Extraordinary Ordinary

Nalaga'at, the world's only deaf-blind performance ensemble, opens its own theater in Jaffa.

Nalagaat (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Before I got there, I had been thinking of my recent visit to the newly-opened Nalaga'at theater in Jaffa as little more than a chance to do a good deed. That's a not uncommon sentiment among prospective visitors to performances by this deaf-blind theater ensemble, according to founder Adina Tal. "People are often under the impression that this is some kind of charity center, or that they're doing us a favor by visiting," she observes. The ensemble's acquisition of the premises, which opened its doors last month, will help it prove to a wider audience that this is simply not so. The center, which features a café staffed by deaf waiters, is a milestone in a journey which began five years ago, with Tal's drama class for the deaf and blind. "The organizers originally intended my class to be a means of passing time; no one had any great expectations," she recalls. "But within a short time I realized the latent potential of my students." What followed was the establishment of the world's only deaf and blind theater group, which tours nationally and abroad and now even has the distinction of having its own theater. This accomplishment is all the more admirable in that many of its members are of Russian origin, and the group is faced with the additional challenge of translating Russian sign language to Hebrew sign language. Most of the members suffer from Asher syndrome, in which children are born hearing impaired and in their teenage years begin gradually to lose their sight. Indeed, my sense of being on a mission of mercy was undermined as soon as I arrived at the restored warehouse. The entrance was flanked by a sizable group of fashionable urbanites attempting to score last-minute tickets to the company's latest production, Not By Bread Alone. Inside, the lobby (a sparse and airy space adorned with contemporary art installations) was packed with more stylishly attired theater-goers mingling over glasses of wine. As its title suggests, Not By Bread Alone depicts the hopes of its actors, who, despite their limitations, aspire to more than mere survival. The show is comprised of a series of mimed sketches accompanied by background music and projected titles in Hebrew and English, plus narration by two of the ensemble's deaf and blind actors. The most immediately captivating aspects of the production are the props and scenery, mesmerizing in their vividness and meticulous attention to detail. The opening sketch, for example, is a strikingly-nuanced tableau depicting a traditional bakery. Here, the actors sport chef's hats and uniforms while kneading dough, which they place in mock industrial-sized ovens. Another sketch, this one a vibrant portrayal of Italian culture, has colorfully attired performers posing as street vendors selling balloons and ice cream, and actresses clothed in extravagant Italian fashions. Tal emphasizes the importance of striking visual displays in a production lacking verbal interaction. "The aim of the production is for the actors to impart something genuine to the audience, and, as in any theatrical performance, it is necessary for the right conditions to be in place for artistic goals to be reached," she says. "Were the actors to appear on a bare stage and launch into long, humorless depictions of their troubles, they wouldn't be giving anything to the audience. As far as I'm concerned, everything from the scenery to the quality of my actors' performances must be geared toward engaging the audience." Her determination appears to have paid off. The performers, aided by cues such as confetti and vibrations from drums beats, portray character types such as an egotistical hairdresser to the stars, a pair of star-crossed lovers and a self-obsessed grooming addict, complete with nuanced facial expressions, precise comic timing and a good sense of rhythm. Their talents are such that one can imagine an uninformed audience member remaining unaware of the actors' physical limitations. The performers' talents are also evident in moving depictions of their difficulties. One actor's dream of walking without fear is poignantly portrayed as he strides across the stage supported by a line of his peers, whose gentle grips guide him. The narrator confesses her own longing to be part of social interactions, to be "in the thick of things rather than feeling out of what's going on." It's a desire rendered all the more poignant for being so universal: Who among us hasn't felt a sense of isolation, of being at odds with our surroundings? Locating the balance between offering light-hearted comedy and somber insight into the realities of life as a blind or deaf person was crucial, says Tal. "I was very aware of not wanting to glorify being blind and deaf," Tal stresses. "Having worked with people who had these limitations, it's not something I'd wish on anyone." "At the same time," she continues, "I wanted to show that despite their restrictions, deaf and blind people are like everyone else in the sense that they can take pleasure in things and aspire to goals; they aren't merely objects of pity. It's important for me to convey the fact that everyone has the capacity to make the best of their given circumstances." She is keen to point out the change in her actors since the establishment of the company. "When I began working with the performers, many of them were very depressed," she recalls. "They had found no enjoyment in life, and some even talked about suicide... . Now they feel they have something to live for, because they have the ability to give to others." The actors succeed in realizing Tal's aim of a delicate equilibrium between humor and pathos, demonstrating their capacity to make the best of their situation through the use of their available senses in order to enjoy small pleasures. One actress cools herself with a Chinese fan while another sprinkles a friend with confetti. Two of the actors link arms, rocking gently as if in time to music they can't hear, while a third runs his hand along the strings of a harp. Their collective efforts create a stunning finale which they themselves cannot really appreciate. Applause was muted, as if a collective understanding had been reached; effusive superlatives about the inspiration gleaned from the actors would be patronizing, almost to the same extent as lamenting their limitations. It would have missed the crucial point: These actors are just ordinary people. For information about future performances of Not By Bread Alone, visit www. nalagaat.org.il