Have you ever discovered something so simple, so commonplace, that the discovery made you think, “how have I never noticed this before?” I did.
About a year ago I discovered the deaf community. I knew there were deaf people in the world, but I didn’t realize the extent of the community – there are deaf conventions and deaf clubs and deaf schools and, most relevantly, deaf people who like to go to the theatre.
I was working on a piece of theatre called Love Person, by Aditi Brennan Kapil, which has as a central character a deaf woman. The theatre company, bravely, sought out and cast an actual deaf woman as the deaf woman in the play. This lead us down a road in which the director took an ASL (American Sign Language) course in order to start communicating with the actress, and contacts were made at the Disability Services department of a local university, and training was held about how to create “deaf space” (which is a whole blog post all by itself), and interpreters were brought in to help us all communicate with each other in ways that would not make us pull our hair out. In the end we created a general vocabulary that we worked from that was part ASL and part gesture, and we put together a beautiful play that was attended by the deaf and the hearing alike, and we learned how to support a deaf community at the theatre.
But this post is not really about that play.
This post is about how a year after that play I found myself back at the door of the deaf community when I, as a hearing production manager, learned to communicate with a deaf woman who also happens to be an amazing lighting designer.
Now, I’m a generally awkward person to begin with. If someone’s going to put their foot in their mouth it’s going to be me, so dealing with the sensitivity of a specific disability was challenging at first.
Director: Make sure to let the lighting designer know about this change we’ve made to the set.
Production Manager (me): Ok. I’ll give her a call when the meeting is over.
Director: No you won’t.
Me: What? (beat) Oh. Right. I’ll… text her?
The good news is that I’m also a creature that can learn, and as we got into the process we overcame having a deaf designer in a room full of hearing designers. She could speak and was easy to understand, which helped a lot. Seating her across from the director (so she could read lips) helped too, and putting the person taking notes next to her, so she could reference them if she got lost also helped. It was not perfect, and there were conversations that had to be clarified after the meeting, but still, we made progress.
In tech, we put extra lights around the stage manager and director so that the lighting designer could see their faces and thus read their lips. We wrote things down and text-messaged each other, and sometimes had to just get up and point. But the thing that hit me was that it actually wasn’t that hard. It was certainly no more hard that it was to communicate with anyone else, it was just a different style.
By opening night I stopped the lighting designer backstage and expressed that I was sorry I had never learned ASL and asked if she would sign to me to help me start learning. “No,” she said, and I looked confused. “I forget to sign to you, and why? I can talk to you just like this.”
And she was right. We had communicated our way through putting together an entire (and beautiful) theatrical production! We were doing just fine with what we had.
So here’s the lesson of the day (if there has to be a lesson of the day) – I can talk to you… and you… and you. I can talk to my deaf designer. I can talk to folks with other disabilities. I can talk to people of different colors, and people with different traditions. The language is different, and sometimes I have to commit to being a learning creature, but I can do it. I can talk to you.