Using theatre to educate

theatre1-textRob Murray and Lysander Barends
star in Gumbo.
(Image: FTH:K)

Christine Skinner
+27 82 855 7277

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Chris Thurman

What does it mean to “listen with your eyes”?

It may sound like a symptom of synaesthesia, the neurological condition in which input from different sensory organs gets confused. This, however, is no medical diagnosis. Instead, it’s an invigorating piece of advice from a unique group of theatre-makers to their prospective audiences.

Unique in South Africa, From the Hip: Khulumakahle or FTH:K is a rare creative collaboration – a deaf/hearing theatre company.

The brainchild of Tanya Surtees and Rob Murray, FTH:K was formed officially in 2005. The duo had previously studied drama together at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape province, and, after commencing their professional careers, they found that their respective theatrical ambitions merged.

As Surtees explains, “Rob wanted to establish a company of clowns, emphasising physical theatre and comedy. I have always been passionate about working in the deaf community. It seemed natural that this should result in a performance style focusing on the visual rather than the aural.”

Facilitating communication

The company has a three-fold mission: communicate, educate, fascinate. Khuluma kahle is isiZulu for “speak well” – and FTH:K’s aim is to facilitate communication, both between and within deaf and hearing participants. They do this by fascinating their audiences, not just through visual pageantry but by telling enthralling stories involving enigmatic characters.

The educational imperative is manifested in various projects. Tell-Tale Signs, a programme piloted at the Dominican School for the Deaf in Cape Town, has since been introduced elsewhere in the Western Cape province, notably at Noluthando School for the Deaf in the Cape Flats township of Khayelitsha and within the deaf community of Worcester, and further across the country.

Current company members such as Marlon Snyders, Tomri Steyn and Christo Beukes gained their first theatre experience through the Tell-Tale Signs course.

In addition to promoting literacy, theatre making and project management skills amongst deaf learners, FTH:K has also teamed up with sign language education and development organisation SLED. All hearing company members learn South African sign language.

Attention to detail

Amongst avid theatre-goers in Cape Town and at the annual National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, FTH:K has become known for its careful stage-craft and polished physical performance, paying acute attention to the nuances of gesture, mime and other forms of non-verbal communication, along with the inventive use of puppetry, masks and props.

The company’s work to date has exhibited a range of narrative material, genre and tone, from endearing comedy to disturbing gothic visions.

Pictures of You is a meditation on marriage, probing beneath the mundane surface of a quiet domestic life to expose the repressed jealousies, deceits and dreams that accumulate over the course of a life spent together. Gumbo is a love story of a different kind, one in which a young couple are brought together under unlikely and unhappy circumstances and make a daring escape.

Quack! explores the dark heart of human ambition and the ways in which charismatic individuals can exploit their dominance over others – showing that modern-day doctors, scientists and politicians can also potentially fill the archetypal roles of quack healer, despot and alchemist.

FTH:K’s latest production Womb Tide differs from these earlier shows as it is based on an existing script by playwright Lara Foot. When Womb Tide was first performed in 1996, it told the tale of an unconventional romance and a complicated family in a dysfunctional society set in South Africa in the mid- to late-twentieth century, through measured dialogue.

The play has retained its memorable characters and setting but is now a predominantly visual piece of theatre starring Liezl de Kock – who appeared in Pictures of You, Gumbo and Quack! – and Daniel Buckland, fresh from a stint with Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas. Buckland is the son of local theatre veteran Andrew Buckland.

Although advised to “listen with your eyes”, hearing audience members are able to enjoy a rich and evocative soundtrack designed by James Webb, who has produced haunting soundscapes for previous FTH:K works. The company has established numerous partnerships with South African artists such as Janni Younge, winner of the 2010 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for theatre, who produced masks and puppets for Quack! and Pictures of You.

Womb Tide will open in November at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre.

Cultural exchanges

In 2011 FTH:K will perform at QuestFest, a visual theatre festival at Gallaudet University in Washington DC, and the Imbewu Contemporary South African Theatre Festival in New York. This is not the first time that the company has toured overseas – they have already travelled to Germany and Argentina – but it is a particularly exciting prospect because it forms part of a broader three-year project that will allow FTH:K to expand its interaction with other deaf/hearing partnerships internationally.

“We believe that learning doesn’t only take place within the four walls of a classroom,” notes Surtees. “These cultural exchanges help those involved to understand not only the ways in which life experiences in various countries differ, but also how there are particular experiences that are specific to deaf people in different parts of the world.”

Murray, De Kock, Emilie Starke and other FTH:K members have initiated a project dubbed A Conspiracy of Clowns, which they describe as “a flexible collective of professional theatre makers, clowns, directors, designers, physical performers and writers nationwide”.

If they are conspiring, as FTH:K have done, to communicate, educate, and fascinate then South African and global audiences should welcome the conspiracy. In a country where deaf/hearing divisions add to language, race and other potential barriers to communication, theatre that privileges the visual and the physical offers a vital opportunity to achieve mutual understanding.