ProTactile Romeo and Juliet: Theatre by/for the DeafBlind

Gallaudet University is the world’s only
liberal arts school for the Deaf and hard of hearing. Gallaudet has a long history of Shakespeare
in American Sign Language (ASL). Students and faculty have been performing
Shakespeare’s plays since 1884. But DeafBlind members of the community have
had limited access to this rich dramatic tradition. In 2016, Gallaudet English professor
Jill Bradbury received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to organize a one-week workshop
exploring theater practices for the DeafBlind. In summer 2018, six DeafBlind individuals
came together to adapt “Romeo and Juliet” using the emerging language of the DeafBlind, ProTactile. The workshop took place in Seattle,
home of the ProTactile movement. “Back in 2015, I started an email conversation with John Lee Clark. We were writing back and forth. He had just published an article
in an online magazine. The article was called
“My Dream Theater.” During our correspondence,
he told me about his article. I read it and I thought, ‘Of course, this theater dream
must become a reality!’ That’s been my goal all along – to support DeafBlind people in making, umm, this really important kind of theater that is grounded
in their everyday life experiences; in how they experience the world through touch, how they experience everything; in their aesthetics or concepts of what’s beautiful. Just a kind of theater
rooted in the DeafBlind way.” ProTactile, the emerging language
of the DeafBlind community, was an important element
of the week-long institute. ProTactile was developed
less than a decade ago by aj granda and Jelica Nuccio. “You asked me about ProTactile, PT for short. What’s that? Well, in a nutshell,
it means DeafBlind culture. Touch is very important to DeafBlind culture. Touch becomes a means for DeafBlind
to be more autonomous. For example, we set up a ProTactile zone
that is open to DeafBlind with no barriers. DeafBlind don’t have to wait for
someone sighted to come and lead us around. That’s the old way. It makes us DeafBlind feel not human. Touch gives us more self-esteem. In the same way that Deaf people strongly
identify with ASL as their own language and cherish the visual. Visual access gives Deaf people the power
to make decisions about their own lives. That’s the Deaf perspective. Hearing people strongly value aural culture,
music, and so forth. In the same way, DeafBlind also have their culture
that is grounded in touch.” PT uses touch to convey
visual communication information. When people nod their heads,
they tap fingers on the other person. They gently scratch the other person
to show when they are laughing. PT allows DeafBlind access
to emotional registers of conversation. Spatial information can also be expressed
through PT. Here, for example, institute co-facilitator
Jasper Norman describes the room layout. PT offers DeafBlind people a unique way to
experience dramatic storytelling, through direct interaction with actors. Institute co-facilitators
Jasper Norman and Yashaira Romilus created the first ever PT play,
“Gift of the Magi,” in 2017. They experimented with PT storytelling and developed ways to orient
DeafBlind actors and patrons in the performance space. “For PT theater, mapping is very important. It’s how we know how to move around the
performance space. Whether or not the room has corners? Last night’s performance was a bit challenging
because we didn’t have corners, but we tried our best. Mapping also means using rugs on the floor to identify how to move between
different rooms or spaces. Mapping is how we figure out how to get from
one place to another smoothly, without tripping, without the performance feeling off beat, or without bumping into things. We want to avoid that. So, mapping is an important key
to the performance.” The ProTactile Theater Institute built on
Jasper and Yash’s work, using scenes from “Romeo and Juliet”
to explore theater practices for DeafBlind actors and audiences. The one-week workshop brought together
PT experts, theater artists, and academics from the sighted,
Deaf, and DeafBlind communities to explore a PT adaptation
of “Romeo and Juliet.” To structure the play, the group adopted
a conveyor belt model developed by John Lee Clark. In this approach, audience members,
called patrons, move through the performance individually. Each patron experiences the dramatic narrative
through interactions with one or two actors. To increase the number of patrons
who could experience the show, the cast included two Romeos and two Juliets. Patrons were staggered about 10 minutes apart and the actors rotated through the performance multiple times. One of the institute’s challenges was
how to adapt Shakespeare’s play to a DeafBlind world. “When Romeo and Juliet fall in love, seeing and sight is emphasized strongly. For example, in the play, they see each other
