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'I want to be a role model for other deaf people'

2023-06-01 17:25:21 source:CBS News author:news click:102order

An actress from County Armagh has said she wants to be a role model for deaf and hard-of-hearing people who are interested in the performing arts.

Paula Clarke, who has been acting for more than 20 years, was born deaf and grew up fluent in sign language.

"I want to show everybody that deaf actors like myself have the skills, the experience and that professional ability to perform well," she said.

She was speaking ahead of a performance at the inaugural Deaf Arts NI Festival.

The event, at the MAC in Belfast, is unique in that it caters to both deaf and hearing audiences.

Two productions this weekend will incorporate hearing and deaf actors performing for an inclusive audience, using a mixture of speech, sign language and interpretation.

"This has never happened," said Paula, who is also a sign language interpreter for BBC Newsline. "It's so important for hearing and deaf actors, and society in general, to work together.

"This is like my dream come true. I have been waiting for such a long time and now we've done it and I'm so excited, I'm thrilled."

Paula said she has been interested in drama from an early age by dressing up, looking in the mirror and "trying to imagine myself as a different character".

"I would try on make-up and I would ask my mum to photograph me... I'm an only child, so that's why I kind of enjoyed playing alone creatively."

Her interest in the performing arts extended to college where she joined an acting course, working with hearing actors, something that was "slow to start" but has became easier over the years as she worked across multiple productions.

"I see so much progress that has been made; people are becoming more aware of sign language and the need for inclusivity," she said.

"It's so important in the arts to include people from all different backgrounds, people who are from different communities - that could be with different disabilities, neurodiversity, LGBTQ community - because there are barriers there.

"We want to invite other people who are involved in other performance companies to come to see that deaf actors can do it, can provide a high quality of performance.

"I want to be a role model for other deaf people who are interested in performing as well to show that they can do it."

Communication is key, according to Paula, and this goes far beyond verbal speech.

She said relationships can be built through gesture, eye contact, visual descriptions and note taking.

"It's actually a line in the play - communication is a feeling - and that's so important because it's impossible to rely on interpreters for communication all the time because interpreters aren't available 24/7."

Deaf Arts Northern Ireland, which has been launched to coincide with Deaf Awareness Week, was co-founded by Sara Lyle from Cre8 Theatre in Belfast and Stephen Kelly from c21 Theatre corporation in Newtownabbey.

They made the decision to collaborate on the project after applying for specialist funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

"It's been a massive undertaking and a really big steep learning curve for the both of us," said Sarah.

Both company directors "jumped head first" into learning British Sign Language last year and have spent considerable time on research and development ahead of the festival.

"Incorporating ourselves into that environment has been amazing. We can communicate on a basic level in the rehearsal room and that's key," said Stephen.

"We just put two feet in and went for it, connecting with interpreters from across Northern Ireland.

"I think this a different mode for them but they are generally super excited to see this amount of access going on," Sarah added.

Last year's best picture Oscar win for Coda - which stands for Children of Deaf Adults - was a victory for a low-budget, independent film that has been praised for its representation of a deaf family, and for its casting of deaf actors.

"Isn't it about time? It should have been happening ages ago," said Sarah.

Stephen said he was inspired to bring inclusivity to the forefront after seeing the huge impact made by such larger productions.

"I think that prompted me, certainly," he said. "We're in a position to make an impact through the medium of drama."

The festival has been made possible with additional support from the Halifax Foundation and Belfast City Council's Arts and Heritage Fund.

After a weekend run in Belfast both productions will embark on a tour across Northern Ireland.

Further ahead, c21 Theatre corporation has been invited to perform as part of this year's hearing-impaired offerings at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh.

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