As Ad Infinitum’s Extraordinary Wall of Silence starts its run at Bristol Old Vic, Co-Artistic Director, George Mann sits down with friend and colleague, Matt Gurney to chat about his experiences as a Deaf artist.

I’m sitting in the foyer of the beautiful and recently renovated Bristol Old Vic, with my colleague and friend Matty Gurney. Matty and I met in 2012, when we were making Ad Infinitum’s award-winning international hit, Light and he was the first Deaf artist we collaborated with. The intricacy of our company’s physical-storytelling language and the richness of British Sign Language were an immediate match. The universality and the multicultural aspect of Ad Infinitum’s making process also proved a good ground for this collaboration. As a company we work with artists from all around the globe and tour our work internationally, so we are all used to working in a cross-cultural way. As a Deaf artist, Matty brings with him a whole cultural landscape which enriches the creative process. I had a chat with Matty about working in the theatre industry as a Deaf performer.

George: How do you think the theatre industry is doing in terms of Deaf representation? 

Matty: OK. So yes, I think we’re getting there. Slowly. We’re making progress. I mean, there didn’t used to be any representation, so we’re making progress now. But, to be honest, I do feel that some companies use Deaf people to give themselves an advantage, if you know what I mean? Not all, but some.

What I’m really fed up with though, is hearing people playing Deaf roles, and taking those opportunities from Deaf people, when Deaf people already have very limited opportunities in this industry. That’s just not fair. So that’s the point I’d like to make here. And also, I want to see Deaf actors on stage representing our own Deaf ‘voices’, not reproducing the voices of the majority – representing my authentic ‘voice’.  

George: Can you just describe what you mean by voice?

Matty: Right. For me, a play may be about a story, a character, but I need it to be told from the perspective of Deaf people. So that it’s representing their voices, their experiences, and their lives – growing up, experiencing discrimination – showing what that’s like, how that feels. How can a hearing actor empathise with that role when they know nothing of that? So, you might have a hearing actor given a one-week course of sign language, then going on to play a Deaf character. And it just doesn’t play right – it’s not good enough. When there’s a Deaf role, it should be played by a Deaf actor, so that the audience can genuinely empathise with the character. 

George: Ok, so have you experienced discrimination in the industry? And are you happy to share that with us? Can you describe for people what the challenges might be in a hearing world?

Matty: Yes, I have. Not all the time, but I have. For example, I might work with someone who’s never worked with a Deaf actor before and although they may not mean to discriminate, not intentionally, they don’t have any awareness of Deaf people. The more Deaf awareness there is throughout the theatre and television industries, the more people will understand, and the easier it will be for us to deliver the goods. So, I’d say discrimination is rare, but there are still quite a few barriers, and more barriers are being created in the industry all the time – barriers of communication and so on, you know?  

Also, unfortunately – and it is a shame – some theatre companies use Deaf actors in a tokenistic way. That’s unfortunate. It’s sometimes a tick-box exercise to get Arts Council funding. That’s a shame, you know? That’s all.

George: What do you think we can do to change that?

Matty: I think, to change that, the industry needs to listen to us as Deaf theatre-makers. They’ve got ears, they can hear – they just need to listen to us

Extraordinary Wall of Silence is playing until 19 October. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Bristol Old Vic website.