With their first production in September 2016, Jessica Moody and Ilana Charnelle Gelbart took Melbourne's theatre scene by storm. Their first production, Black Is The Colour, won the company the 2016 Melbourne Fringe ‘Best Emerging Producer’ award and a handful of other Green Room nominations. Having just received a grant from the Auslan Services Foundation, the crew are now preparing for a major season and an upcoming workshop on inclusive arts practice at the Arts Centre Melbourne. This week, our co-founder and editor checked in with Jess and Ilana to talk all things Deafferent Theatre.
Tell me a little bit about yourselves! How did you guys meet?
J: I’m Jess, short and sweet.
I: I’m Ilana, and I’ve got a strong love of red lipstick and my cat Grammy.
J: We met through an internship. I strongly believe that if we hadn’t met then, we would have met anyway in another reality.
I: Our worlds were rotating very closely before we met, and so it was meant to be that two like-minded people such as us would come together.
J: How borderline romantic is that?! It’s 100% true though!
What’s the story behind the company? Why did you decide to start Deafferent?
J: We both come from a performing arts background. We also watch theatre. I spent a month in EdFringe, and watched productions that featured deaf actors, captioning, or sign language on the stage. Ilana and I went to New York to watch Deaf West’s Spring Awakening. Long story short - there were productions around the world making mainstream theatre with, and for deaf people, but not in Australia. So if not us, then who?
I: We had a very clear idea from the start of what we liked to see onstage and what we didn’t. These ideas have stayed rooted in our Deafferent Theatre ideology - we’re all about creating quality theatre and equivalent experiences, not only theatre that’s ‘good for a Deaf company’.
J: Additionally, I wasn’t seeing deaf talent on the stage/in theatre, so we made a platform to make it happen. It’s not just ‘on the stage’, I’d love to see a crew of Deaf and non-Deaf people working together to deliver a smashing production.
You describe yourselves as rooted in both the Deaf community and the theatre community. How have you found that your experiences in both these worlds intersect and present themselves on stage?
I: It would be disrespectful and irresponsible of us to create work about and with Deaf people without engaging with the community and finding out what they want to see, what they’d like to experience more of and what they could do without. We also keen to engage the community outside of just finding Deaf actors - we’re about Deaf directors, Deaf graphic designers and Deaf web designers!
J: We’ve worked with scripts that we’ve slightly modified to suit the Deaf experiences, and we’ll be making some new work as well. As a Deaf person, I’m aware of the prejudices, and can intimately relate to the other Deaf people on a project. Additionally, it’s not my experience presented on the stage. As a director, I’m the caretaker of the production, and experiences on and off the stage.
How do you choose the works you put on? Where do you get your inspiration?
I: We choose works in a variety of ways! We’ve had people come to us with suggestions, we’ve stumbled across scripts, and we always keep in mind our limitations at the time of production. Our first production, Daniel Keene’s Black is the Colour, was chosen partially because we didn’t want to jump into a large production just starting out, so we chose to stick to a two-hander.
J: Our next production was suggested by someone in the Deaf community. Additionally, we have aspirations to create brand new work. We’re taking it a notch up every time we come together to create (and learning/growing from our previous productions).
You work with hearing, deaf and hard of hearing actors and crew members. What are some of the ways you facilitate communication, access and inclusion in the rehearsal room?
J: We are privileged to have the toolbox of communication and access within hands’ reach. Sometimes Ilana will switch her producer’s hat for the interpreter’s hat, such as during bump-in where the crew is giving instructions, and I’m off talking with the lighting designer.
I: Having multilingual cast and crew members definitely helps, but we work with a whole range of people with different communication preferences. We just try our best to be mindful of everyone’s needs and everyone is very patient as messages are relayed in whichever language required.
You create theatre but also pride yourselves on your engagement in the wider community. What kind of things do you do outside of theatre production to facilitate cultural exchange between Deaf community, theatre community and the wider community?
J: Last year we had a table at the Deaf Expo. This year we’re working with Melbourne Fringe to present their Access Workshop. I’ve been to a few conferences representing Deafferent Theatre. My next one will be the Creative Summit.
I: We’ve worked to present private workshops in the past, and this year we’ll be presenting two public events at Arts Centre Melbourne, as well as a special Auslan class (stay tuned)!
You guys are running a workshop soon (Deaf Arts with an Inclusive Heart). Tell me a little about that - what inspired to to run workshops like this?
I: We are approached a lot by other artists who are keen to work with Deaf actors or engage interpreters, and we’re happy to share knowledge when we can. Our upcoming workshop is a way to speak directly to the community we’re a part of - independent theatre makers - and speak to them as peers about what we’ve learnt and what may help them on their access journey.
J: There’s been a sudden influx of interest in presenting/making work accessible for Deaf and hard of hearing audiences (which I appreciate). For this workshop, we aim to create a safe space for theatre makers to enquire, learn, and engage.
Without giving the whole workshop away, what are some tips for artists who would like to make their work or rehearsal room more accessible?
J: Engage with the experts. The experts are the people with the lived experiences. Engage with people who have done it before. And don’t just engage with them; nurture the relationship, and it will take you to places.
I: As a hearing person who knew nothing about the Deaf community until a few years ago, I think the best thing you can do it accept you’re going to be ignorant of some things. Accept that you won’t know things, and that people with lived experiences are the ones who can illuminate you. Recognise your own shortcomings - it’s not a negative, it’s the only way you can learn.
When, where and how can people get involved with Deafferent Theatre?
J: Join the family! We love seeing the community online, and in person. We have a production coming up later this year.
I: There is plenty of information on upcoming workshops and our main season on our website, and we are on all kinds of social media as @deafferent. We’re always looking to engage with talent both Deaf and non-deaf, so would encourage anyone whose interest has been piqued to get in touch and sign up to our mailing list on our website.