- The Arts
In South Africa, gaining access to the arts remains a difficult process for the Deaf community. On the one hand, by virtue of the “dramatic” nature of South African Sign Language (SASL), the Deaf are well suited to live performance. On the other hand, they remain largely unskilled owing to a continuing marginalization based on a communication breakdown. Most theater educators at both the pretertiary and tertiary levels cannot sign, which means that the skills transfer to a Deaf group of learners can only be superficial. Without being able to get access to the deeper, more complex concepts around live performance, the Deaf can only be performers at a superficial level, and therefore struggle to participate in the industry or compete on contemporary stages in South Africa. There is also a lack of a theater-going culture in the Deaf community; that is, theaters in the country are not cultivating Deaf audiences. However, it is not clear whether this is as a result of the lack of access, and therefore the lack of accessible theater product, or rather the possibility that the Deaf community—like many other communities—is not particularly interested in live performance as a form of entertainment. But which came first: the lack of access or the perceived lack of interest?
A few companies in the country are making live performance accessible to the Deaf. Remix Dance Project Trust employs dancers both with and without disabilities. Universe Deaf Theater runs small projects dominated largely by Deaf performers; however, none of them have received any real theater training. The company that is pioneering Deaf and hearing creative collaboration is a theater company called from the hip: khulumakahle (FTH:K), a young, groundbreaking company that works in the field of visual theater. Without a dependence on any one language, its work crosses cultural and linguistic divides and calls on audiences to “listen with your eyes.” It has already won multiple awards and toured all over South Africa, Germany, and Argentina, and in only 4 years has reached more than 36,000 people.
More than that, FTH:K is South Africa’s premier Deaf and hearing theater company with the goal of integrating the Deaf into the performing arts world in South Africa. This aim is best illustrated through its unique Tell-Tale Signs program, which is currently training South Africa’s first generation of Deaf artists for inclusion in the professional performing arts industry. There is currently no other project like it (nor has there ever been) in South Africa. FTH:K employs both Deaf and hearing performers, managers, and educators, and makes every aspect of its work accessible to the Deaf community. It also takes on many of the other challenges facing Deaf/hearing integration that are not directly related to theater, such as the employment of interpreters, compulsory SASL lessons for all hearing employees, and compulsory English literacy classes for all Deaf employees. With the illiteracy and unemployment rate among the Deaf in South Africa at 70%–80%, FTH:K believes that is it time to begin developing programs and job opportunities that stimulate and validate the Deaf and their stories, while ensuring that the Deaf become equal participants in the cultural life of South Africa.
FTH:K works include Pictures of You, which was sold out, and the award-winning GUMBO and Birds’ Eye View. [End Page 513]
Surtees is director of a theater company, from the hip: khulumakahle (FTH:K), based in Cape Town, South Africa.