By KZEE MIROY
It was lyrics from the song “My Valentine” by Martina McBride that gave a group of artists the idea to create a musical experience with the deaf people. It was in 2016, when our group Scenius Pro., an independent theater organization based in Quezon City, decided to create a performance that would test the possibilities of experiencing music—that is to do a karaoke with deaf people.
In the same year, our group joined a contemporary community festival called Karnabal. It was spearheaded by Sipat Lawin Ensemble, which supports local independent artists and social innovations here in the Philippines. They gather artists and performance-makers who explore new ways of crafting a theater performance. At that time, it was their third year of running the festival. During a random conversation, our director James Harvey Estrada asked me, “How do deaf people enjoy karaoke?” That’s when we decided to try collaborating with the deaf community in a performance.
As a new sign language interpreter, I saw this platform as an opportunity to advocate for the deaf language. But we were very anxious at first in pursuing this because the majority of our members know basic finger spelling in sign language. It was important for us to acknowledge that we are not culturally knowledgeable regarding deafness. Our perspective for this type of performance is not sufficient without representatives from the deaf community, so we invited some deaf people and other interpreters. But due to schedule restrictions, no one was available.
EMPOWERING PEOPLE THROUGH PERFORMANCE
We kept on tapping different individuals who might be interested in. But due to our limited budget, we only approached those who were willing to join in exchange for only food and transportation allowance. We’re all volunteers, really. We tried contacting NGOs but there were no responses since the project is experimental and they have other priorities.
Days passed and we still couldn’t find any deaf collaborators. Fortunately, we met Leah Apuli who is a high school teacher for the deaf. She introduced us to her deaf students who became our first participants for “Hear, Here! 2016.”
We had Filipino and Japanese participants, a mix of hearing and deaf people.
We decided to call it a “performance-gathering” and tried to make the space more inclusive by breaking the traditional proscenium-type of staging. Our venue was at the roof deck of Teatro Papet Museo. We asked the audience not to use their primary mode of communication—speaking for those who could hear, signing for the deaf—during the entire performance. We had an interpreter to keep the communication flow smooth and balanced. We also asked them to choose a partner, someone they’ve never met before. Without speaking and signing, we’ve incorporated activities that would involve the use of other senses. We instructed them to pick a paper that was scented with perfume and choose one they could identify with. Then, through visual storytelling, we shared a story about a couple with communication issues. As the story ended, the people expressed their opinions through pictures and drawings. The performance ended with a festive singing and dancing.
We realized that people can find a common ground to empathize with one another during this performance.
HEAR, HERE! 2017
For the following year, the performance was highly led by the deaf community. We still wanted to pursue the karaoke experience with them but we also wanted to maximize the potential of the community, hoping to ignite change in how we see ourselves and society. Fortunately, we met amazing deaf artists who became our collaborators.
We met our next collaborators during an unforgettable experience. James Harvey was at Starbucks one day when he saw a group of deaf people chatting. Thinking that maybe one of them could hear him, he approached and bravely said hello. He wanted to invite them to another show that we were doing and hoping that we would find someone interested to collaborate. Everyone looked at him puzzled. Apparently, all of them were deaf. And as soon as James realized it, he got his phone and started typing. Fortunately, they were very accommodating and even though he couldn’t use sign language very well, they managed to understand him. One of them became our very close friend and collaborator. Her name is Jessica “Owl” Rosete.
We learned from that experience that deaf people really appreciate it when we try to communicate with them, even with the language barrier. I can only imagine how it would’ve been if the situation was reversed.
Through Owl, who has a background on deaf musical performances, we met Ismael Somera. Owl is a trained musician, while Ismael is a deaf hip-hop dancer who loves to join competitions. Both of them are very passionate young deaf advocates. We came up with an idea to go to a community center for the deaf and teach dance as a way of social exchange.
Through Leah, we found a community center called Talking Hands. They are a non-government community center that provides programs and services to deaf children and their families. They have a program called “Ending Silence through Education” or ESTE, which they run mostly through donations and sponsors. Our dance lessons with them lasted for a few weeks before the “performance-gathering.” We visited the center twice a week.
On the day of the gathering, we started by singing the national anthem, which some sang through hand movements. The sound made by hearing people echoed but the “visual noise” took us by surprise. The synchronization of signing and singing the national anthem reminded us that, even if we did not have the same language, we know by heart that we are all Filipinos and we are singing the same song.
Owl, Ismael and the deaf students taught us that the deaf can actually appreciate music. They use vibrations, rhythms, and sense-memory. Society has stereotyped deaf people to be oblivious to sound, as if sound was owned only by those who could hear it.
For the rest of the “performance-gathering,” participants were paired and each were assigned to decorate a space. This was followed by a presentation to show how they perceived one another. It resulted to pairs doing a poem and a dance number synchronized with sign language. We also had what the deaf branded as Sign-Sing-Along.
Not being able to hear does not remove your agency with sound, Deaf people can still make sound. They feel sound. They see sound. We ended the gathering by doing a zumba routine. Afterwards, we had the talkback, which is vital part for this kind of performance. It’s when we gauge the audience’s experience of the performance. One of them said, “Language barriers may exist, but the universe found its way to help us understand each other.”
CULTURAL DIFFERENCES AND POWER DYNAMICS
Over the years, deaf people have experienced oppression and isolation from the world that is mostly phonocentric, where speech and spoken language are believed to be superior. Because of this, most of us have not heard of Deaf Culture. Deaf people have an audiological condition, but they don’t identify nor see themselves as inferior. They are capable of understanding language and are able to do things just like any other person. They use sign language as their primary mode of communication. But even though the majority of deaf people use sign language, deaf children are often deprived of their natural language because of misconceptions. According to hand speak studies by neuroscientist Laura-Ann Petitto, signed and spoken languages activate the same linguistic-specific regions of the brain. This evidence debunks the myth that speech is central to language.
Recently, here in the Philippines, a bill that recognizes our Filipino deaf citizens was approved by the senate and the president. The Filipino Sign Language Act declares the FSL as the national sign language of the Filipino deaf, to be used in all transactions involving the deaf, mandating its use in school, broadcast media, and in workplaces.
WHY WE PERFORM
As artists, we always carry the responsibility of telling the truth and have the agency to choose who benefits from that truth. After this experience, the idea of crafting a performance changed for a lot of us. We always had to go back to our motivations and intentions.
Where do we go after this? What is our desired output? What will happen if we invited the audience to travel and participate in the performance? Is the travel a part of the performance itself?
The answers to these questions keep the “performance” on-going research. The gathering may have ended but our advocacy and fight for the basic rights of the deaf community continue, particularly here in the Philippines where deaf-awareness campaigns are just emerging. That is why Hear, Here! is still a work-in-progress that aims to bridge communities together. Hopefully, in the next few years, the rest of us will be able to sing through sign language as well.