Tomsk Blog 2 – Russia is full of surprises

Russia is full of surprises. I think it’s generally accepted that the social inclusion agenda for deaf and disabled people is way behind our own and certainly as I wrote about last time that’s the case for disabled people who simply don’t exist. However for the deaf community it’s not as clear cut and in Tomsk far far away from the so called cultural hubs of Moscow and St Petersburg you can find a well established course for deaf students at the local drama college.

My fist meeting with people from the deaf community in Russia was in St Petersburg several years ago. Unlike the disabled people I spoke about in my first blog, although still relatively invisible they have a well established and self contained culture. Whilst in the City I visited a “House of the Deaf” – similar to a deaf club in the UK but also providing training and work opportunities – and through contacts in the UK met a lecturer who taught art at an Art College for deaf people just outside St Petersburg. Rather like visually impaired people in the UK being trained to work in telephone exchanges right through into the 1960’s – it must be true cause master musician Leigh Stirling told me so – in Russia deaf people were guided towards careers in graphics. The college was so popular with art students it also attracted many hearing students although the majority of classes were still formed by deaf young people.

In Tomsk there is no Drama course at a University level but it is taught at a college which also has an intake of deaf drama students. Rather like the current course at The Conservatoire in Glasgow the deaf students spend the first year working together and then from the second year onwards share classes with hearing students. It’s through this initiative inspired by a local actor and a sign language interpreter with a theatre background that Indigo Drama studio were formed who are now working with me alongside the Skomorokh Theatre Actors on developing our show.

Garry working with the group in Tomsk

Hey Conservatoire chums, the Tomsk college might be a good place to hook up with? It could be a terrific learning experience for both sets of students and teachers.

So far we’ve been working together for four days and whilst at times it can be a laborious process – English to Russian to SSL – Siberian sign language, yes folks its regional here as well – and back again, the results so far have been amazing. The initial nervousness passed by really quickly – the sign name game and a quick blast of “I love you but I don’t know how to smile” did its magic work once again – and then the great openness, big hearts and hard work of both sets of actors has meant progress has been swift. Each character in the show is formed of a deaf performer and a hearing performer – and a puppet! – twin souls each giving a slightly different version of events. The close pairings around a shared text have proved a really quick way for each performer to learn about the others skills and unique language and all the hearing actors are developing sign language skills within this closed setting.

A creative challenge at the moment is that Indigo seldom use much text in their work, preferring to work with gesture and physical theatre techniques and rarely using sign language in their performances. There’s not a huge amount of text in the show but for any actor starting out with a new script it can seem like a big hill to climb and for actors unused to working with texts we have to find ways to help with the climb. Natasha Berenko’s script is beautiful and having spent time working with Indigo before writing she has created a piece that is sensitive to the needs of all the actors involved and we are finding ways to make it work. It’s true I think that great theatre often begins from finding creative solutions to challenges so let’s hope that’s the case in Tomsk. Watch this space for developments. It’s an interesting conundrum.