for the first time at the Capulet party and they can’t keep their eyes off each other. The famous balcony scene
is also staged as a visual encounter. The plot also relies on visual narrative
to move the action forward. For example, Tybalt spots Mercutio and Benvolio
in the street and this leads to a fight.” “The most famous scene in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is probably the balcony scene. Juliet comes to the balcony and speaks aloud. “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” And that’s really
a challenging part for us. First, because of the idea of eavesdropping. Juliet opens up about her feelings
and she thinks she’s alone. Romeo is crouched nearby, overhearing her, and getting excited
because he finds out Juliet likes him. And then he approaches and startles her. How do you adapt that to a DeafBlind world?” Finding tactile equivalents
for these visually oriented moments was a key focus during the week. Another focus was integrating tactile elements
in every part of the production, from set design to costumes. Seattle Repertory Theatre
generously loaned costumes that could provide tactile access
to visual information about the early modern
period. The group also experimented with
different ways to set up tactile cues identifying characters as belonging to
the Capulet or Montague family. “We recently translated that to ASL, but we should translate it to PT instead. We need to translate
Romeo and Juliet’s story into touch.” One week was not enough time
to work on translation in depth, but some basic principles were proposed. “Yesterday we realized that we should not approach this
as translating from one language to another. First, we need to unpack
the emotions in the lines and figure out how to express these
through touch. We need to do that instead of translating
from one language to another.” Theater artist Rachel Grossman served as
an advisor for the institute. Her company, dog & pony dc, developed ways to dramatize stories through smell, taste, and touch. “In the past, dog & pony dc produced several adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays without two design areas:
visual and auditory. We were curious about the other senses,
taste, touch, and smell. How can you tell a story with those? How can you make theater with them? The emotions provoked by food and smell
can be very strong. Food and smell also inspire strong memories. Theater artists can make a sequence,
an intentional sequence of sensory experiences with food, smell and movement, which is itself a narrative journey. And the audience members’ personal meanings
merge with this narrative journey.” Institute participants also experimented with
ways to express character through scent. “I think Tybalt should smell like spice.” In the production, the group decided to incorporate
delicate scents to identify characters, such as lavender for Juliet, so as not to overwhelm the patrons. Once rehearsal got underway, a key concern
was how to choreograph the action so that it felt realistic and clear to the patron. “We just discussed trying it with Jaz standing in the middle. You and I stand on each side of him
and pull back and forth on his shoulders. But it’s not exactly right.” “You want it to feel angrier, more real,
like the patron is more immersed.” “Yeah, exactly. Let’s change it so that we’re pushing
the patron’s hands instead of shoulders. You can feel what’s happening better.” “One problem is that when they are fighting,
the punching needs to feel more realistic. More aggressive. I need to feel it too. She needs to punch me like this,
so I know what’s happening; almost so I feel pain. Right now, I don’t feel that. I feel like laughing.” “Wow, I feel upset. I’m shocked that Tybalt died. I’m mad at you!!” And then, of course, the famous first kiss! How to convey the physical attraction, the flirting, and the complex metaphors of the dialogue through touch? “Well, so far not bad. But that kissing up the arm, that feels more like love. Not like new. They haven’t met yet.” As the dialogue and action took shape,
the group began developing tactile cues to let the actors know when to enter and exit. During the balcony scene, the actors made use of
the hollow metal railing on the patio to let the Nurse know when to interrupt
Juliet’s clandestine meeting with Romeo. “When you hit the railing,
it needs to be harder so I can feel it. Not so light.” Set elements such as tables were positioned
carefully to orient the actors in the space. The group also used rugs to set up
a tactile path on the floor for the actors to follow. “We just need one rug for a path here. That’s all.” Every aspect of the theater experience
had to be rethought. When patrons arrived,
how would they be introduced to the characters
and important background information? What would they do while waiting their turn
to go through the play? How would the actors get patrons
from one scene to another? “We start in the lobby,
where all the actors line up. The patrons will take turns meeting the actors
