences a window into the richness of that culture.

Deaf Artists & Theatres Toolkit

Because Jess and I had attended the Awakening Deaf Theatre conference, there were many familiar faces, and an incredibly welcoming community. I was able to have some artistically generative conversations with artists to learn about how they want to develop their work. Cahoots Theatre’s Deaf Artists Theatre Toolkit is a great launch point for understanding the complexity of a bilingual theatre process and how to appropriately resource Deaf artists. Before a show moves into production, however, we need to develop creative relationships. SOUND OFF provided interpreters between events to support relationship-building conversations. Canadian theatre needs more of these opportunities to develop the creative rapport that sparks creative process.

I encountered multiple perspectives about the role of hearing theatre allies in supporting the emergence of a robust Deaf theatre in Canada. On the whole, there was Landon Krentzan exciting openness and invitation to consider collaboration, as long as Deaf artists are in the driver’s seat and in control of the money. PTC’s role at this stage is as a learner and hopefully to earn our place as an ally. Vancouver Deaf cultural leader Landon Krentz of Artistic Sign Language has mentored me in my understanding of Deaf-led practice, and his critical feedback is helping PTC shape our participation. I encourage artists from across the country to put SOUND OFF on your festival schedule for 2020, to experience Deaf theatre in a vibrant cultural context.