Deaf and blind take centre stage at the Playhouse

Facilitators with some of the Senory and Hearing Group during rehearsals at the Playhouse.  (2202JB52)
Facilitators with some of the Senory and Hearing Group during rehearsals at the Playhouse. (2202JB52)

The idea of performing a play in front of a large audience is enough to make most people sick with nerves but a deaf and blind drama group based out of the Playhouse Theatre in Derry are treading the boards like seasoned Thespians.

‘SenseAbility’ is a cross-border Sensory Engagement Programme (S.E.P.) and is a partnership project between Royal National Institute for the Blind, Action on Hearing Loss, National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI) and DeafHear. The project is funded by the European Union’s INTERRREG IVA Programme and managed by the Special European Union Programmes Body (SEUPB).

The ‘SenseAbility’ group have only been going for two years and meet on a weekly basis to explore the issues of being deaf and blind through the medium of the performing arts. Next Wednesday afternoon both groups will stage a showcase of their work in the Playhouse Theatre in Artillery Street.

The deaf and blind groups have been facilitated by North West Regional College performing arts lecturers Anne McMaster and Shauna Kelpie respectively.

Ciara McKinney, from the Bogside, can only see in one eye. Ciara is the newest member of the blind drama group and she said getting involved was one of the best decisions she has ever made.

“It’s great to come to a place like the Playhouse Theatre and meet and talk with other blind people. It makes a world of difference when the person you are talking to knows exactly what it is like to live with limited sight.

“Obviously a big part of why we are staging next week’s showpiece is to make people more aware of what it is like to be blind and/or deaf but that hasn’t stopped us from having fun - I have had so much fun here.”

Sean Canavan is from Gleneagles and is partially sighted. Sean said that this year’s ‘SenseAbility’ programme allowed the group to explore every day scenarios that sometimes prove difficult and frustrating for the blind.

“Our performance next week is all about showing those who can see and hear what it is like for a blind person to go to a restaurant or something as straight forward as recognising someone by their voice alone.

“Obviously when a blind person goes to a restaurant he or she can’t read the menu.

“Also, if a blind person wants to have a piece of meat in a restaurant it can often be very difficult for them to cut up so our play is all about educating people on how to assist blind people properly.”

John Doherty is from Letterkenny and is totally blind. In next week’s showpiece, John will convey how the concept that all blind people have remarkable hearing is a “myth”.

“I was in a coffee shop in Letterkenny and this girl came up to me and started chatting. She obviously knew me and she assumed that because I was blind, I would be able to recognise her voice.

“The idea that blind people have a heightened sense of hearing is a complete myth. It can be frustrating at times but I’ve tried to make my performance as humorous as possible because when people do that, they don’t do it on purpose.”

Shauna Kelpie was the blind group’s facilitator and said that she was humbled by the experience and added that the talent within the group is remarkable.

“I think I have benefited from this experience just as much as the participants. They all made me feel so welcome and it was an absolute pleasure working with them - I have no doubt that they will be excellent next Wednesday.”

Members of the deaf drama group were accompanied by two interpreters, Stephanie O’Kane, S.E.P. project co-ordinator and Sharon McClarey.

Simon Byrne is originally from Omagh but has been living and working in Derry for the last year and a half.

Simon, who recently graduated with a Masters in Design and Communication, is the group’s newest member and said that he found the ‘SenseAbility’ project both interesting and rewarding.

“I used to do a little drama when I was younger so when I heard about the ‘SenseAbility’ programme, I jumped at the chance,” said Simon using sign-language.

“I didn’t know anyone here before I joined but I have definitely made plenty of new friends - we have so much craic here and we are never short of a few laughs,” he smiled.

Andrew Thompson from the Waterside is also deaf but said that he is looking forward to next weekend’s performance of a poem called ‘Goldfish’ which was written by his friend John ‘Boy’ Nicholl.

“It’s great that both the deaf and blind communities are being given the chance to put on a performance during Derry’s year as City of Culture.

“We are performing a poem next Wednesday. It’s a great poem and its metaphor for how the deaf community and the hearing community can communicate with one another more effectively.”

Anne McMaster worked with the blind group last year. Despite being used to working with people who can both see and hear, Anne said that her job was made easy because of the way in which the people in the group treated her.

“I know we are here to highlight issues concerning the deaf and blind communities but it didn’t stop us from laughing all of the time.

“It’s been an absolute privilege to work with this group. I think I can sign about four words using sign-language but the group have been so patient with me and I can’t wait for them to take to the stage next week.

“The poem, ‘Goldfish’, is written by one of the participants and it’s certainly one of the most beautiful I have ever heard. I’d encourage as many people to come along and watch - they will not be disappointed.”

The ‘SenseAbility’ showpiece takes place in the Playhouse Theatre next Wednesday at 1pm. Admission is free but those looking to attend must telephone the Playhouse on 028 7126 8027.