By Derek Newman-Stille
Today I have the opportunity to share an interview with Toronto-based Trans, Low Vision, Deaf/Hard of Hearing performer and playwright Blaine Dickens. In our interview Blaine talks about Deaf performance, finding a Deaf identity and community, ideas of access and inclusion and how theatre and art should be made to convey a message to all audience members.
Q: To start off our discussion, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Blaine: I’m a Trans hard of hearing/Deaf low vision trauma survivor.
Q: And you are very involved in the arts, right? Can you tell us a bit about some of your art involvement?
Blaine: Yes! I’m a theatre performer and playwright
Q: What performances have you been in?
Blaine: I just recently wrapped up a community performance called Drift Seeds with theatre company Red Dress Productions, where I was an ASL performer. Previously, I was in involved in musical theatre – a mini musical I co-created with a group of young performers at the Journey Studio, and performed in the Emperor of Bananaland with Randolph Theatre’s Pre-college program.
Q: That is amazing!! Did you adapt a script for ASL performance or was it a script that was already made for ASL?
Blaine: My Deaf castmates and I (with the help of an ASL coach for myself) adapted the script from English!
Q: It is so great to find out about these adaptations because so often ASL is only included as an afterthought and often interpreters are called in to interpret but aren’t prepared to perform. Can you tell us a bit about your feelings about the need for Deaf theatre?
Blaine: This is a super, super important thing. Theatres are starting to catch the access bug now and some are offering interpreters for performances. But if we’re giving interpreters all of the ASL work, there’s no opportunities for Deaf performers to be involved. I went through a mainstream theatre program my four years of high school – no interpreters because I didn’t know ASL at the time and no accommodations in any other form. I was super isolated from the rest of my hearing class, because I just didn’t know what was going on. I wasn’t able to comfortably participate in any hearing theatre if there were no accommodations, so I was just pretending to understand everything. If interpreters or notetakers are present, there are extra issues with that in teaching the rest of the people involved in the project how to work with Deaf performers and how to work with interpreters. Most of the time it’s just uncomfortable and isolating. When I started working on Drift Seeds with three other Deaf performers and interpreters present (almost) constantly, it was the complete opposite. We were not only able to perform in the language we were comfortable in, but we had the support from our castmates for everything: translation work, advocacy, and figuring out how to all work together smoothly. It was the first time I felt comfortable in a theatre project – it was even the first time I could understand what was going on in a theatre project!
And the performance was a success! That’s one bit of proof that Deaf theatre has to be a more common thing.
Q: It seems like theatre has had a powerful relationship to your identity. Can you tell us a bit about the role that theatre can have for helping people explore identity?
Blaine: Just like any kind of art! People write down their stories and things that resonate with them because they believe others should experience it! I know for me, as soon as I started performing in ASL, I just felt a thousand times more empowered. As soon as I stopped being involved in projects that forced me to be in transphobic environments and gendered roles that I’m not comfortable with, I again felt a thousand times more empowered. I’ve gotten so many comments from other folks feeling the same thing once they saw those things happening.
Q: You mentioned attending a hearing high school. What was that like as a Deaf/ hard of hearing person?
Blaine: Pretty horrible. I failed two courses and almost failed pretty much everything else. I couldn’t connect with anyone or grow as an artist at all. The most frustrating thing was not being able to hand in work I was proud of in theatre because I just didn’t understand it. I didn’t really ask for access though. I didn’t know how to advocate for myself at the time and for a while I didn’t even recognize that the reason these things were happening was connected to my hearing level – so I just tried to understand what I could and ignored the rest. People hated that, even though it wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t ready. They just saw slacking, stuck up, other super negative things. It was a pretty horrible time and I wish it wasn’t because my Deafness is such a positive thing in my life now. In my last year of high school, though, I talked through some of what was happening with a couple of friends and was introduced to the basics of ASL and Deaf culture! I started to understand what was going on and a lot of things improved, mostly outside of school. I still tried to hide it from my peers in school because I would still be a non-hearing kid in a hearing school, but was developing my identity on my own.
