|Nalaga’at Blind-Deaf Theatre Ensemble, Not By Bread Alone. courtesy the company|
With some 800 performances behind it, the Nalaga’at Deaf-Blind Theatre Ensemble from Jaffa in Israel is soon to perform Not By Bread Alone at the 2014 Perth International Theatre Festival and then at the Kennedy Center in New York. Eleven performers make bread, tell stories from their lives and then meet their audience and share what they’ve made. The success of this hugely acclaimed ensemble, as its spirited, forthright founder and artistic director Adina Tal tells me by phone, is indicative of the power of professional performance regardless of disability.
What is the meaning of Nalaga’at?
It is Hebrew for ‘do touch’ or ‘please touch.’
How central is touch in your work?
In two different ways. First, with our actors it’s the way they communicate, by touch sign language. By touch we make them part of our world and then we can be part of theirs. In a wider meaning it says to the audience, come and touch and be touched, and change.
All of the actors were born deaf or hard of hearing. As a result of having Usher’s Syndrome, a genetic disease, they gradually lose their sight from about the age of 12. Once blind, they still know how to sign but they cannot see what other people sign, which means they have to communicate through touch sign language.
I understand you use vibrations felt in the body to assist the performers?
We use the drums as cues for the show. It took us about half a year until everyone got used to it. It’s like opening another door.
I see that intepreters are an integral part of your productions.
Interpreters are a very important part of our ensemble but they are shadows, not actors; they will give signs if needed during the show. We have three verbal actors whose words are translated into sign language.
How are ideas expressed and brought together for a show?
With great chaos. But we are a professional theatre group. We do not want to be like any other theatre group. We want to be the best. We would not do Shakespeare or Ibsen, there are other actors who could do that better. But no actor could do better than what we do, which is search from the actor’s life and translate it into a theatrical language.
We do improvise, move a lot, the actors write and work on the scenes they bring to the table and we adapt them to a theatre show—it’s a very long process.
Has the confidence of the performers grown over the years?
When I started I’d never met a deaf or blind or deaf-blind person. That was the first revolution for me. Some of them could not accept the fact that they were going blind as well as being deaf—one of the worst forms of isolation from the outside word. But over the years they become stars. They feel that they are not asking for anything from society, but they are giving to society. They are onstage, they are professional actors giving us hearing and seeing people the gift of art, which is every artist’s dream.
How important is the sharing of bread after the show?
It’s important for both the actors and the audience. It gives the actors a moment to share the bread they made. Bread has a very deep cultural meaning and also very simple meaning: ‘If you eat the bread I made, you accept me. If I disgust you, you will not accept it.’ Not all the audience will come up on stage; most do but there is no ‘must.’ They can communicate with the actors through the interpreters.
Some might see this work as developing empathy in audiences and therapy for the performers.
This is not a show for the audience to come and do a good deed, but to see a good show. No one should come to see the show if they just want to be a good person. It’s not about blindness or deafness anymore; it’s about being imperfect. Once you sit in the audience and accept the imperfection in yourself you will accept that in other people. This is the way to start changing the world.
I understand you work cross-culturally at the Nalaga’at Center.
Living in Israel is very challenging, but we’re situated in Jaffa, in a community of Jews and Arabs. It’s normal that we work together, respect each other, it’s part of our work. We have a new deaf-blind Jewish-Muslim group.
I admire the notion of the Blackout Restaurant, which travels with Not By Bread Alone. It doesn’t simply offer an experience of blindness where you are served by blind waiters but that it improves your sense of taste and engagement with food.
Be open to a new situation and you’ll get the most out it, especially if the food is really good and we really work hard for excellence.
Your centre already does a great deal; what more would you like to do?
We hope that at some time soon that what we do will be copied and we become a learning centre. We’re not there yet but this is where we aim to get.
Does the ensemble enjoy international travel?
They do enjoy the travel and meeting the audience. They can be snobs: “New York, again!” I say, “But actors would kill to go to New York.” “Okay, but why winter?”
Perth International Arts Festival, Nalaga’at Blind-Deaf Theatre Ensemble, Not By Bread Alone, and Blackout Restaurant, director Adina Tal, Regal Theatre, 8-12 Feb
The 2014 Perth Festival dance program features Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, the Beijing Dance Company and the remarkable flamenco re-interpreter Israel Galvan, plus performance works by Rimini Protokoll (Situation Rooms), Robert Wilson (in Krapp’s Last Tape) and Dmitry Krymov (A Midsummer Night’s Dream [As You Like It]).
RealTime issue #118 Dec-Jan 2013 pg. 13
© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org