Canada finally has a performance series dedicated to the work of deaf artists

Theatre is traditionally entwined with the act of listening — but Edmonton's SOUND OFF Festival is aiming to challenge that conceit and open doors for deaf artists.

Edmonton's SOUND OFF Festival kicks off tonight

An image from Deaf Crows, one of the plays in SOUND OFF. It's from Thom Collegiate in Regina, written and performed by Deaf and Hard of Hearing youth and other members of the Deaf Community. (Chinook Series)

Theatre is, traditionally, deeply entwined with the act of listening, as evidenced by the word audience — literally a group of people who hear something together. But Edmonton's SOUND OFF Festival is aiming to challenge that conceit. The brainchild of playwright Chris Dodd, the upstart event is Canada's first performance series dedicated exclusively to the work of deaf artists.

An Edmonton native, Dodd was born with normal hearing but gradually lost it through childhood as the result of a meningitis infection he suffered at age 3. That didn't deter him from studying drama at the University of Alberta, where he became the first deaf student to complete the program in 1998. But despite some initial success in the field, he soon faced a serious lack of professional opportunities.

"I had high hopes of having a career in the arts field," he says. "But there was no work and no offers from the theatre community. They didn't know how to work with a deaf artist. So for a long time, my theatre career was in a state of hibernation, and I felt isolated as a result."

Chris Dodd. (Chinook Series)

Dodd shared his thoughts on these challenges during a panel on access and inclusion in theatre at the 2015 Canoe Festival. There, he caught the ear of Workshop West artistic director Vern Thiessen. Having recently returned to Edmonton after seven years in New York, Thiessen was keen to find ways to showcase the work of folks at the margins of mainstream theatre. The plan for SOUND OFF was hatched soon after.

The event is a first in Canada. And in that way, we're lagging behind. South of the border, Connecticut's National Theatre of the Deaf has been going strong since 1967, clocking in dozens of national and international tours. L.A.'s Deaf West earned three Tony Award nominations for their 2016 production of Spring Awakening. And companies serving deaf artists and audiences abound in the U.K., Germany, France and Australia. But in the Great White North, opportunities are often localized in specific communities, with little connection between them.

In terms of something that unites deaf performers and groups across the country, we don't have anything right now — so I'm hoping to change that with this festival.- Chris Dodd

Dodd became keenly aware of this last year while performing in Adam Pottle's Ultrasound in Toronto. The play about a deaf couple starting a family drew a substantial crowd from the city's deaf arts community. During post-show conversations, Dodd was struck by how familiar their concerns felt and instantly recognized a need to connect deaf artists across the country.

"Helping to strengthen the bonds among deaf folks who are interested in performing and to get people talking and networking, is one of the primary reasons for SOUND OFF," he says. "In terms of something that unites deaf performers and groups across the country, we don't have anything right now — so I'm hoping to change that with this festival."

Christopher Bryan DeGuzman and Joanna Hawkins perform in 100 Decibels, by the acclaimed troupe from Winnipeg, bridges the gap between the hearing and Deaf communities through the universal language of mime, physical comedy, and storytelling. (Chinook Series)

The festival also provides an opportunity for hearing audiences to try something new. Since sound is intrinsically tied to the way most of us experience theatre, the idea of a show where everything is communicated without speech might seem strange. But Dodd stresses that it's a space that's truly accessible to everyone.

"American Sign Language is perfectly suited for the stage," he says. "It's beautiful, physical and expressive and can easily convey nuances and emotion. People might think, 'Why would I go to a deaf theatre festival? I don't know any sign language!'  But don't panic. All the performances and events will have ASL to English interpreting where necessary. Even if you can hear, you're still welcome." And in the end, welcoming is what the festival is all about.

SOUND OFF. Presented by Workshop West Playwrights Theatre as part of the Chinook Series. Through February 19. Various locations, Edmonton.


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