Disclaimer: This post first appeared on Auslan Stage Left.
I sat down to wait for the doors to open for the next show on my itinerary. I watched as a small lady dragged a large bag and unzip it to pull out a table. On top of the table, she placed a small suitcase and a box. The suitcase opened to reveal many audio description devices. The box perplexed me. Laid on its side, the box revealed a small set containing an upright bed in the middle of two side tables, an armchair in the corner, and items of clothing strewn next to it. I walked over to the table to peruse some papers about the show when I realised the box was a tactile miniature version of the set of the show I was waiting to see. Graeae and Theatre Royal Plymouth’s ‘The Solid Life of Sugar Water’ was a must-see on my list, simply because it had captions for every show.
I was fortunate to attend the famed Edinburgh Fringe Festival last August. In August, Edinburgh descends into organized chaos of theatre, dance and music. The population of the city doubled in a constant celebration of the arts. As a theatre maker, I was keen to watch as many shows I could fit in my schedule. As a deaf patron, I was keen to see what companies and venues provided access. While I could not see every captioned or interpreted performance (only because I would not be present for the dates available) I aimed to see at least two shows that incorporated deaf actors. ‘The Solid Life of Sugar Water’ was a fluke. I went for the captions, and stayed for the story.
‘Solid Life’ tells the story of a married couple who tries to reconnect physically and rediscover their relationship after the birth of their stillborn baby. This was forceful and unflinching theatre. Prior to entering the theatre, I approached the lady at the table and asked where the optimum seats were for viewing the captions. She pointed to the miniature set on both sides of the small bed and a strip on top of the bed. I nodded, perplexed by the changing locations of the captions.
The show was about to start. The opening scene of the couple began with them in their bed. The ingenious design of the set offered the audience of a bird’s eye view of the couple in bed. With clever choreography, it appeared the couple was lying down in bed but the actors were standing up. When she spoke, the captions appeared on the bed head. He left the bed speaking, and the captions appeared on the ‘floor’ next to the bed where he was standing. When he returned to bed, the captions would appear on the bed head. Oh, this is what they meant by ‘creative captioning’. Used to the old format of the two large screens showing paragraphs of lines of the play script, this novel way of captioning meant I could follow the action and the words without turning my head off to the side to read delayed lines.
With its accessible tools such as audio description and captioning, it is not hard to see why this production won Euan’s Guide Accessible Fringe Award. Not only did the production offer accessible tools; Graeae is a theatre company who puts deaf and disabled actors centre stage. The couple was beautifully fielded by Arthur Hughes (Phil), and Genevieve Barr (Alice).
In Jack Thorne’s script, Alice is deaf; she prefers to speak than sign. Barr is a deaf actress. Hughes has a physical disability in that he is missing two-thirds of his right forearm, which ends with four fingers. The spectrum of deaf people and abilities in art is often shown in dichotomies, as in ‘us and them’. In this production, deafness was present but the tragedy of the loss took precedence. A life event drove the narrative despite the deafness and physical abilities of the characters. As a deaf patron, I identified with Alice. As a theatre maker, I was challenged by my limited artistic aims to cater to and for deaf people. Why not broaden the catering to other abilities?
Thorne’s writing punched me in the gut. His precision of delivery littered with funny, filthy, hopeful and devastating moments portrayed a heart-wrenching event. Yet, Amit Sharma’s direction and the performances by Barr and Hughes were done so with sensitivity. When the show concluded, I turned to the lady next to me who was still drying tears off her cheeks. I asked if she was okay.
‘I am. God, that was amazing… I have no words,’ she said. I realised I did not have any words either. That is the kind of encounter I want my works to have. Thank you ‘Solid Life’ for showing me it is possible to make theatre that is accessible and delivers with candour.
By Jessica Moody