“Accessibility for all” is one of the marketing phrases employed by major events companies. In contemporary society where wheelchair access, audio description and assistance dogs are advertised as part of accessibility, it is surprising how many Australian state theatre companies provide very little if any real access for the deaf. In the United States, it would be atypical to attend a large public event, be it a theatre production, a church service or a public event that was not sign language interpreted or open captioned for the deaf, at least in large cities. One of the few theatre companies in Australia that offers interpretation for the deaf is Sydney Theatre Company. Yet only one performance of four plays in a season of 13 plays is interpreted. In a progressive incentive, Melbourne Theatre Company invest $40 000 a year towards accessibility for those living with disabilities. Similar to Sydney Theatre Company, one performance in each production is open captioned for the deaf. Queensland Theatre Company provides access to one performance only in a yearly season of 255 performances. Access for the deaf to attend mainstream theatre productions in Australia is relatively restricted if not totally denied.
Crossbow Productions is an independent, not-for-profit professional theatre company which presented a production that engaged with these issues. William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker was staged at the Brisbane Powerhouse in June 2009. The play explores issues of marginalisation, communication and empowerment. Helen Keller (1880 – 1968) was a deaf-blind author, activist and outspoken speaker who become a world famous inspirational presenter and author. She grew up in an influential family in post-civil war Alabama and was struck deaf and blind after contracting (likely) scarlet fever at eighteen months. Determined to find help, her mother appealed to many high-profile doctors and educators, including Alexander G. Bell. Annie Sullivan then became Helen’s governess, teacher and life-long companion. The Miracle Worker explores Annie’s beleaguered attempts to communicate with Helen and concludes with an epiphany for Helen as she learns the significance of words, and eventually how to speak. It asks the audience to confront the issues faced by the deaf and the blind and questions the audience’s perceptions of the sensory world.
Crossbow’s production at the Powerhouse included elements to construct a sensory world for the audience. As a concession to hearing and seeing audience members, saturated colours were chosen for each scene and live music was a feature. The senses of smell, taste and touch, however, were particularly emphasised. This gave audience members a sense of Helen’s world and how rich it can be without reliance on sight and sound for information and experience. To introduce fragrance, large arrangements of live scented flowers were placed on the stage. Two hot meals were served. Food emerged as a language in itself: as both a communicative tool to pacify Helen and as a reward to access her latent intelligence. Touch was an integral part of the production with fabric textures, a variety of materials and objects’ shapes explored by Helen and was emphasised from the commencement of the rehearsal process.
The actor playing Helen, Louise Brehmer, was blindfolded and wore earplugs for much of the rehearsal period. Immersed in a dark and soundless world she discovered how to read situations, people and objects by touch. This translated into the performances. The audience vicariously experienced discoveries of explored objects with Helen. As Helen explored found objects such as the contents of a suitcase, the audience was confronted with the Heideggerian question: what is a thing? In Helen’s predicament things could be examined apart from their function, accepted meaning or name. This was emphasised by Helen exploring the form and material of each new object and thinking less about their function or context. Annie Sullivan’s glasses became “that hard thing”, her scarf “that soft, light thing”, her suitcase “that cube-like thing.” People may often miss out on the richness of objects’ attributes because they are placed in a functional context quickly. Helen’s discovery of found objects asked the audience to consider their unexamined assumptions about what a suitcase or a flower was (Heidegger 49-50). It is interesting to note that Brehmer’s acclaimed performance was so convincing that many audience members thought that she was indeed deaf and blind.
The sensory discourses of the play forced hearing audiences to question their perceptions. The following excerpt from a post-performance discussion illustrates this:
I thought I would be thinking more about sight and hearing. But it was actually touch and smell that intrigued me. But even more than that, I found myself trying to conceive of the timeframe. What time must have meant: a totally different dimension of time. I was dwelling on that quite a bit through the play: Helen was floating in her own individual time.
And to add to that gentleman’s comment: what stimulates the mind, in those blank times when there is no tactile, no communication with reality: what keeps the mind alive?
The most important addition to the production of The Miracle Worker was the inclusion of “shadow-signing” a process in which a signer closely follows actors playing certain characters. Sign interpretation was not a part of Gibson’s play. The added signing exemplified a central issue of this production: sign interpreters are usually “marginalised” by being placed at the sides of the events they are interpreting. This becomes a metaphor for the continued marginalisation of those living with disabilities. In The Miracle Worker they were placed onstage and were part of the production’s narrative. Furthermore, the signers interpreted the emotional states of the characters they were shadowing through facial and body expression. At times they stood beside the characters and other times they sat together on the edge of the stage in conversation. The addition of interpreter/actors added new layers of meaning for the audience.
In theatrical performances, layers of meaning are carried to the audience through various texts or public discourses (Knowles 91): the written text, music, lighting, staging, actors’ movements and characterisation and so forth. By being placed on stage, the signing became a text in itself rather than merely a means of interpreting a text unavailable to deaf people. Signers use their body and facial expression as signifiers of meaning. This was used artistically on stage. Signing is an expressive drama in itself, emphasising movement and expression. At times, for example, the signers were sitting close together on the edge of the stage, at others they were far apart at the back, and at other times they would offer a commentary on the action of the play through their body language and positioning. This was extended to the non-signing characters: each character had their own kinesics. The actor playing Annie was directed to use her hands a lot to express herself. Conversely, the actor playing Helen’s mother was directed to use her hands less and be “held together” when it came to non-verbal expression. This carried various meanings to the audience over and beyond the meaning of the words themselves. As the Australian version of the language of signing, Auslan, grew out of the work of Annie Sullivan and her attempts to communicate with Helen, this language of signing was integral to the core issues of the play.
