With stories drawn from real-life testimonies collected through 40-hours of interviews with Deaf people from all over the UK, Ad Infinitum’s opened at Bristol Old Vic this week. The new production sheds light on a relatively undocumented history of oppression experienced by Deaf people. Matthew Gurney tells us a little bit more about the history of the show:
What do you think when you hear sign language is beautiful
For me, thank you, that’s a nice compliment, but do you fully understand? For example, I went to an art gallery, and when you go to an art gallery and you see paintings on the wall you say, ‘oh, that’s beautiful’. But when you really try to deconstruct the art, do you have the knowledge to understand and deconstruct the art? You can see it and say it’s beautiful, but it might have its own elements and language inside that work of art that you struggle to unpack.
Do you think there’s something interesting that happens artistically when physical theatre and sign language come together
It’s interesting, it’s great for me! Most of the time actors who use sign language stand on the stage and deliver your lines, sometimes you’re thinking about your Deaf audience and you don’t want to distract the Deaf audience. But when you’re thinking about physical theatre and adding those elements of moving round the stage, I think it can still be incredibly clear. I’m still learning to mix physical theatre with sign language and I would like to do more exploration in that area, so far our experiments show that the audience really like it. I don’t know what’s coming up in the future, I would like to do more exploration.
What does the Milan conference mean to you
There’s no real rhyme or reason behind the 1880 Milan conference. Sign language is our language and they took away and they never told us exactly why. What was their thinking? They said they want you to speak it’s better for you, but you’ve never looked into my experience, my background, my culture, my artistic sensibility. For example one time I was performing and a man said to me ‘why do you disagree with cochlea implants?’ and he started to challenge me. And I said imagine they’re trying to wipe out deafness and deaf culture and sign language. For example Chinese and American culture now want English to be spoken, but imagine if they said they want English to be the predominant language, how would you feel? You’d feel quite upset. And it’s the same for me, as deaf people we’ve had our language taken from us, and you haven’t asked us how our feelings.
How have the three different stories made you feel?
I feel that their experiences are not dissimilar to my experiences, and I’ve got empathy with them. But when there’s new experiences, for example in Helen’s story, and I can’t empathise with them, I need to listen and watch and think ‘wow, this is so different from my lived experiences’. It’s the rise of technology, and this is a new generation, and technology leads the industry to hearing aids and cochlea implants and the deaf community seems to just have to get on board. Of the stories we’ve gathered nothing’s shocked me at all, but I think the hearing audience are going to be quite shocked. For me as a deaf person, I feel its time to tell society, its time to tell the government, look what you did to us over the period of 100s of years. It’s time we speak up. I think this play is the perfect opportunity, and another opportunity, for us to speak up.
Extraordinary Wall [of Silence] will be performed at Bristol Old Vic from 5th Oct – 19th Oct, touring 2019 -2020.