and feeling their costume, so they can associate each character
with their outfit. Then the actors will go into the party room
to get ready. As the townsperson,
I’ll meet each patron in turn. I’ll give them the background story about
how two families hate each other, the star-crossed lovers, etc. But also, I’ll tell them about the party
happening in the Capulet house and invite them to sneak into it with me.” Juliet’s Nurse, or Nanny, became an important
character for moving patrons along the story path. Patrons initially begin the play with Romeo
and meet Juliet with him. Romeo then leaves the patron alone with Juliet. Nurse comes to tell Juliet
her mother is looking for her. This allows the actress playing Juliet
to leave the patron with Nurse and get into position for the next scene. Here, for example, Yash is a patron
while Lisa plays Juliet, and Vicky plays Nurse. Once Lisa leaves, Vicky gives Jaz,
who is playing Romeo, the cue to enter by tapping him on his leg. “Who is that woman?” “That one who just left? My dearest Juliet. The daughter of the Capulets. I raised her from a little girl. I am her beloved Nanny.” Jaz then departs to get into position
for the next scene, while Vicky leads the patron to Lisa
to begin the balcony scene. The Nurse allowed the actors
to move around in the set, while ensuring patrons
maintained contact with an actor at all times. This constant connection was extremely important. “When we’re ready to fall,
you need to stay with me. That way I can follow you when you leave.” “Hello. My name is Robert. Come with me.” “I’m Tybalt. I’m Juliet’s cousin. Family means everything to me.” The performance opened with the prologue. Townsman:
“Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” Patrons then entered the party
in the Capulet house, where Romeo and Juliet
meet for the first time. Juliet: “Good pilgrim, you do wrong your
hand too much, For saints have hands
that pilgrims’ hands do touch, And palm to palm
is holy palmers’ kiss.” Romeo: “O, then, dear saint,
let lips do what hands do; They pray, grant thou,
lest faith turn to despair.” Juliet: “Saints do not move,
though grant for prayers’ sake.” Romeo: “Thus from my lips, by yours,
my sin is purged.” Juliet: [giggling]
“You kiss by the book.” Romeo then discovers who Juliet is. Romeo: “What is her mother?” Nurse: “Her mother is the lady of the house, I nursed her daughter,
that you talk’d withal.” Juliet: “What’s he that follows here?” Nurse: “His name is Romeo,
and a Montague; The only son of your great enemy.” Next came the balcony scene. Juliet: “O Romeo, Romeo!
wherefore art thou Romeo? Juliet: “Art thou not Romeo and a Montague?” Juliet: “Romeo, doff thy name.” Romeo: “Call me but love,
and I’ll be new baptized; Henceforth I never will be Romeo.” After making plans to elope,
Romeo leaves Juliet. On his way out of the Capulet house,
he meets Tybalt. Tybalt:
“Romeo, the hate I bear thee can afford No better term than this, —thou art a villain.” [They fight; TYBALT falls] Romeo: “I must away!” The play ended with the patron meeting
the townsman again for the wrap up. Townsman: “Romeo slew him, And for that offence Immediately we do exile him. Who now the price
of his dear blood doth owe? Go hence, to have more talk
of these sad things; For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” Once the show was over, the group had
one last theatrical convention to rethink. How to take final bows? The solution? PT bow followed by PT group hug. “So, what did you think about the play?” Wow! Wonderful! It was so intense!” “Wow. Wow! I’m in shock. I really felt like I was immersed
in theirworld. I could really feel the emotions. Just wow!” “It was cool. I love PT plays! I want to go all the time. I would fly to see a PT play
in another state.” “I can’t think of a good word for you. You had to have experienced it with me. It’s all about PT. My DeafBlind culture. I need touch for everything. That one week with six DeafBlind people
to create the story, to figure out how we can do everything ourselves without depending on sighted people
or support service providers or interpreters, just focusing on figuring out
how to set up cues, how to make sure DeafBlind patrons
are fully involved, how to do everything. That was really nice. I felt normal. I don’t get that often out in the world,
so I really appreciated that. Now that the week is over, I’m a little
saddened. I feel very blessed
to have been part of this team.” “I came here as a new PT user. I’m not skilled with tactile signing and the PT world is new to me. When I joined this PT play
and I took on the role of Nanny, I was immersed in PT. And I’ve really embraced the PT philosophy and developed a sense of pride in my identity as a DeafBlind person. And, wow, I felt normal. I realized that PT is the key to DeafBlind
self-esteem. And PT theater
will spread the concept of PT.”

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