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Children of a Lesser God to be played with hearing actors only at the Comédie-Française

2015-04-15

A couple of months ago I talked about hearing actors playing Deaf characters, and the #DeafTalent/#POCDeafTalent movement it sparkled in the United States.

This was particularly interesting to me because just a few weeks before the movement started, the movie La Famille Bélier came out in France and while there were negative opinions about it, I didn't notice any particular protests on social media or elsewhere.

This has just changed!

The issue at hand

The Comédie-Française has decided to showcase Les Enfants du Silence (French title of Children of a Lesser God) from the 15th of April to the 17th of May... and congratulate themselves that it is the first time the play will only have hearing actors!

This article from RespectMag (fr) explains that the rights were bought with the understanding that the play was to use the actors who are members of the Comédie-Française. If I understand well how the Comédie-Française works, they don't hold outside auditions: they have a permanent limited pool of actors and artists who work there.

This is still a huge slap in the face to the Deaf community in France, especially as it is the 1993 version of the play with Emmanuelle Laborit as the lead which brought a lot of attention to them at the time. Emmanuelle Laborit was the first Deaf actress to receive a Molière Award and she published her autobiography in 1994. The book was a great success. She is now the director of The International Visual Theatre, which promotes visual arts and French Sign Language.

A protest has been organised tomorrow. A video sharing information on the peaceful protest has been seen over 3000 times as of now, so I look forward to having more information about how it went and I will share more if/when I learn more about it. (Update post-protest: you can see some pictures of the protest at the bottom of this post and I have made a post with more information about the movement.)

Information from the media

I have translated some bits of information in order to spread the word outside of France. Please note I am NOT a professional translator and translating from French to English is not the ideal combination for me which means my translations are not as good as they could be. I am only doing this because I want the #DeafTalent movement to be aware of what is happening in non-English-speaking countries where information available in English may be limited.

Source: Article in Le Parisien (fr)

"It's the first time in France the play will have only hearing actors, she [the lead actress] explains. It is very delicate to work on such a theatre play, because it is very particular and really brought people's attention towards deafness at the time." (My comment: then maybe don't bring things backwards?!)

"For the actors, the amount of work they had to put was huge. Hours and hours of learning sign language with a coach, explains Françoise Gillard, who will be Sarah in the play."

(The coach is Joël Chalude, a French Deaf artist who played in the 1993 version of the play. He is a well-respected member of the French Deaf community, so at least they picked the coaching right.)

Continues Françoise Gillard: "It's very difficult, it requires memorising gestures, whereas us actors are more used to memorising words, she describes. Just a wrong movement of the finger and things mean something else, you have to be extremely precise. I wondered whether it was legitimate for me to do this, if I wasn't betraying the Deaf world, which I know well and respect."

"Françoise Gillard's sister was born deaf. She speaks, lipreads, and uses sign language. 'I didn't see it as a disability, my sister was already there when I was born so I just saw it as a difference.'"

Françoise Gillard again: "I've always dreamt of characters where I could develop my physicality, and here that's what you have to do. Sign language is like little choreographies that form sentences." (My note: romanticisation of sign language, check.)

Source: Press Kit about the play (fr)

The document tells me that during the month the play will be showcased at the theatre, performances will take place every day but Mondays. That's 29 shows, if I'm counting well. During that period, there will be 5 shows with captions. That's a start, but when you know this is taking place in Paris, in the same place where the International Visual Theatre is (with all shows accessible to both hearing and deaf audiences) well... That's not impressive.

Anne-Marie Etienne (director): "Although the play was written by a hearing person, for a public of hearing people since anything signed is also spoken - which is not true the other way around - it has always been interpreted by deaf and hard-of-hearing actors. Hearing actors are now going down that path, which necessitates a huge commitment. This step towards others is essential and it is what fed and informed the project."

[...] "To do this play at the Comédie-Française, the temple of French language, of the 'beautiful' language [note that's a commonly used term to speak about French, so she is not saying that in opposition to French Sign Language], is a very significant step, a strong symbol. This creation will help spread sign language, which was forbidden for so long. The Comédiens-Français are making it enter one of their stages in order to share its poetry and depth." (My comment: this I can agree with. It is indeed a big symbol, because the Comédie-Française represents an elite, the best of French theatre... but it would be a much stronger symbol if it was an actual Deaf French Sign Language user in the play!)

The press kit contains some information about Deaf history, which is a good thing to help journalists avoid saying rubbish. It also has some very respectful comments and the director doesn't seem to be romanticising deafness, which is a positive.

This is kind of an awkward situation: the fact that they picked the play is great, because of how important and prestigious the Comédie-Française is... they have their own troupe of actors which means there are no outside auditions... but it still sits wrong with me and actually illustrates the lack of diversity in this institution.

Pictures from the protest

Update 15.04.2015 post-protest

Here are some tweets showing pictures of the protest:

Translation: "At the deaf protest against using a hearing actress in a deaf role"

Translation: "Protest of the deaf community against the Comédie-Française"

Translation: "Long discussion between Eric Ruf and deaf actors"

Judging by these snippets, it sounds like there was a good amount of people there and people from the Comédie-Française discussed with them, which I hope was fruitful.

Part 2: information post-protest

Tags: Deaf, awareness