Interview: Erin Siobhan Hutching – 'We'd love for the audience to experience the feeling of "otherness" and celebrate that'
Merging sign language, video projection, sound and physical theatre, People of the Eye takes a trip into a world more often seen than heard
Perhaps one of the most important functions of theatre is to present perspectives and experiences that would otherwise be consigned to the margins. For People of the Eye, Erin Siobhan Hutching draws on her own family experiences to present a vision of the world that is rarely discussed outside of a specific community.
'My sister is deaf and I grew up using sign language with her,' she says, 'but I didn't have much to do with the deaf community apart from my relationship with my sister. In 2014, I was back home in New Zealand for her wedding and I had a wonderful experience with the deaf community. The wedding was attended by both deaf and hearing and was accessible to both sides, being interpreted by an amazing sign language interpreter. For some of my extended family, this was the first time they had really been able to see my sister's personality due to an inability to easily and fully communicate with her when we were growing up.'
Inspired by this experience, Hutching decided to create a world that is, partially, a remedy to a personal ambition. 'My sister had never had the opportunity to see me in a performance which was fully accessible to her.' However, People of the Eye evolved into a work that integrates sign language to explore wider matters.
As well as sign language, Hutching engages the full panoply of theatre's visual strategies to conjure a story that explores the difficulties of communication. Hutching's autobiography is an important source – the action revolves around a family similar to her own, attempting to raise a deaf child – but the use of video projection, sound and physical theatre promises an immersive journey into an unfamiliar yet beautiful world.
'We hope that the audience will see the world from a new perspective,' she continues, 'or perhaps feel they've finally seen themselves and their experiences on the stage.' This double intention – both showing the deaf experience and addressing a deaf audience – is ingrained in the production and the process. 'We'd love for the audience to experience the feeling of "otherness" and celebrate that. But we wanted to make sure both the deaf and hearing audience have an equal, although perhaps different, experience.'
'To ensure this, we embedded access for both into the creative process from the start, allowing the projected captions and video to add texture and layers to the piece rather than just conveying straight meaning,' Hutching observes. 'Much of the piece is quite abstract to keep the audience thinking about what is going on and allowing them to tease out meaning and interpretation for themselves. We embedded access into the creative process from the start, allowing the projected captions and video to add texture and layers to the piece rather than just conveying straight meaning.
'Once the rules of access and communication are set up, there are points where they deliberately break down. There are many reasons for this, one being to give the non-BSL (British Sign Language) users in the audience the experience of not understanding and feeling on edge. We also use a bit of audience participation, both to challenge the audience and as a tool for them to engage on an active level.'
Even the sound design by Emma Houston captures the nature of the deaf experience, using subwoofers and infrasonic tones that are felt rather than heard. Samuel Dore, a deaf film maker, provided visuals, and Hutching developed her script with deaf performers and crew, including George the hearing dog, who 'upstages everyone!'.
In common with much work that is coming from 'disabled theatre' – an awkward term that does not do justice to the imagination and power of the performers and performances – People of the Eye refuses easy categorisation and sits equally within 'experimental' genres. Birds of Paradise's Wendy Hoose had a similar and intelligent approach to accessibility, creatively incorporating sign language and captioning, while Robert Softley's direction in pieces like Purposeless Movements challenges lazy assumptions about disability in theatre with a sardonic wit and a brilliant theatricality.
'This piece draws on a mix of theatrical traditions, from physical theatre and mime to realism,' notes Hutching. 'The projections are so important in the piece that you could describe it as mixed media. I enjoy moving between genres and performance styles to ensure the audience isn't allowed to get too comfortable, and to find the best way to tell the story. In this sense, the piece is very modern and experimental.'
Whether People of the Eye belongs to disabled or avant-garde theatre, it has been made with an awareness of the audience and a sensitivity to deaf culture. The compassion of the process is reflected in the story, and its combination of personal autobiography and social issues provides intimacy and relevance.
'We want this experience of the deaf world to be portrayed in a real, meaningful way. To do this we drew upon many of our experiences growing up as deaf people, siblings of deaf people or siblings of disabled people,' Hutching concludes. 'Of course we hope people engage with the material, the characters and the story. The experience of the piece will hopefully be transformative, encouraging them to approach the world with a bit more joy and empathy.'
Northern Stage at Summerhall, 8–27 Aug (not 10, 17, 24), 1pm, £11 (£9). Previews 6 & 7 Aug, £9.