Deaf artists from across Canada gather in Edmonton for SOUND OFF

Click to play video 'Deaf theatre festival gets underway in Edmonton' Deaf theatre festival gets underway in Edmonton
WATCH ABOVE: Morgan Black tells us about a deaf theatre festival in Edmonton and how the performances are being made more inclusive. – Feb 14, 2020

An Edmonton festival dedicated to the deaf performing arts is welcoming you to explore a unique style of theatre.

Deaf and hearing audiences alike can take in a show at SOUND OFF, a one-of-a-kind Canadian festival.

“It’s not just for the deaf community, it’s for all Edmonton audiences,” explained founder and festival director Chris Dodd. “Deaf theatre is physical. Your hands become your voice.”

Shows often involve a mixture of American Sign Language, physical movement and interpreters or closed captions on stage.

READ MORE: Researchers examining how to make performing arts more accessible in Edmonton

Hayley Hudson, a member of Ontario’s Deaf Spirit Theatre, said traditional theatre can pose challenges for deaf audience members and performers.

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“I grew up going to hearing theatre,” Hudson said. “I would always have to sit in the front row and try to lip read.

“There would sometimes be an interpreter, but they would be off to the side. I would miss what the actor was doing because I needed to look at the interpreter for access. I felt like I was left out.”

Hudson also explained that there’s often lots of talking and few physical actions. With SOUND OFF, those barriers are eliminated.

“It’s all inclusive. There’s signing. Hearing people can go and enjoy our shows and see what it’s like so they have an understanding of it as well,” Hudson said.

“The point of SOUND OFF is that everything involved is accessible.”

Hudson has been performing in SOUND OFF since it began in 2016.

“It creates opportunities for deaf actors and artists. For many of us in theatre companies across Canada, there have been no opportunities for us. Usually we’re involved in something small,” Hudson said.

“We couldn’t do this without Chris. Where would we be without him? How would we all come together?”

Members of SOUND OFF and Rapid Fire Theatre pose for a photo in February 2020.
Members of SOUND OFF and Rapid Fire Theatre pose for a photo in February 2020. Morgan Black/Global News

The Canada Council for the Arts recently awarded Dodd with the Guy Laliberté Prize, a one-time $20,000 award, in honour of his exceptional work in deaf theatre.

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“It’s not just me getting the recognition. It helps solidify the deaf arts as an artistic practice. It’s a great thing for me and also for the community,” Dodd said.

Money from the prize will go towards travel around and outside of Canada, to connect with more deaf artists.

“I’ll be going to a deaf theatre festival that’s starting in Washington, D.C., called Oiol,” Dodd explained.

Edmonton’s Rapid Fire Theatre has also been involved in all four years of the festival, partnering with SOUND OFF to create two teams, each with a mixture of deaf and hearing improvisers. The one rule? No language allowed, including American Sign Language.

“It tends to be a very physical show. Movement is all that’s left to communicate with each other and the audience,” Rapid Fire Theatre’s Matt Schuurman explained.

“We’ve learned that the audience engages in a different way. There’s different timing and a different rhythm to the whole show. Usually we are blurting out as many words as we can, but this show really buzzes at a different frequency.”

READ MORE: Record-setting $1.72M year for the 2019 Edmonton Fringe Festival

The festival is already having an impact in Edmonton, getting more people thinking about accessibility.

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“It is unfortunate that it’s isolated to this one event. It’s an inspiration to get you thinking about all of the ways we could integrate these communities more frequently and more regularly,” Schuurman said.

“It’s a beautiful thing to see,” Dodd said. “Access is a human right.”

SOUND OFF runs until Feb. 16 at the ATB Financial Arts Barns.