Q: It must have been such a hugely transformative experience to be introduced to ASL and Deaf culture. What were your first experiences of Deaf culture and what did it feel like to finally find an alternative to the audist world you had experienced previously?
Blaine: Honestly, at first it was almost just as bad. I started to enter Deaf spaces my first week into learning ASL. I wanted to (and I think I expected to) understand everything right away overnight. At that point I was so fed up with the hearing world I just wanted to be immersed in the Deaf world and have that be my identity. But I still had a lot to work through. I still identified as hearing – I used speech with my hearing friends who signed because I wasn’t comfortable with ASL yet so I still spent a lot of time pretending to understand people, because that was what I knew how to do. It was really frustrating. I found no spaces accessible and really just wanted to connect with someone in at least one language. I felt forced to improve my ASL faster than I physically could so I could match my Deaf friends and their level, so I pushed myself way too much. I guess it paid off though! When I started to understand pretty much everything, I felt really included. I could use interpreters and access Deaf spaces without any insecurity. I wasn’t always working to understand people, and it made a huge difference in everything I did.
Q: This brings up a really important concept, the idea of “access”. Frequently when we see the term “access”, we think of the ways that we are not really included, but only acknowledged in a minimal way. Can you tell us a bit about how you feel about the word “access” and what it means for you?
Blaine: Beginning to be able to access Deaf spaces was the start of my identity development! It was a huge milestone, but I had to do all the work to make it happen. Having notetakers was pretty much impossible, and, in general, making friends was also impossible until I worked my ass off to learn more. I really just wanted to exist, be okay with where I was at, and access things that I wanted to be a part of.
In terms of my theatre work, most people just really don’t like working on access. They think it’s boring. They don’t want to spend the money. I really don’t have much experience with hearing people wanting to make something accessible for me. I’ve learned that in order for me to be able to access things, I kind of have to throw out the word “access”. In theatre, I like to try to get artists/arts educators/etc to think of what they’re doing as not providing access but thinking of it as their art. So I instead centre my goals for access around performance and thinking up new ways of creating perfomance. How can my performance be experienced from different perspectives based on ability? If my show is audio-based, and I want to provide access, how can I keep that art and translate it into something visual-based? It’s a lot more fun for artists to explore how they can tell their stories in different ways rather than “spending money on access”. Because really – access looks like having two boring interpreters on the side of the stage. They’re not performers. Performance looks like integrating Deaf performers and ASL into the already existing work, as well as so many other countless ideas.
Being able to access things is important – but from my experience people need a push to be able to provide that. And they don’t want to admit it but it helps when they’re also doing something that’ll benefit themselves.
Q: I like the way you linked art to the idea of making sure people are able to get the message! Art is really connected to the audience and it is interesting that so many artists fail to recognize Deaf or disabled audiences. What are some things we can do to help artists to think about ways to involve their WHOLE audience instead of just the able-bodied and hearing audiences? What ways are you working in your roles as playwrite and performer to make sure to include your whole audience?
Blaine: That’s the exact kind of thing I’m trying to figure out as I go along! For now, I am trying to get as many people in the conversation around access as possible and listen to them. I want to value Deaf & disabled artists and audiences, not just from my own communities.
I’m working on a bunch of projects! My “projects” Workflowy document is a mess with ideas and half-finished theatre things. We’ll seeeeeee.
Q: That is fantastic!! Now to conclude our interview, can you tell readers a bit about you and how they can connect with you and find out about your theatre work and other media?
Blaine: Of course! I’m on every social media platform and super reachable on all of them. @blaineinwonderland on Instagram and @blaine_dickens on twitter.
Q: Thank you again for taking the time to talk to us about all of your work in performance and giving us some insights on ideas of inclusion.
You can discover more about Drift Seeds at https://reddressproductions.org/current-projects/drift-seeds/
You can discover more about Red Dress Productions at reddressproductions.org