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Australian Theatre of the Deaf

A portrait photo of Karli Dettman

Australian Theatre of the Deaf (ATOD) has been running for many years in Sydney and has now moved to Melbourne. I spoke to the actors and director to find out how different or special the ATOD is in comparison to other theatre companies. I also asked what sort of plays they have provided in the past and discussed the challenges and benefits of running plays for Deaf and hard of hearing audiences.

Posted by: Karli Dettman, on 16/01/13

The twin masks of Comedy and Tragedy

Specialised theatre performances in Auslan are becoming more popular

For around 35 years, the Australian Theatre of the Deaf, or ATOD, has been running performances and educational shows in schools using Auslan. Nola Colefax helped to set up the amateur theatre 1977 and has written a book called Signs of Change, the story of how a small group of Deaf and hard of hearing people got together to express their voice through the medium of theatre. Thereafter, many directors, both deaf and hearing, came and went with the help of various sources of funding, including Tony Strachan, Carol-lee Aqualine, Julia Cotton, Mike Canfield and Caroline Colon. However, funding has become increasingly difficult to secure.

Silent Monologue performance

Medina Somovic, a long time actor and director of ATOD in Sydney, is also based in Melbourne. She has volunteered her time with Arts Access Victoria to help resurrect ATOD in Victoria, after approval was given to transfer the theatre to another state. She directed a recent play called Silent Monologue, which described the very personal stories of four Deaf women - a lesbian, a mother, cancer survivor, and a popular, single and wild woman who loved cars.

Interpreters also acted as shadow interpreters in the play and I was particularly excited to see it unfold because of four main factors. The play was directed by a Deaf director who has experienced a Deaf life, the actors were Deaf, the play was conducted in Auslan and, finally, the stories were extremely interesting and intimate.

This approach was different to other plays ATOD has produced. In the past, ATOD often provided educational shows for schools all around Australia. Medina explained, saying Some shows were very abstract, which the Deaf community found hard to understand. I wanted to direct a show that Deaf people could understand and relate to on everyday sensitive topics, which many don't discuss openly.

Other minority theatres

However the biggest challenge ATOD is faced with, in its new Melbournian home, is receiving regular funding to help provide acting and directing training to Deaf and hard of hearing people. There are a few other unique theatrical companies in Australia, but all struggle with getting regular funding. For example, in 2006 the Roundangle company put on Sauce and Source with hearing, Deaf and blind actors, Asphyxia's 10 year old puppetry show Grimstone which has both Deaf and hearing puppeteers, Polyglot Theatre which gave children performances with CODA (Child of Deaf Adult) and hearing actors who could use Auslan – all suffering in some part from a lack of appropriate funding.

National Theatre of the Deaf, USA

There is still one long standing Deaf theatre that has been in operation since 1967, but it's not in Australia. It is called the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD) and is based in Connecticut, USA. It is highly successful because the theatre gives performances that educate hearing audiences and break down the stereotypes that exist about minority groups. In Australia, Oz Opera, a long time running company, recently adopted the shadow interpreting concept into their children's plays, including Gretel and Hansel and The Magic Flute.

Sign language as an oral tradition

Medina's 20 years of acting experience with amateur theatre group Political, Philosophy and Proverb and ATOD in Sydney, have helped her learn a lot from actors who are Deaf. As Medina explains, Sign language just floats away, it cannot be recorded on paper like English. To her, it is similar to the oral traditions of Aboriginal elders, who pass on their rich dreamtime stories to their children through speech and through dance.

If you would like to experience Deaf theatre and storytelling, a one woman show called Monologue of a Deaf Woman is coming up in January, also directed by Medina Somovic. This performance will be part of Midsumma Celebrating Queer Culture and is playing on the 18th and 20th of January 2013 at The BlueStone Church Arts Space in Footscray.

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Readers comments (2)

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Posted by: margaret halliday, melbourne 01/03/2013 at 03:47pm

I am a social worker in western suburbs of Melbourne. A client I am currently working with is a deaf man who uses mainly american sign language. He is married to a deaf woman who uses auslan and they communicate well. He is extremely expressive, a born communicator, handsome, outgoing, sociable, talented, funny. He is interested in exploring some amateur theatre involvement. I have found this link to Theatre of the Deaf and and want to know if there there is anyone he could speak to to advise him on this. many thanks

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Posted by: Geneva Rose, New South Wales 18/08/2014 at 03:06pm

I am a partially deaf actor. I struggle in the hearing world and don't have a place in the deaf community. I spend most of my time working in non-English speaking countries as my deafness is disguised in the non-english environment. How does one work in Australia, when one is 'inbetween'?

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