In addition to bringing deaf issues centre-stage, the sign interpretation was used to give the mainstream audience, unused to experiencing marginalisation in the theatre, an understanding of exclusion. The play opened and closed with the interpreters signing to the audience. As this was not underscored by any spoken dialogue the non-signers did not understand what was communicated. This gave some audience members a sense of displacement. An audience member commented:
I thought how you started and finished the play with sign language was very powerful. It really raised my awareness of people that feel marginalised. Because I, as a hearing person, couldn’t understand the signing and felt left out. It just opened my eyes, just a little bit to what it must be like. (Heim 2)
At one matinee performance, episodes occurred in which the entire hearing audience experienced exclusion. The number of deaf people came close to equalising the hearing. In this performance a number of elements worked to marginalise the hearing audience. The actors playing Helen and Annie were scripted to sign words to each other. During these moments, the words were signed before they were spoken or they were not spoken at all. Deaf audience members understood the meaning of the lines before, or to the exclusion of, the hearing audience. Some of these communications were humourous. The deaf audience would break into laugher while the hearing audience sat bewildered. One of the most significant aspects of this particular performance was the relative abandonment of accepted theatre etiquette strictures. In contemporary theatre, audience behaviour is regulated to laughter and applause in appropriate moments (Kershaw 140, 151). During this performance many deaf audience members, having never attended a theatre performance before, laughed in “inappropriate” places, applauded during the performance, wept out loud and spoke back to the actors on stage or to each other. This was a theatrical event enjoyed as if in the nineteenth century when audience members laughed, cried, stamped, sang and spoke (Blackadder 120) through performances. Not only enjoyed by the audience, the actors found this particular performance one of their most heightened experiences in the theatre. In a significant inversion, the hearing mainstream audience was marginalised and the deaf audience privileged. Interestingly, in a post-performance discussion, one audience member suggested a complete inversion: “Did you think of just having the main actors act and sign at the same time?” (Heim 3).
Post-performance discussions also raised hearing audience member’s awareness of those living with disabilities. Discussions were held where the audience was given an opportunity to discuss their stories. A large variety of issues were discussed by the hearing and deaf participants such as the genuine struggles faced in a household with a deaf person, sibling rivalry and communication issues. Comments ranged from “I could relate to Helen’s family. It was like that in my family with me growing up deaf. The frustration is enormous. There were tantrums and fights. Families need to learn signing, after all, it is our first language” (Heim 2) to “I think everyone is still drying their eyes. Very moving. Very, very moving” (Heim 1). In one discussion Penny Harland, a blind and deaf educator was introduced and spoke to the audience. A question was asked by a hearing member that worked to further marginalise the mainstream audience: “What did you think of in those moments when you couldn’t understand or communicate anything of the world?” (Heim 4). Harland refused to answer the question and instead described a moment from the play where Helen was discovering a suitcase and explained how inaccurate the actor was in her “discovery.” Heidegger’s concept of the difference in “experiencing” objects was painfully exposed (49, 50).
Comments from post-performance discussions emphasised the great need for more accessibility. As one participant commented: “I’m deaf and we should be able to go to anything, and you’ve done that for us” (Heim 1). Others complained that not every word was interpreted. Because of budget restrictions, Crossbow hired actors that could sign and were willing to perform and interpret for a small fee. The actors were not confident enough as interpreters to sign the whole production. Comments such as “We appreciated the signing, but we wanted more” (Heim 1) and “we were disappointed the whole thing wasn’t signed. There were words going on we didn’t understand” (Heim 4) were frequent. As there were also tactile tours of the set before each performance for the blind, one blind audience member commented:
As a blind person, I got a great deal from it. I found it extremely moving and it has motivated me to read more about miraculous stories. The opportunity to have the tactile tour before the show did help me to visualise better what was going on, so that was a very welcome innovation as well. So I found the night thoroughly moving and worthwhile and I’ll certainly agree with the comment that there should be a thousand or so in the audience rather than a hundred so that everyone can experience it. (Heim 3)
These comments and many more from both the discussions and emails to the Powerhouse after the production emphasised not only the gratefulness of the deaf community but more importantly the need for more accessibility to theatre events.
The response to The Miracle Worker from the deaf community was significant. Over 250 deaf people attended and 70 of these had never been to a theatrical production before. Deaf Services Queensland and Vision Australia were both supportive offering in-kind assistance, promotion and assistance with signing. For its future plays, Crossbow Productions will continue to give tactile tours and, due to cost factors, will sign one performance only using Auslan sign language interpreters. The fee is significant for an independent theatre company: over $1000 to sign a single performance.
The response to the staging by Crossbow Productions of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker strongly suggests that there is significant demand for increased access for deaf audiences at theatrical events. Rather than merely reducing marginalisations, their stories and journeys can be presented and explored in such a way as to enrich the theatrical experience of the mainstream and the marginalised. Exploring objects, emphasising the senses of touch, taste and smell and including signing added to the richness of the theatrical experience. Significantly, the experience of marginalisation of the mainstream in this production also added to the meaning of the theatrical experience. It was hoped that this fostered the appreciation in audience members that the need to increased access for all can be more than worth the cost.
Blackadder, Neil. Performing Opposition: Modern Theatre and the Scandalised Audience. Westport: Praeger, 2003.
Heidegger, Martin. What Is a Thing? Trans. W.B. Barton, Jr., and Vera Deutsch. Chicago: H. Regnery, 1967.
Heim, Caroline. Transcript of Post-Performance Discussions of “The Miracle Worker.” By William Gibson, dir. Christian Heim. Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane, 7-17 June 2009.
Kershaw, Baz. “Oh for Unruly Audiences! Or, Patterns of Participation in Twentieth Century Theatre.” Modern Drama 42.2 (2001): 133-54.
Knowles, Ric. Reading the Material Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004.