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Obituary: Issy Schlisselman

Issy Schlisselman. Photo: Ian Harper Issy Schlisselman. Photo: Ian Harper

The Stage described Issy Schlisselman as “a remarkable actor”, but he was also an eloquent mime artist and an influential member of the British Theatre of the Deaf.

His long career, unusually for any actor, with or without impairment, kept him employed until his final, characteristically appealing, appearance as Father Bear in The Mystery of Goldilocks and the Four Bears at St Giles-in-the-Fields in July 2017.

En route, he played a huge variety of roles, from the title part in James Elroy Flecker’s Hassan (British Theatre of the Deaf tour) to an Ugly Sister in Cinderella (BBC) and Beethoven in a play he commissioned from me for my own company, Cyclops Productions at the King’s Head Theatre in 2001.

Rendered profoundly deaf by diphtheria at the age of seven, Schlisselman began acting in school and deaf clubs, notably the Royal National Institute of the Deaf-sponsored mime workshops led by Pat Keysell, which prompted the British Theatre of the Deaf’s formation in 1969.

Advocate and role model for other deaf actors, his outstanding contribution to theatre was his capacity to bridge the gap between hearing and deaf participants, and audiences.

His work with the diversity theatre company Path Productions involved a double-act with Edward Jones as his ‘voice-over’. It took them into innovative territory as two versions of Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a Scrooge whose dual personality made uniquely explicit his conversion to a better self. Subsequently, he experimented with roles in which sign language was integral, interpreted to a hearing audience by the context of the play.

As an actor, he had that indispensable and mysterious quality of stage presence, causing a colleague to remark both admiringly and wistfully: “When Issy’s on stage, whatever he’s doing, you really only want to look at him.”

Issy Schlisselman was born on February 24, 1924 and died on September 24, 2017 aged 93.