Blog: Nadia Nadarajah

The actor tells us about her first performance as the only deaf member of an otherwise all-hearing cast

Hero image

I’m currently acting in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. This isn’t the first time I have performed at the Exchange – that time was with Graeae Theatre Company in Frederico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, earlier this year.

In the past I have mainly worked with deaf performers and theatre-makers. This is only the second time I have been the only deaf actor in an otherwise hearing company, and by far the biggest production. Before I began rehearsals I often wondered what the experience would be like, and I was quite nervous. As a deaf person I grew up with British Sign Language (BSL) as my first language and English as my second – would the other company members understand me? At the same time, though, I was really excited to be involved in the production, and to find out what it would be like to work at the Exchange.

Finally, the first day of rehearsals arrived, and I needn’t have worried. It was great to meet the cast and production team – they are all such lovely people. On the first day I was invited to teach the company some deaf awareness, so they were able to feel comfortable working with a deaf person and not feel awkward or wonder whether or not what they were saying the right thing.

After that everything went so smoothly and rehearsals were a great experience. The company has become really close-knit, much like the community of characters in Grover’s Corners, the town in Our Town.

I play Mrs Soames, and she’s an interesting character. Wilder hasn’t written a deaf character. However, our director Sarah Frankcom cast me to play her, and throughout rehearsals it’s been fascinating to find out exactly who she is and to discover the relationships she has with the other characters in the play.

The Grover’s Corners community of Our Town reminds me of Martha’s Vineyard, a town in North America, close to Boston. Originally, in the 17th century, settlers from Kent, England, set up a community there and the town Martha’s Vineyard grew. Many of these settlers were genetically deaf and sign language users too. As the town developed and people married and had children, many were born deaf and so the whole community became sign language users.

The people of Martha’s Vineyard didn’t make a distinction between deaf and hearing people. They all used sign language – which they called Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) – simply because of the numbers of deaf people who lived there. I feel that Our Town has a similar identity, that Mrs Soames’s deafness is not an issue for the other characters in the community, and they have a genuinely close relationship with each other, irrespective of whether they are hearing or deaf.

As the only deaf actor in the company, my working process is quite different from that of the other company members. I use two sign language interpreters throughout rehearsals. They interpret the dialogue of the other characters, so that I am able to learn the text, and together we work on the translation of Mrs Soames’s dialogue into BSL.

Obviously, during the performances I don’t have an interpreter to help me follow what is going on, so I have had to learn the plot of the play, who the characters are and what they’re saying to each other. Throughout rehearsals the dialogue of the other actors had been interpreted for me again and again, so that now I am able to remember the lines of pretty much the whole play, and am able to follow the progress of the performance by also relying on lip-reading the other actors and following their blocking and movements on stage. Many of the actors have learned and use some signing during the show, which is helpful for visual cues and so on.

Nonetheless, there is always the issue that if someone forgets a line during the performance, I have to be able to work out what’s happened. We have all come to understand each other so well, we can all rely on each other for support during any sticky moments and by now we’re pretty good at giving each other visual cues. This is very much part of how Mrs Soames operates – I think she’s aware of pretty much everything that is going on in Our Town, as she’s an expert at picking up visual cues, gestures and body language from the other characters. I feel my experience of working in a hearing company is very similar to Mrs Soames’s experience of living in a hearing town.

I think this is the first time Sarah Frankcom has worked with a deaf BSL user in a production, yet she has tried very hard to integrate the entire company as a family and, for my part, has been very successful. Although she doesn’t use or understand sign language, she certainly understands who Mrs Soames is, and she is always suggesting little things for me to try that support the development of my character and my translation of the text. This experience of being so integrated within a company is great for me as an actor, but I’m still excited to discover how the audiences will respond to Our Town and what they’ll think of Mrs Soames’s involvement in the community.

Sadly in 1952 sign language in Martha’s Vineyard became extinct, with the death of the last sign language user, Eva West. This meant the community didn’t need to use sign language anymore. I wonder if Mrs Soames is the last deaf person to use sign language in Grover’s Corners? And if she is, what will happen to the community’s knowledge of sign language should she pass away?

The reason MVSL became extinct is due to an important historical event for deaf people all over the world. Prior to 1880, deaf people had been taught through sign language. The Milan Conference in 1880 was a meeting of teachers of the deaf from across Europe and the United States. At that conference, with the support and encouragement of Alexander Graham Bell, the decision was made to ban sign language as a teaching tool for deaf people, and the oral method of speaking and lip reading was to be the new way. The teachers of the deaf who were teaching using sign language were removed from deaf schools, and the use of sign language was banned in all the countries who attended the conference.

That Our Town is being performed in Manchester is both important and appropriate. Manchester is the home of the second largest deaf community in the UK, so to have a sign language-using character in Our Town is perfect! The Exchange is also welcoming deaf audiences to three performances – one is a captioned performance and two are sign language interpreted.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing you there, but here’s a warning about Mrs Soames: she can lip-read whoever is speaking in the audience, so you have to be very very careful about what you say because she knows exactly what’s going on! Ask Mrs Gibbs – she knows!

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Blog: Nadia Nadarajah

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.