It couldn’t have been more appropriate. On Wednesday, as the world celebrated Valentine’s Day, 16 participants from the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) and Action Hearing Loss took to the stage to perform ‘My Hands, My Heart.’
The touching, funny and emotional performance featured a blend of lighter hearted pieces and emotional monologies about the experiences of those with sensory loss. It was also timely coming in the week where the First and Deputy First Ministers spoke publicly for the first time about their own respective hearing impairments and prompted a fresh discussion on the issue.
The production was a first for Derry and may, organisers believe, have even been the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Not only did it involve a hugely enthusiastic cast, it also brought together experts in Sign Language, sensory engagement and was a co-ordinated effort in the truest sense of the word.
While experts in British and Irish sign language were present, there was also audio description where a camera fed what was happening on stage through to the green room. There, an audio describer was poised to do a voiceover and replay vocally what was happening for partially sighted and blind members of the audience.
Tuesday’s performance was the culmination of months of dedication over the past year, which, according to Playhouse Education Officer Sharon McLennan, is a credit to RNIB, Action Hearing Loss, and all those who were involved in the Open College Network Performing Arts Programme.
“They’ve been a really committed bunch and what they’ve achieved since the beginning of the process has been fantastic,” Sharon told the Sunday Journal.
“Many of the participants had never been on stage before and they’ve worked so hard.”
Anne McMaster of North West Regional College who facilitated the drama workshops with a group of participants from Action on Hearing Loss said: “The drama performances in My Hands My Heart reflected the life experiences and the creative thoughts of the students in this new dramatic arena. Some sketches were a comic reflection of shared human experiences and harken back to the early days of mime - these sketches drew on the students’ superb use of body language. Other performance pieces were highly personal, thought provoking and moving ideas generated by the students, sharing and describing their world as deaf actors/performers. This is an important new forum for these deaf actors - they have learned the craft of devising theatre, the discipline of rehearsal and the challenges inherent within a performance to a live audience.”
Running parallel to the Action on Hearing Loss Drama Group were also a group of adults from RNIB NI.
Shauna Kelpie of North West Regional College added. “The drama performances of the sight loss and blind group, simply entitled My Life, described some pivotal and life-changing moments in the life of someone living with blindness and sight loss. The stories are deeply personal and are told with incredible honesty, tenderness and dignity.
“The group had worked on developing storytelling techniques including diction, breathing, and memorising techniques. They worked incredibly hard on increasing their sense of confidence and self-esteem in order to perform in front of the Playhouse audience on Tuesday. It was a memorable and moving series of monologues and songs.”
Education officer, Sharon McLennan, explained that the whole programme was designed and implemented to increase the participation of adults with sensory loss within the world of the performing arts.
“All there expectations I had were blown out of the water when I saw what they have actually achieved. A very moving, funny and thought provoking piece of theatre was presented on stage on Tuesday, incorporating a true sense of making arts accessible in that the whole event was not only ISL & BSL signed, but the performances were also Audio Captioned and Audio Described.
“We believe this may well be a European first, in that we have not heard of anywhere else presenting a piece of live theatre, whilst being totally accessible to audiences who have sensory loss. It has been a steep learning curve for the full team involved but one we all agree has been worth every single second of working on.”
Sensory Engagement Programme staff members, Stephanie O’Kane and Marian Lewis, said:“First and foremost our priority was to provide the opportunity for participants to develop personal confidence, which is one of the core aims of the Sensory Engagement Programme. Through working in partnership with The Playhouse we recognised the learning environment needed to be a fully accessible environment for people to work in the field of drama with their peers, which we were all able to provide.
“We all agreed the project would present challenges to the participants and that it would be an emotional journey for them, but we also knew it would be an extremely positive experience.
“This project has enabled us all to recognise each of the students’ skills, determination and passion through the process of creating this drama piece for the general public. And we hope that the audience, too, will have learned something upon their departure. This was a fantastic opportunity to raise visual awareness and of deaf culture and if you want to learn more about the Sensory Engagement Programme then please feel free to ring our office on 02871 366060.”
Both groups, Action on Hearing Loss and RNIB NI participated on the course through the Sensory Engagement Programme, a project funded through the EU’s INTERREG IVA Programme, managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB). Funding was also provided through Arts Council of Northern Ireland and North West Regional College.