Paula Garfield: We need more deaf people leading theatre companies

Fifi Garfield andAbigail Poulton in rehearsals for Deafinitely Theatre's Contractions at ND2. Becky Bailey
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I spent 15 years as a professional actor – often I would be the only deaf actor in the company. In that time I worked in theatres such as Derby Playhouse and Bolton’s Octagon Theatre, playing roles including Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, Sarah in Children of a Lesser God and Rowan in The Lost Child.

Misunderstandings of my language and culture led to friction, a lack of deaf awareness and bullying. I became disillusioned with theatre and decided to change careers.

Then, in 2002 Jo Hemmant from Arts Council England encouraged me not to leave the industry but to try to change it. She convinced me to apply for funding to create a company that would support deaf artists and help them avoid the issues I had faced.

I wanted to provide a space to create work from a deaf perspective, as well as providing opportunities for deaf people to lead the creative process, offer deaf actors freedom and a safe space to create work.

Another aim was to highlight the beauty, creativity and poetry of British Sign Language and shed its status as a token language, used for ‘access’.

Now we are celebrating Deafinitely Theatre’s 15th birthday. An Arts Council national portfolio organisation, we remain the only professional deaf-led theatre company in the UK.

Our work has represented the richness and diversity of deaf culture, and re-interpreted established ‘mainstream’ works from a deaf perspective, such as George Brant’s Grounded at the Park Theatre in 2015, and our current co-production with New Diorama Theatre, Mike Bartlett’s Contractions, a site-specific piece.

We have trained many deaf artists and theatremakers through our Hub Development Programme. Many have gone on to enjoy success, such as William Grint, who featured in Imogen at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2016.

Today, BSL enjoys wider recognition, and has demonstrated its artistic merit within theatre, such as in Ramps on the Moon’s productions and Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Light.

Hearing people make up an increasing share of our audience, attracted to our bilingual approach, and more deaf actors such as Nadia Nadarajah and Matthew Gurney, and deaf theatremakers such as Brian Duffy, are making names for themselves.

Deaf artists still lack educational and employment opportunities within the industry. My next goal is to establish the UK’s first fully accredited acting course delivered in BSL and attended by both deaf and hearing BSL users.

In the past 15 years, I have seen positive change, but there are not enough deaf leaders in the industry. I have seen too many hearing-led companies using deaf actors. I would like to see more deaf-led productions, directing, writing, and telling stories from a deaf perspective, with a ‘deaf voice’. It is time to empower more deaf people to lead.

Contractions runs at ND2, London, until November 29