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Israeli deaf-blind theater offers an unexpected feast

Posted By Justin Rudzki On January 30, 2008 @ 9:09 am In | No Comments

Nalaga’at’s actors weave together a series of mimed and narrated sketches. Picture by Liron Almog.At first thought, it seems about as appealing as the idea of a nephew’s school play. But the Nalaga’at (Do Touch) Theater Group, a troupe of blind and deaf actors, is definitely not what you expect.

Founded by veteran actor, writer and director Adina Tal, Nalaga’at offers its audience compelling theater. “This is a professional deaf theater performed by professional deaf blind actors,” Tal tells ISRAEL21c. “It’s not a poor imitation of a seeing/hearing production: we don’t do Hamlet. What we do is a purpose written piece that showcases the skills and experiences of a specialized group of actors.”

Most of the actors in the Nalaga’at theater group are afflicted with Asher syndrome, a condition where the person is born hearing impaired and begins to go blind as a teen. The group’s work is further challenged by the fact that almost half of its members can only communicate in Russian. They use a combination of sign and touch language and the assistance of translators to engage with one another.

In its latest production, Not by Bread Alone, the troupe’s 11 actors, assisted by on-stage interpreters, enchant a savvy theater-going audience as they weave together a series of mimed and narrated sketches about hopes and dreams.

Set against the backdrop of a bread factory, the production makes rich use of props, costumes and music as part of its dialogue with the audience. A screen in the background projects subtitles in both Hebrew and English. It’s a moving and engaging performance that challenges the audience.

Nalaga’at began life in 2002 as a remedial drama group. Tal, who serves as creative director of the group, had received many requests over the years to get involved in some sort of community project, but had always turned them down.

Finally she acquiesced. With a wry smile she recalls that she almost didn’t make it to day one. “I agreed to come in after the hagim (holidays). In Israel that’s an expression you trot out when you don’t really want to do something. It’s a mystical time period that never arrives.”

Tal, however, finally gave in and instantly fell in love with the group. The rest, as they say, is history.

Nalaga’at has now moved into smart new purpose built premises in the old port of Jaffa. It’s possibly one of the hippest venues in the country: large whitewashed spaces, soaring ceilings and great architectural detailing. Originally an Anglo-Turkish warehouse, it has been turned into a state-of-the-art multi-purpose facility housing a 330-seat theater, as well as two eateries: the chic Café Kappish, the world’s first café staffed solely by deaf waiters and Blackout, a contemporary restaurant in which patrons dine in total blackness.

“Everything has to be the best: the food, the coffee, the sets, the performance,” marketing manager, Arieh Rosen tells ISRAEL21c. “We are a cultural institution. The fact that the majority of our staff are blind, deaf or blind-deaf just means that we have to work differently. It doesn’t imply that we compromise on standards.”

“The production provides a forum for the actors to give back to society,” says Tal. “It’s the people who see the play who end up feeling that they have received the most.”