The (big) idea of staging a musical for the deaf and hard of hearing might sound contradictory, but that hasn’t stopped director Jamie Dunsdon from spending over a year developing Verb Theatre’s Noise: A Musical Play for Deaf and Hearing Audiences. The show stars an ensemble of professional actors, dancers and musicians, as well as actors from Calgary’s deaf community. Noise also features live, vibration-based musical performances, in addition to mixed-media projections that include comic-book style images. The play enjoyed a workshop performance at last year’s High Performance Rodeo and the full production will open on November 22.
Dunsdon’s experiment in creating a show accessible to both deaf and hearing persons guarantees that audience members will experience the show in very different ways — the latter, for example, will hear the music and the lyrics, while non-hearing audiences will notice the American Sign Language incorporated into the dance pieces accompanying the music. It’s a fusion of expressive forms that creates a complementary mosaic.
Dunsdon is passionate about many things in this production, but one of the things that excites her most is that it creates an experience two different communities can share as a group. “It’s very rare that theatre companies hire an interpreter so that deaf audiences can watch their plays,” Dunsdon says. “I went to a sign language poetry night and they were very kind. They had an interpreter there who could speak the signs for me. But I was probably the only hearing person in the audience. So I love that this play can bring people together a little bit.”
Dunsdon chose to involve people from the deaf community because she wanted to include experiences and viewpoints different from her own. Having settled on a theme, she wanted to start a conversation amongst people who would have the most interesting perspectives on noise.
“So I grabbed some musicians and I grabbed some deaf people and we sat in a room together,” she says.
The play follows a multitude of characters, each on their own unique journey. There are, in fact, six different stories told — what the director calls a collage piece. She compares the structure of the play to films like Magnolia and Love, Actually which follow a wide cast of characters whose lives intersect at critical junctures. One of the storylines in Noise includes a nightclub DJ who is slowly losing his hearing, and a woman who has been deaf all her life who is receiving a new implant that enables her to hear for the first time; the two characters meet, fall in love, and the play examines how they respond to their changing contact with sound. Another story follows the last Occupy protestor at Olympic Plaza who refuses to surrender the cause; she is deaf and uses an interpreter to communicate her political message to the public. Other stories involve an astrophysicist and a boy who has recently lost his dad.
Dunsdon wants to be clear that Noise is not a play focused on issues concerning deaf people. Rather, she conceived the story after noticing what she calls an excess of “noise” in our lives. She doesn’t refer to “noise” exclusively as audible sound, but as all of the stimulus that bombards us at any given time in the form of advertising, cellphones, traffic, political debates where contenders talk over each other, and so on.
“That, for me, is all noise,” says Dunsdon. “And I was interested in what that does to our lives.... I wanted to look at how different people cope with all these things in our world. How do we sift through that noise and find what’s important?”
She is also quick to point out that, contrary to what many may think, the deaf community enjoys music, but they experience it in a different way. A song with a heavy bass, for example, can vibrate the sternum and floor much to the listener’s delight.
“We’re giving our deaf audience an experience that is musical in the sense that there is some vibration.... But there’s a poetic aspect to it, a dance aspect to it.”