Sights and Sounds in Jaffa (Extract)

A blind/deaf theater is a beacon of light for the physically challenged

01lara (photo credit: Nalaga'at)
(photo credit: Nalaga'at)
Extract of an article in Issue 1, April 28, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. "Omigod, how can they do that?" someone in the audience cried out, watching the actors as they danced, swung, drummed, climbed, played musical instruments, poured oil, and shaved with a straight razor through the many sketches. None of these actions are particularly remarkable feats of agility - at least, not for people who have all five senses in working order. But all of the 11 actors performing the play "Not By Bread Alone" at the Na Laga'at (Hebrew for "Please Do Touch") Theater are deaf and blind. They can neither see the audience for whom they are performing nor hear the applause. All but one have Usher Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder in which one is born deaf and gradually becomes blind at ages anywhere from adolescence to the mid-forties. Na Laga'at is the only deaf/blind theater in the world. Since the theater's birth in 2002, the troupe has performed in the United States and Western Europe, bringing its message of hope and humor to counter the dark and silent world in which the actors live. The theater, warm and inviting, with some 300 dark red seats, is just one aspect of the transformational experience offered by a visit to the Na Laga'at Center, housed in a converted warehouse in Jaffa's port. Opened in December 2007, the center also includes the Kapish Café, staffed by hearing impaired waiters, and the Blackout Restaurant where the waiters are visually impaired (see box on page 39.) Music signals the beginning of the show as Mark Yarosky, 45, plays an accordion he cannot hear. The actors walk on stage in single file to a long table and begin to knead dough for the bread they will bake in six onstage ovens. The narrator is Itzik Hanona, 44, the only actor who was born blind and deaf. Speaking in Hebrew, he explains to the audience that he "does not know what a beautiful blond or a sunset looks like." Hebrew and English supertitles are projected on a screen. Isolation, however, is not the only emotion that these phenomenal actors, most of whom are in their mid-forties, portray. They laugh and bring the audience to laugh with them. Their facial expressions draw you into their world, and soon you forget that you are actually listening to the voice of an interpreter or reading the projected translations. As the aroma of baking bread fills the hall, the characters' stories unfold. Batsheva Ravenseri, 44, is the most striking actor on stage, with forceful facial expressions and body movements that convey meaning and enhance her beauty. Of all the actors, she alone possesses what might be called classic beauty, with big eyes and luxurious curly hair that cascades to her shoulders. She tells how she longs to see her son when he returns from the army and how she wishes that - just once - she could have her hair cut by a famous stylist. Even if she cannot see herself, others could admire her stylish coiffure, she believes. Ravenseri plays her role with such panache that one is unsure how much of her efforts are playacting and how much is real life. And it seems not to matter, as she helps the audience to understand what her world is like. Their sketches are variously poignant and slapstick. The tour de force of the evening is Batsheva's delight as she admires herself in a mirror after a visit to the hair salon. "You could swear she can see herself," an incredulous member of the audience exclaimed. There is more talking in the audience than one would tolerate in a conventional theatrical presentation, apparently due to the fact that it does not distract the actors. Each actor has an interpreter who stands behind him or her and communicates by touch signs what their fellow actors convey through gesture or by continuously patting the actors on the shoulder to indicate the nature and duration of the applause.Yet another form of communication is glove language, in which an interpreter touches the top of one's hand in an intricate dance of dots and dashes. Feigie Swirsky, 25, formerly an interpreter for the army, explains that glove language uses the top of a person's hand to spell out each word, as if the hand is a keyboard, with each touch representing a different letter. Adina Tal, 55, who directs Na Laga'at productions, created the troupe in 2002, after she was asked by a Tel Aviv club for the deaf/blind to run a drama workshop. A graduate of Tel Aviv University's theater department and an experienced director, she says that nothing could have prepared her for this work. "I had read Helen Keller's autobiography when I was 13, but that was my only exposure to deaf/blind people," says Tal, who came to Israel from Zurich, Switzerland, at the age of 19. "When I started, I was warned that some [of the actors] were suicidal. Now they love life, they are stars. Their lives have changed completely and so did mine," she says. For Tal, "learning not to be patronizing" was the most challenging part of the process. So the fact that the cast had no acting experience did not stop her from being a demanding taskmaster. "I am tough with them, I don't make concessions. They are professionals. Until I'm pleased, they have to do it time and again." Rehearsals are a challenge, involving the most minute details. "When I build a scene, I have to make sure that everyone knows where to stand," she explains. And when asked if everyone is pleasant to work with, or appreciative of her efforts, she replies, "They are a normal group. Some are jealous because they don't get the role they want. Others don't like the costumes they are asked to wear. They don't come here with 'thank you for the opportunity.' They are respected actors. And that's the way it should be." Extract of an article in Issue 1, April 28, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.