'My mother said I never should...use sign language'
Playing characters at the opposite end of the generation gap in Charlotte Keatley’s play My Mother Said I Never Should, Ali Briggs and Lisa Kelly have very differing experiences of growing up as D/deaf children.
While Ali was born into a hearing family, both Lisa’s parents and three siblings were D/deaf.
“My parents didn’t know anything about deafness and in those days deaf children were educated together, they were segregated,” says the older actor. “And my family said there should be no signing, it was all speech therapy and things. You had to sit on your hands.”
It was long thought that sign language would inhibit a child’s language development and was banned in schools for the D/deaf in favour of oral education.
“Even today there are professionals who believe that sign language will delay development but I think the opposite,” says Lisa. “An audiologist will tell parents, I am sorry your child has failed a hearing test and is deaf. That’s two negatives already. The parent says, what am I going to do? and they talk about speech therapy, they don’t give all the options.”
Bradford-born Ali Briggs remembers when she decided she wanted to act. “A theatre company came to our school and because I was deaf I had to collect all the registers and as I went round the set was being built and the costumes brought out so that by the end I realised that’s what I wanted to do.
“Later when I went for career advice and said I wanted to be an actor and they said,’ No, that’s stupid. How will you hear the cues, no, no, no. Go to Marks and Spencer, they like the deaf.
“Anyway I ended up going to Damart Thermalware where I was a long john packer. It was only when I was 38 that I got my first acting job because again it was barrier after barrier. That was when I got my Equity card but I had done acting at school and at deaf club in Leeds.
“That first job was with Red Ladder, touring schools, it was fantastic. It was called Breaking the Silence and there were two Deaf actors and a blind actor in it which was really good back then. Later I came to the Crucible in Song for the Sea, a TIE production.
“I did 25 episodes of Coronation Street and was introduced as Emily Bishop’s niece and was in and out but my first TV was in Fat Friends when I played a deaf masseur.
“Although there are more opportunities now we want more and it to be more mainstream. We want to see them and be represented in the theatre and on TV.”
Lisa Kelly says she too wanted to be an actress from a young age. “I did drama at GCSE but then stopped it and did English and Psychology for A Level and then a degree in Counselling,” she says. “I knew it was so competitive to get into acting and then I saw the audition for a film and got that. The film was called Reverberation and it was a sci fi film about trying to find a cure for deafness but I go back in time to try and stop it.”
Then she successfully auditioned for this, her first professional theatre role.
Are things overall better for D/deaf people nowadays? “Attitudes are changing but sometimes I feel we have gone backwards,” considers Lisa.
“Deafness is an invisible disability and I think it varies for different people. I can hear and speak and some people don’t realise I am deaf and then I think those who are profoundly deaf and can’t speak will face more barriers.
“I can only speak for myself and feel fine but some of the things people say, like asking can you drive, can you have children? So I feel some things are better, others worse.”
My Mother Said I Never Should runs in the Crucible Studio until Saturday, November 23.