Paula Garfield, Artistic Director of Deafinitely Theatre writes about the importance of having deaf role models, real, authentic voices and creating a wonderfully gruesome show.

When I grew up, I thought I’d become hearing like my parents.

I’m now in my 50s and I’m still deaf.  I’m one of 90% of deaf people that has hearing parents.  It’s a very big number.   I didn’t meet an adult deaf person until I was six when my mum made friends with a family who were all deaf – the mum, dad and the kids.   When hearing parents have a deaf child, understandably, there is a lot of shock, upset and concern over what the future will hold for that deaf child.  Parents who have deaf children need role models – other deaf children, deaf adults and they need to know that deaf people have been around throughout history and that they’ve done pretty well.  This will help their own mental health and wellbeing, as well as that of the child. 

I co-founded Deafinitely Theatre in 2002 as I wanted to create plays that use British Sign Language and English together, centre-stage.  I wanted to put the deaf experience on stage for deaf children, their families and anyone to see.  I feel like I’ve come full-circle with our current play: Horrible Histories – Dreadful Deaf as this one was inspired by my own two deaf daughters (they’re in the 10% of deaf people that have deaf parents).  It was from watching them read the Horrible Histories books and us talking about what they’d read that made me realise: where’s the history about deaf people?  I’d never been taught anything about deaf people throughout history at school and I was curious to find out the achievements and scandals of deaf people throughout history.

I think that Horrible Histories is a perfect way to tell the stories of multiple deaf people throughout history in a fun, creative, horrible and revolting way.  If we’d made a serious play about how the Ancient Egyptians tried to cure deafness in 1550 BC then the audience would be leaving traumatised and shocked about what they’d seen.  Presenting this information in Dreadful Deaf gives us the chance to get a lot of serious, factual information across in a fun way.   

I remember approaching Neal Foster from the Birmingham Stage Company about the idea of making a Horrible Histories for deaf people over 5 years ago.  He was so supportive.  It’s taken a lot of work behind the scenes to get to where we are today.  We’ve been so lucky to work with Neal and the rest of the Birmingham Stage Company team on this production as their experience and knowledge of Horrible Histories has been invaluable. We’re excited for audiences to see what we’ve produced. 

As I said, it’s so important for deaf children and their parents (deaf or hearing) to see deaf people on stage and so in this production we have a cast of three actors – two deaf and one hearing.  Two of them speak and all three are fluent sign language users.  What we are putting on stage here is the deaf experience and showcasing deaf culture.  Some of you reading this may be wondering what deaf culture is?  For me, deaf culture is the representation of the deaf experience, a pride in British Sign Language and a commitment to being a part of the deaf community.  Dreadful Deaf is giving us the opportuntity to show all the achievements (good and bad) of deaf people throughout history.

Any play that Deafintiely Theatre creates is always enjoyable, understood and accessible to deaf and hearing people.  That’s a hard challenge for me as a director as I am constantly thinking about both groups of people.  But it’s so important to have a play that a family with deaf grandparents and hearing grandchildren (or vice versa) could go and watch together, enjoy and talk about afterwards.  I want to see mixed audiences with deaf and hearing brothers and sisters all talking about the deaf boxer they’ve just seen or being inspired by a character in the play and going off to learn more about that person afterwards.  

There aren’t enough theatre productions that are about the experiences of deaf or disabled people.  This needs to improve.  We need real stories with genuine, authentic voices to be showcased.  As you’ll see from this play, deaf people are not all saints (sorry to burst that bubble!).  It’s so important to talk about notable deaf people through history (good and bad!) so that all audiences realise that deaf people are exactly the same as them.  I hope that audiences watching Horrible Histories – Dreadful Deaf will go home with the message that deaf people can do anything – apart from hear. 

Horrible Histories: Dreadful Deaf is playing at the Bristol Old Vic until 1 June. For more information, visit the Bristol Old Vic website.

Find out more about the company and book tickets for Horrible Histories – Dreadful Deaf by visiting the Deafinitely Theatre website.