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French Deaf people sparkle discussions by reacting against a full hearing cast playing Children of a Lesser God

2015-04-18

I posted a few days ago about the fact that Les Enfants du Silence (Children of a Lesser God) was being produced by the Comédie-Française with a hearing actress in the role of Sarah, which sparkled a protest on the day of the premiere.

I won't talk again about my opinion on hearing actors/actresses playing d/Deaf/HOH roles, because I've done that lots with the movie La Famille Bélier (in a nutshell: I think it's not okay at all). Instead, I am trying to share a little bit about what is happening in France, since something similar is happening in the US with the #DeafTalent movement. I am grateful for Sourds.net which aggregates news all-day long and really helps me in following what is happening.

I am just about to leave for a 6-week trip, so I have a lot to prepare and unfortunately cannot take the time to translate everything I would like to, so I am sharing whatever I can for now. Disclaimer again: translating from French to English is not the ideal combination for me, apologies for any inaccuracies, they're all my fault and my fault only.

Emmanuelle Laborit's statement about the protest

Source: Emmanuelle Laborit talking about the issue at hand (LSF, voice over in French, and transcript underneath in French)

To summarise:

Emmanuelle Laborit summarised the issue of having a hearing actress play Sarah in Children of a Lesser God and how difficult it can be for Deaf actors/actresses to find employment.

She goes on to say how important playing Sarah has been for her own life, and how it was a huge step for the community when she won a Molière for the role.

She would love for art to open its doors to Deaf artists, who find themselves in front of closed doors much too often in the mainstream, although they are full-fledges artists!

However, it is not her philosophy for freedom of expression and art to be against a play being produced. She does understand the movement though, which asks the question "where to Deaf artists belong?".

She has met with Eric Ruf, who is the general administrator at the Comédie-Française. He has heard the anger of Deaf artists.

Emmanuelle Laborit suggests that while protesting is sometimes necessary, finding solutions is an obligation. Therefore, the International Visual Theatre (of which she is the director) would like to organise meetings and debates around Deaf artists and Deaf culture within mainstream art. The Comédie-Française will be invited to participate.

She finishes by saying "let's think together about these questions, let's be open to diversity!".

The protest: what happened

Source: Facebook post about the protest (fr)

On this Facebook post you can see some of the signs which were displayed during the protest.

One of the signs asks the question: "What if a foreign theatre troupe presented in French even though they only have an approximate grasp of our language? What would your reaction be?"

When people don't understand why hearing people shouldn't pretend to be Deaf in the name of art, I like to find analogies to help them understand. I find this analogy useful because people may be able to relate to it. When a British actor fails at faking an American accent and vice-versa, they get mocked. Somehow, sign languages from different countries don't get held up to the same standard, simply because members of the public see it as pretty hand-waving and, not knowing the language, cannot see how silly it looks!

Source: Video about the protest (when spoken fr, subtitles in fr. When LSF, spoken French voiced over)

(I do not know exactly who was around to interpret apart from Stéphan who said he was there. Thanks to the interpreters who voluntarily gave their time to help pass the message across!)

This short video (6 minutes) shows the protest.

In it, you can see:

Jacques Collard (0:16), who helped adapt the play in French:

"It's a theatre play about the hard-of-hearing. So right now there is a little protest of hard-of-hearing people because they are angry we took actors who speak." (This one sentence is all sorts of problematic, ouch Jacques.)
"It's a play against exclusion, so it's a play that defends them and I don't understand why they are protesting."
"Thirty years ago, the pay was produced with hard-of-hearing people and actors who can speak. Here we are at the the Comédie-Française so we only have actors who are not hard-of-hearing. Here, there's no hard-of-hearing actors."

After what he says, an actress (0:46) (I don't know her name but she says she is hearing and plays with Deaf actors so I assume she may be an actress with IVT) tries to explain to him that the play is basically MADE so that a Deaf actress can play the role of Sarah. An unnamed woman from the Comédie-Française comes outside and says that Mark Medoff agreed to this and suggests there's nothing to talk about since they haved signed a contract with him.

An unnamed Deaf man (1:35) then explains that they turned straight to the hearing world and that it's a lack of respect for Deaf artists.

Several other people, hearing and Deaf, express similar feelings.

At 3:26, another person explains that the play should be played by a mixture of hearing and Deaf artists. Where is the notion of "sharing" if only hearing people are acting in it? This was the strength of the play, that there was to be an exchange between hearing and Deaf artists.

At 4:09, a Deaf actress says that it is painful to have the impression not to be recognised and that people are protesting today in order to show their value.

At 4:40, a man explains that there is simply something different when a Deaf actor is acting in a Deaf role, because it's natural. Having a hearing person is artificial.

Leven Beskard, who is a Deaf director, explains at 6:03 that Deaf people have a different perspective. They have 100 years of frustrations due to the interdiction of sign language and made Deaf art suffer. Thanks to the International Visual Theatre, they have been able to be reborn in their language, culture and identity. How long will Deaf people have to wait to get what they want?

I know that Eric Ruf, who spoke with Laborit, also chatted with the protestors but he is not shown in the video.

The protest in the media

Source: Article on CultureBox about the protest (fr)

I am putting this summary as a reference. It doesn't add any information I haven't already shared but just thought people might be interested to see that the protest was indeed relayed in the media.

Source: Article in Yanous, a magazine on disability (fr)

Note the magazine published an article where explained it was fine for the Comédie-Française to do this. (fr)

Françoise Gillard explains her fear of playing a Deaf role since it is something she knows through her sister, who is Deaf. However, she considers that their aim in producing the play wasn't to defend Deaf culture or not, but to go and "meet the other", because that is what the basis of being an actor is.

This step towards diversity was furthered by a partnership with the Cours Morvan (which is a School for the Deaf but it is not a bilingual school French/LSF). A similar partnership may be developed with the INJS (which is a School for the Deaf which is bilingual French/LSF).

Gillard regrets that by saying hearing people should not play a Deaf role, we are putting up barriers. She believes the Comédie-Française is trying to create a bridge. Art does not belong to anybody. In fact, when Molière's plays are adapted into French Sign Language, Deaf people aren't told that Molière should only be played by hearing people rather than Deaf people!

Conclusion

I don't know where to begin. There is just SO MUCH to unpack. I'll leave with a few comments:

I hope there will be fruitful discussions happening out of this movement and look forward to IVT putting together discussions (which I imagine will happen in the Fall when they put together their new programme).

Tags: Deaf, awareness