It's about time we started to empower Deaf leaders

It’s about time we started to empower Deaf leaders

Grounded at Park Theatre 2015. Photo: Marc Brenner. Performers: Nadia Nadarajah and Charmaine Wombwell
Deafinitely Theatre's Grounded at Park Theatre, 2015. Photo by Marc Brenner. Performers (right to left): Nadia Nadarajah and Charmaine Wombwell
Date Published: 14 May 2018

by Paula Garfield, Artistic Director of Deafinitely Theatre

I identify as a culturally Deaf, native British Sign Language user. I went to a Deaf school, had Deaf friends and also went to Deaf Clubs. I grew up in a hearing family alongside my Deaf sister, so understood the hearing world. I had hearing friends, colleagues and relatives and was always passionate about wanting to engage with the hearing world. I wanted them to understand my world without feeling oppressed or patronised. So, that now is always my motto - To build a bridge between Deaf and hearing, so we can share our experiences. I realised that Theatre is a powerful and visual educational tool that I could use to relay our world to varied audiences to deliver a message I want to get across.  

After being an actor for 12 years, I was empowered by friend and colleague, Kate Furby, to set up and co-found Deafinitely Theatre. She supported me along the process and empowered me to understand that it was important to have Deaf role models, Deaf led companies and Deaf led work. 15 years on, we have produced a plethora of Bilingual work playing to both hearing and deaf audiences showing stories from Deaf perspectives.

In that time, I have seen more and more Deaf actors being employed and more and more productions with Deaf characters. For me, it is important to see more and more Deaf being employed. It is a very exciting time and it touches my heart to see Deaf actors performing on stage but there are always nagging questions in my head. Do we need to empower more Deaf people to lead in Theatre? Do we need to encourage Deaf people to be brave and bold in showing their visions? Do we produce enough culturally Deaf and native BSL using directors? Are there any plays for stage written by Deaf people from a Deaf person’s perspective? We need more Deaf people telling their stories and representing their community on stage. Where are the Deaf voices? Surely we need more Deaf people leading mixed casts and paving the way?

Don’t get me wrong, I love to go to the theatre. I love Modern and classic writers such as Mike Bartlett and Shakespeare. I love the challenge of adapting them into bilingual productions for both Deaf and hearing audiences that then allow both audiences to engage in stories from a Deaf perspective. I get very excited seeing more and more directors who want and are prepared to take risks and have Deaf characters in their productions, but the questions is, is that enough? Should we do more? 

As artists, and companies, we always have to make applications for funding but I have only seen a handful of Deaf artists manage to get funding for R&Ds and productions. Isn’t it about time we empower Deaf people to apply and even lead these projects?

I have been Artistic Director of Deafinitely Theatre for 15 years and I am the most lucky person to have this wonderful job but I am part of a very small handful of Deaf cultured people that have a similar job to me. Is that enough? Where is the training for future Deaf Artistic Directors? Where are the training opportunities in general? 

The most positive thing is that these productions that have been done have meant more Deaf people are being cast in roles which has been so wonderful to see, but there just doesn’t seem to be a balance. Where are the new emerging Deaf theatre directors? Who decides who should lead these productions and what justifications can they make for it not being a Deaf director? 

There needs to be a shift in the industry. The privilege currently lies with hearing people, and there needs to be more of a balance.

A small message for any hearing people enthused with the idea of working with Deaf people. Have you ever thought about empowering Deaf people to work with you to create something? Can we empower them to take the lead whilst sharing each other’s skills to create the best project? I would never be here if it wasn’t for the likes of Kate Furby. She always believed in me! I represented a culture, community and language and was empowered to be bold and set up. I’m not saying that Hearing directors are not allowed to lead productions. It should carry on and we should continue with what we are achieving, but now that we have done that… how do we get more of a balance? How do we empower more of these people? I won’t be here forever…

Paula Garfield. Photo: Helen Albert Photography

Paula Garfield, Artistic Director, Deafinitely Theatre. 


Photo:  Helen Albert Photography

Deaf Awareness Week runs from 14-20 May 2018:
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