The deaf-blind actors of Na Laga’at have performed in Zurich, UN headquarters in Geneva, and will be performing at the Lincoln Center in New York on September 15th.As the dark stage is lit and the music begins, a row of 12 actors dressed in black appear on stage with another row of actors in red seated behind them.
Nothing distinguishes them from any other theater troupe, unless you know that these actors are unable to see the lights or hear the music along with their audience.
Na Laga’at, (Please Touch), is the only theater company of its kind in the world. The group of twelve Israeli deaf-blind actors accompanied by their on stage interpreters have played to sold out audiences in Israel, Switzerland, the U.S. and Canada, winning praise from both the critics and the general public.
In their play “Light is Heard in Zig Zag,” the actors share their memories and dreams on stage with wit, originality and power, One man enacts his fantasy of fishing, with the other actors playing the potential catch. A woman dreams of becoming a famous actress. Another simply wishes for the normal day of a person who can see and hear: listening to the news and going shopping and being able to view the items she buys.
With the exception of two actors who can speak, the rest of the script is spoken and signed by an interpreter.
Adina Tal, the artistic director of Na Laga’at, was approached five years ago by a non-profit organization that received a grant, to teach drama to a group of deaf and blind students, most of whom have Usher’s Syndrome, a genetic debilitating condition that gradually causes both deafness and blindness. None had acting experience.
Though Tal has a rich background in theater and was the head of her own very successful company, she had no background working with the disabled.
“No one in my family is blind or deaf, which is the natural way most people become involved.”
Despite her concerns that such a venture could evoke reactions of pity or result in a sub-standard production, Tal made a conscious decision that she would work with the troupe as regular actors and produce quality theater. “I fell in love with the group,” states Tal.
They have played in the well known “Schpielhaus” Theatre in Zurich, UN headquarters in Geneva, and will be performing at the Lincoln Center in New York September 15th.
“You could say it was the height of “chutzpah” (provocation) to take an art form that involves the highest degree of communication and involve people whose greatest problem is communication, and who have to overcome these difficulties.”
The interpreters and drums provide the cues, with the interpreters transmitting the audience’s applause to the actors by tapping on their hands, which they pass on in a chain from one to the other.
Tal sees it as a given that the actors’ lives have changed dramatically. Yet the most frequent comment mentioned in both the journals left in the lobbies of the theatres, and in the interpreter assisted dialogues that ensue after the show, is how the viewers’ lives have been transformed as well. “We see the reactions of youth. Even those that normally can’t sit still, don’t want to leave at the end of the show.”
When asked to explain the extraordinary impact these actors have on the audience, Tal comments that their ability to break through the most formidable barriers encourages the viewer to ask, “if they can, why can’t I as well?” She further explains the theatre has given the actors tools to powerfully communicate from their world of total stillness and darkness, a world reminiscent of the embryonic place we have all come from. “This is the magic, the moment of creation and awe that provides a journey for the audience, of looking both outwards and inwards at the same time. All great art does this.”
Both Tal and business manager Eran Gur have poured their love and money into getting the group off the ground. Gur, who had a successful security business employing over 2000 people, left it all to devote himself to Na LaGa’at. “We work together in every sense of the word. There is no separation where Eran manages the business and I direct. We do it all, including making sandwiches for the actors, if that is what needs to be done.”
They have a greater vision as well, to create a center “where the deaf-blind will work and the hearing-seeing population will come for entertainment.” Initially it will include a restaurant run in total darkness and a theatre. The deaf-blind will cook. Modern technology which will assist people to type in their orders and have them immediately translated into Braille will allow the blind to wait on tables. An additional theatre troupe of Arab-Jewish actors is in the works. Future plans include perfume workshops and massage treatments.
“Once there were no deaf-blind actors. One day there will also be deaf-blind masseuses,” asserts Tal. “How many deaf-blind people have you met in your life? I believe through a center, there will be a place not only for a meeting between the deaf-blind and the hearing-seeing, but also to encounter yourself.”
While such a center will be the only one of its kind in the world, Tal and Gur hope to spawn branches elsewhere built on the same model. They are actively seeking partners. “There are people who told us if we open a branch here in Israel, they will open one in New York. The important principle in rehabilitation of any kind is to move outwards and create such a meeting point where all involved are enriched.”