Sunday, January 12, 2014

Tribes, Technology, and Theater


I went to see the play Tribes yesterday in Chicago with my husband and our ALDA Chicago friends. For select performances of Tribes, Steppenwolf Theater offered a seating area with sight-lines to a small screen mounted above the stage. The screen displayed captioning of the actors' dialog. When I arrived at the theater I learned there was also looping in place which provided audio streaming directly to the telecoils in my hearing aids. I simply had to press a button on my hearing aids to switch between their normal setting and the telecoil.

The plot of Tribes is about Billy, a deaf man raised in a dysfunctional hearing family. As an adult he meets Sylvia, who is hearing, but was raised in a deaf family. She knows how to sign but he does not. Once she introduces him to signing and Deaf social events, he becomes part of the Deaf community for the first time. At a critical point, he refuses to use his voice with his family until they begin to sign with him. All the while, Sylvia is struggling to accept the fact that she is losing her hearing and becoming deaf. Billy can't understand her situation because all though he knows what it is to be deaf, he doesn't know what it is to be going deaf.

I could really relate to the character of Sylvia who feels caught between two worlds. Not hearing enough and not deaf enough either. But Sylvia has one advantage over me, she knows how to sign fluently. I found it hard to watch the opening scenes where Billy's family would exclude him from their arguments and philosophical discussions. It seemed to me like they treated him as though he had a mental disability.

Another point I'd like to highlight is the play's brief demonstration of the distorted way music sounds to someone with hearing loss. I have never been able to put that experience into words properly so I'm glad my husband was able to "hear" it for himself. I would highly recommend this play for hearing people who are interested in the experience of deafness. I feel obliged to add that the play contains profanity. I understand that the playwright was establishing the crudeness of the father and the constant verbal abuse within the family, but I did not care for it. Ironically, without the captioning and looping, I would not have caught the words.

Before my hearing loss, my husband and I enjoyed going to the theater. But once I got hearing aids, that all changed and I was no longer interested. Now that I have experienced captioning and audio streaming, I think we will be going out to plays again at theaters which provide accessible performances.

To learn more about accessible audio at the theater, I'd like to refer you to this blog post by ReSound, a hearing aid manufacturer.

To learn more about Tribes, view a trailer of the play, and watch a clip of the audience's reaction, visit the Steppenwolf Theater's website.

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