With two Deaf actors in the cast, communication has been a challenge for director Kate Hewitt in rehearsals for the play receiving its regional premiere at the Crucible Studio.
Ironically, lack of communication is at the heart of Nina Raine’s moving and darkly funny drama.
The director, winner of the inaugural Royal Theatrical Support Trust Director Award, had never worked with Deaf actors before and was aware she was entering a world she wasn’t familiar with (although that’s often the case exploring plays).
“I was having to think about different elements that I would have to include in the rehearsal room,” she said.
“I’ve got two interpreters in the room at any one time as well as our dog and British Sign Language consultant and our adviser who I can call to ask how something in particular might work.
“Each person is different in what they can and can’t hear and with Emily and Ciaran I have just had to adjust the way I am working. I know I have to make eye contact for Emily to lip read and if I speak too fast the interpreter will step in.
Drama schools wouldn’t accept me because I was Deaf
“I wanted to be able to communicate with everybody because that’s what you do as a director. So how do you best do that? You’re family, in a way.”
And the family dynamic is at the heart of Nina Raine’s play originally seen at the Royal Court. It centres on Billy who was born deaf into a hearing family and Sylvia, a hearing woman born to deaf parents but now slowly going deaf herself.
Billy’s parents have never treated him any differently from his siblings but as he gets to know Sylvia, who teaches him sign language, he starts to wonder if his family have ever really listened to him.
Ciaran Alexander Stewart, who is playing Billy, has a cochlear implant so conversation entails a mixture of hearing and lip reading.
“I do relate to Billy, especially at family dinners when I struggle to follow the conversation and I am always the first one to finish my dinner because I don’t really understand what is going on and am focusing on the food,” he said.
“My family is totally different. They have been brilliant with me and accepted the fact that I am Deaf.”
His father is a drama lecturer and ran a youth theatre in Ayr which Ciaran joined when he was 10. “Since then I have learned that’s what I want to do and my family embraced that.”
He got a place at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland but soon landed his first professional job in Dr Johnson Goes to Scotland at Oran Mor in Glasgow and then the musical Junkyard with Headlong at the Bristol Old Vic.
“What’s fantastic about the conservatoire is if you get a professional job they give you time off and I’m about to do my third year after the summer.”
Emily Howlett, playing Sylvia, didn’t find it quite so easy. “Drama schools wouldn’t accept me because I was Deaf and my A Level drama teacher was saying you are good but there’s never going to be enough work for you which I think was true at the time so I did some other things.”
Growing up on the edge of the Peak District near Derby this included working with horses until she decided she might as well give acting a go.
The highlight of her career so far has been her role in the office karaoke party episode of Inside No 9 when she was dressed as Boy George. She also writes, directs and delivers workshops for PAD (Positive About Deafness) Productions.
As to how she relates to Tribes: “I grew up like Billy [in a hearing family] but I totally identify with Sylvia,” she said.
“It’s strange, Ciaran and I have both been saying we have massive connections with both characters. It has been really nice working out our own characters together because even though we are both from hearing families and have been brought up to speak and both have sign language, would look on paper as we are the same people, we have completely different lives down to the schools we went to, how much our parents had to fight for the access we got, it’s so different.”
The aforementioned dog is George, Emily’s hearing dog. “He lets me know about all the things he’s trained to do. If there’s a fire alarm he nudges me and lies down. He has a different response for things. If someone says call mum he will take me to that person which is really useful with my little son. He can be in another room but he can’t shout me but he can call the dog who will fetch me. When the alarm clock goes off in the morning he jumps on me. It’s quite a nice way to wake up actually. “
Single mum Emily’s son is four and but unlike Sylvia will not be expected to interpret for his deaf parent. “Because I do speak and lip read the signing is a lovely extra for him. Because so much of my family are hearing, he and me have signs which he only really uses with me. It’s nice to have that extra bond.”
Alongside Ciaran and Emily, the cast features Simon Rouse and Lindy Whiteford as Billy’s parents and Oliver Johnstone and Louisa Connolly-Burnham as his siblings.
Tribes opens in the Crucible Studio tonight (Thursday, June 29) and runs to July 22.