Beyond the boundaries of the body | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 25.12.2012
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Beyond the boundaries of the body

Their world is dark and quiet. Yet they manage to put on a brilliant theater performance. Since 2007 in Tel Aviv, an ensemble acts as the world's only deaf and blind theater group.

The audience claps enthusiastically. Holding hands, the actors are bowing on stage and waving into the dark hall. "Not by Bread Alone" is the title of the play that has just finished onstage. Since its premiere, it has played more than 700 times at Nalaga'at Theater at Jaffa port in Tel Aviv.

It's a play about yearning, about both pleasant and bitter memories. Feelings everyone can relate to - and yet these 11 women and men on stage are far from typical. They suffer from Usher syndrome, meaning they can neither hear nor see. It's a genetic condition that causes deafness from birth, and gradually blindness.


A male and female actor dancing on stage at the Nalaga'at Theater

The actors dance to music they themselves can not hear

The theater was launched at the Jaffa harbor in 2007, transforming a former storage house with the help of donations and money from foundations. Director Adina Tal, originally from Switzerland, said they long searched for a suitable location.

Now, the large building houses a theater, a café and a restaurant. The 59-year-old Tal is the engine behind this unique project. She was long interested in a theater by the blind, she said. "But everything that I saw, I thought was boring." A workshop with deaf-blind people motivated her: "I fell in love with the idea of making the impossible possible."

This was some 12 years ago. She still works with the same group of people. Their on-stage work is touching and impressive. But the enormous achievement behind that is difficult to grasp for most.

For those who cannot hear or see, communication ends at the boundaries of the body. "Surroundings" - that's merely a vague idea from smells, and things that the fingers can grasp. The world of deaf-blind people is one of isolation, of darkness and silence unimaginable for people who can see and hear. "Simply making contact with other people is a challenge," explained Tal.

Challenging communication

Actors sitting at a long table on stage at the Nalaga'at Theater

The actors begin the play by baking bread together

Communication takes place using tactile signing of the Lorm deaf-blind manual alphabet. For the deaf-blind, their hands are their eyes, ears and mouth. With fingers moving back and forth, applying more or less pressure, every letter has a specific location on the hand. Conversations are literally spelled out - there's no room for irony or nuance. "That's just not possible," said Tal.

Because communication is done with the hands, they mostly can only take place between two people. In Nalaga'at, which is Hebrew for "please touch," 11 people act with each other. For that to work, Tal developed new forms of communication.

The deaf-blind, for instance, had to learn to feel drum beatings that would announce a change of scene within in the play. "It was incredibly difficult for everyone," she said. The actors are assisted on-stage by support actors who know the Lorm alphabet, and have taken courses to help them understand the depth of their co-workers' darkness and silence.

International success

External view of the Nalaga'at Theater in Jaffa

The Nalaga'at theater in Jaffa is unique in its approach

Performances take place three times a week, and are always sold out. Tal said she did not expect that the theater group would become so professional. "It's a revolution," she said. The project has also been gaining attention abroad. Last year, the group performed at the international theater festival LIFT in London. Now, the German foundation "Living Deaf-Blind" is now also considering setting up a similar theater group.

During the performance in Jaffa, the smell of fresh bread spreads through from the stage into the audience. At the beginning of the play, the actors have made dough and put it in the oven. Bread here symbolizes a feeling of security - yet this alone is not enough.

The play is about just how important connection and dialogue with others is for the deaf-blind. "It would be nice if I could see my grandchildren," says actress Genia. Group member Shoshanna, for instance, wants to see the blue of the sky, while Yuri desires to watch television. Simple wishes; yet impossible to realize. Suddenly the audience understands just how precious such moments are.

Yet pity is the not what Tal and the actors seek. Their lives have been transformed through theater. They've turned into "self-conscious actors with all kinds of quirks," said Tal.

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