JAFFA, Israel (Reuters) - The theatre lights dim and the audience settles into their seats -- usually a cue for the actors to deliver their opening lines. Instead, the Nalaga‘at troupe start pummeling and stroking each other’s hands.
This is not a high-minded avant garde dance piece, but a group of deaf-blind actors, who are captivating audiences in Israel by blending touch, mime, sign language and music on stage in a cabaret-style show about dreams and disability.
Billed as the world’s first professional deaf-blind theatre company, only three of Nalaga‘at’s actors can speak. One hears a little if you shout directly into her ear and a few still have some vision. But they all communicate primarily through touch.
To complicate matters, several of the actors are recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union and know only Russian sign language.
Rehearsals can be chaotic.
“It’s crazy, it’s a big challenge and it’s fun,” said Adina Tal, who inadvertently started the group in 2002 when she was asked to lead a deaf-blind acting workshop. “What it shows is there is no limit to the human spirit.”
In just over five years, the troupe has turned professional, toured the United States and Europe and moved to a swish new home in Jaffa, just south of central Tel Aviv.
Nalaga‘at is not the only organization to focus on the skills people with disabilities have to offer: in Belgium, a unit of blind policemen is reportedly using the men’s acute hearing to help catch terrorists, drug traffickers and mobsters.
But such examples are rare, and the deaf and blind still struggle to get jobs in many countries, even though working life is often possible thanks to technologies including one to convert emails into Braille.
“The biggest barrier is the attitude of employers -- they assume when they get a blind or deaf candidate that they can’t do the job,” said Sue Brown, campaign manager at Sense, a UK-based deaf-blind charity. “Often that simply isn’t true.”
At the centre, whose name means “Please Do Touch” in Hebrew, the idea is to turn “normal” life upside down by empowering deaf and blind people and pushing seeing and hearing customers beyond their comfort zone.
Visitors to the centre’s cafe have to order drinks from deaf waiters in sign language, while the blind staff lead customers to their seats in a pitch-black restaurant.
“People with disabilities are usually in a position where they have to ask ‘please help me and please give me’ -- here it is exactly the opposite,” Tal said.
Most of the Nalaga‘at actors have Usher syndrome, which means they were born deaf and lost their sight later in life.
Here, the divide between Jews and Arabs that cuts so deeply through the rest of the region seems irrelevant, and young people with Usher syndrome from both sides of the conflict meet in support groups or work in the cafe.
Called “Not by Bread Alone,” the play aims to inspire the audience by exploring the actors’ dreams and ambitions, and showing how they push the boundaries of their disabilities.
The actors bring dignity and a comic touch to their portrayals of lives lived in darkness and silence.
“If you told me a stunning blonde was around it wouldn’t mean a thing to me,” jokes Itzak Hanuna, who was born blind and went deaf at age 11 after falling ill with meningitis.
The troupe work as a unit on stage. Those who can speak translate for the mute, and those who can see guide the blind. Helpers tap the actors on the shoulder to indicate applause.
Bat-Sheva Ravenseri is deaf, mute and almost totally blind but steals the show despite never uttering a word.
“Before the theatre, I lived a regular deaf-blind life in darkness and silence. I didn’t have a future,” she told Reuters through a translator, who converted questions into sign language by stroking and squeezing her hands.
“I want to show that blind and deaf people also have a lot of strength and love to give,” said Ravenseri, wearing an elegant purple dress and matching eyeshadow for the show, which has been sold out since it opened in December.
Audience members said they were humbled by the play.
“I liked the part when they talked about their dreams,” said Yaffa Feldman, a student on holiday from New York. “It left me wondering what I would do if all I had were my thoughts and feelings.”
Reporting by Rebecca Harrison; Editing by Tim Pearce