Image by Helen Albert
Deafinitely Theatre are the only deaf-led theatre company in Britain that provide performances and activities for both children and adults. I spoke to Artistic Director Paula Garfield and actor Jamal Ajala. Both interviews were through interpreters, with my interview with Garfield having an unusual rhythm as it involved me speaking to her interpreter Kathy who then signed to Garfield over skype. Garfield joked about “the wonders of modern technology!” but in fact the importance of interpreters became a pivotal and rather disturbing topic in our conversation.
Diversity in the arts is an extremely prominent talking point at the moment, including A Younger Theatre’s recent feature on Graeae. The company’s Associate Director Armit Sha admitted that Graeae was at threat of closing within six years due to funding cuts. Paula revealed that Deafinitely are also facing challenging times with funding. Changes to the Disability Living Allowance and Independent Living Fund have had a profound impact on the company. Most significant for Deafinitely is Access to Work.
“It’s a government scheme that funds our use of interpreters,” Garfield explains. ‘Without this scheme the company would struggle immensely.” She admits that Deafinitely could be in a similar position to Graeae. “If our Access To Work funding was cut, then yes, we may face closure.” Because Deafinitely works with both the deaf and the hearing, the company’s work with interpreters is key. “We make theatre that is accessible to all. As the Artistic Director, I am in constant communication with hearing artists, crew and other theatre companies. I could not communicate without my interpreters and nor could my other deaf members of staff. Access To Work is vital to our continuation and success.”
It is an uncertain future for Deafinitely Theatre, but they are continuing to focus on making high quality theatre to be enjoyed by both deaf and hearing audiences. The company’s latest work is a children’s show, Something Else, based on the book of the same name by Kathryn Cave. Something Else centres on the feeling of being an outsider. Everyone feels this in some form or another at some time, but Ajala says growing up deaf often left him feeling like the odd one out. “It is definitely something I can relate to”. This is partly why he wanted to get involved with this show. The play is addressing all of us at moments of vulnerability and that speaks to Garfield’s concerns to bring the community together and not to divide it according to our hearing levels. Something Else speaks to the whole audience. It is a bilingual work combining British Sign Language and spoken English as well as other visual modes of storytelling. “We encourage hearing members to see our shows by making sure that it is visual and by our integration of the spoken word”.
Ajala first took part in Deafinitely’s Youth Theatre where he learnt Visual Vernacular, a visual storytelling technique. He then became part of the company’s Hub, which is for deaf actors and writers over the age of 18 for continual professional development. Before Something Else, Jamal became a member of National Youth Theatre. He was the only deaf actor at the auditions. “I thought they might not understand me. I felt like I wouldn’t get in. It was quite scary but an incredible experience. I had a brilliant time.” Ajala is currently applying for drama schools across the country.
Garfield argues there is not enough deaf theatre in the UK. She adds, ‘I would love to see more deaf-led theatre across the country’, and emphasises the importance of there being ‘more deaf leaders’ and therefore more role models. Deafinitely Theatre aims to throw open the conversation around sign language and deafness. Paula is very enthusiastic about Grayson Perry’s recent Channel 4 series ‘Who Are You?’ to which she contributed. Grayson made a portrait of a group of deaf people including Paula and captioned it ‘Deaf- A Culture not a Disability.’ It is a sentiment Garfield whole-heartedly agrees with.
Throughout my research and interviews, I am very aware of how many times I have written the phrase ‘deaf theatre’. Garfield argues that while “it is part of our identity”, it is not the defining factor. The company aims to be valued as a part of the national theatre landscape and Garfield wants to encourage speaking audiences to go to deaf theatre. “We explore universal issues from a deaf perspective but our overriding aim is always to make high quality work such as Something Else that can be enjoyed and understood by all.”
Something Else is on tour from 20 March to 15 May. For more details go to their website.