Deaf-Blind Ensemble Attracts Both Admiration And Skepticism

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Photo courtesy of Nalaga'at
Photo courtesy of Nalaga'at

BOSTON — Standing at the corner of the stage, Mark Yaroski takes a deep breath and starts playing. He can't see his accordion or hear his music. Still, he moves as he plays, in sync with the vibrations. Yaroski is a deaf-blind actor.

There is the Theater of the Deaf. There is also Theater By the Blind. But a professional acting company, called Nalaga'at, is the only ensemble of actors who are both deaf and blind.

This Israeli group is touring the U.S. and has caused debate among theater critics. They're wrapping up their tour in Boston at the Paramount Mainstage.

For almost 15 years, Yaroski and his fellow deaf-blind actors have been working under the tutelage of Adina Tal.

Tal, who is the founder and artistic director at Nalaga'at, said, "doing theater, that is the art of communication, with a group of people that their biggest problem is communication, so it's just the ultimate challenge."

Attracted by that challenge, Tal started deaf-blind acting classes in 1999. Out of a Tel Aviv community center she taught the basics: how to make facial expressions and how to feel a drum's vibrations. Only later did they started thinking about the stage.

"It takes up quite a lot of time to walk the stage to feel the stage," Tal said. "Let's say work with seeing and hearing actor that would take me five minutes can take me five months."

But now those acting classes are gone and they're an acting company. Nalaga'at is famous in Israel and they've taken the show to four continents.

"Not By Bread Alone" is their second production. It's a performance made up of short vignettes about the actors' dreams: One man wants to get married, another wishes he could see birds, and a woman wants to get her hair done by a famous stylist.

There is lots of pantomiming and plenty of sign language. The actors communicate through what's called "touch sign language." They hold the hand of the person who is signing, feeling and reading the movements.

Stagehands help throughout the performance. Dressed in black these people, who have sight and hearing, guide the actors and translate what they're signing into Hebrew. All the while, English surtitles are projected above the stage.

The actors of Nalaga'at bake bread on stage. (Photo: courtesy of Nalaga'at)
The actors of Nalaga'at bake bread on stage. (Photo: courtesy of Nalaga'at)

Between the vignettes are drumbeats, signaling a scene change to the actors.

Woven among the vignettes is something that the actors and the audience do share — a sense of smell. The actors knead and bake bread on stage. And at the end of the performance the audience is invited to taste it.

"If you come up on stage and eat the bread it is a fact of acceptance," says Tal. "You wont eat the bread that somebody baked for you if you are disgusted by this person."

Tal is adamant this is not about pity or sympathy. She's tired of people asking for tax-deductible tickets and wants the actors to be taken seriously.

"They became, yes, a professional theater ensemble," she said.

But theater critics are divided. They find it remarkable that the ensemble exists, but when evaluated as professional theater some find the performance lacking.

"I don't think anyone is pretending that they are highly trained actors — they are not — I don't think that's the point," said Adam Feldman, a theater critic for Time Out New York. "Rather it's participating in an experiment, in an expedition, in an adventure for the people involved."


Feldman says he wishes they had picked vignettes that explore the performer's experience more deeply.

"I think it's a bit of a missed opportunity in that this is an entire world of darkness that it's trying to shine a light on," Feldman says. "I feel like the light that they're shining is either too bright, a silly cartoon spotlight, or to dim, in what it actually make legible about their experiences."

Tal believes that if it's not good theater, then they've failed. But she says don't want to be like other actors, they just want to be themselves. And, in that, she adds, there's a message for everyone.

"I don't think this is about deafness or blindness or deaf-blindness anymore. Its about being imperfect," Tal explains. "I do hope that people who come to see the show they say: 'Oh okay it's okay to be imperfect. I accept imperfectness in myself.'"

Tal sees the performance as an invitation to get in touch with ourselves. She says this is captured in the ensemble's name Nalag'at or, in English, Please Do Touch.

"Not By Bread Alone" closes Sunday at Paramount Mainstage Theater.


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