Deaf culture takes centre stage in Alley Theatre’s Catfish

When we have feelings about art, it’s usually in a metaphorical sense.

In Catfish, Alley Theatre’s newest play, Vancouver’s first ever vibrotactile theatre environment will give audiences a chance to physically feel the sound of their play. With surfaces in the audience that vibrate to sound cues, the multi-sensory experience will be accessible to Vancouver’s Deaf and hard of hearing community.

Written by Simran Gill and Jess Amy Shead, Catfish will premiere at Upintheair Theatre’s rEvolver Festival this month. The performance incorporates English and signed language; Deaf and hearing characters interact onstage, through a character who is an interpreter.

Simran Gill is doing double duty as both the co-writer of the piece and its lead actor. Gill plays Michelle, a girl who is hard of hearing. The play revolves around Michelle using her hearing friend to catfish a boy from her school online. Combining high school drama with the dangers of the internet, Catfish seeks to explore personal identity and what it means to be true to oneself.

“She's got the hearing world and the Deaf world that she kind of toes between,” said Gill. Like her character, she is also hard of hearing.

Shead is hearing, but is committed to learning how to best collaborate with Deaf artists — she recently interned with Playwrights Theatre Centre, where this was a central focus of the career development program. She is also studying ASL at UBC.

Featuring a mixed ensemble of Deaf, hard of hearing and hearing characters, Catfish dramatizes the ways these cultures are both alike and different.

The rehearsal room was one of these places where multiple cultures first came into play. Some members of the team had never worked in both ASL and English in a theatre setting before. Gill emphasized that throughout the whole rehearsal process, it was “very important that we [were] just able to communicate what our needs [were], and understand that there were two different cultures in the room.”

Catfish will be the first time that Vancouver audiences have access to vibrotactile theatre, an experience where the soundscape of the piece can be both heard and felt physically through vibration. The Cultch Theatre’s Culture Lab will connect their sound system to belts that run through the audience, causing vibrations alongside sound cues. Catfish features original music by recent Juno nominee Ruby Singh, which will now also be accessible to Deaf audience members.

Unlike film and TV, live theatre settings give audiences the opportunity to be active participants in the performance, as they take in and react to the piece in real time. When barriers to access are removed and all audience members are given equal opportunities to participate, theatrical culture thrives.

Gill said their team “felt it was really important to give [Deaf audiences] a fun, immersive experience, where they can really feel the beats behind everything and feel like it's a very equal experience for everybody.”

She believes that “the USA is a step ahead of [Canada]” in terms of Deaf media representation, but it is through productions like this that we may be starting to catch up.

“It's a slow start, but it is starting,” said Gill. “There are so many skilled performers that just have no idea that they can do it. And there's so many theatre groups and film groups that have no idea that these people exist.”

Gill wants audiences to see the beauty of Deaf stories in Catfish. While much of her practice as a writer and actor looks different to that of hearing people, the storytelling element that is central to the practice of theatre remains the same.

“A Deaf person can play a vampire, can play a witch, can play any kind of role that anybody else would like to do. Everything else is the same, we just have to figure out different ways to do that. We have our hands, we have our own stories. It's just something different.”

Catfish runs May 24–June 1 at The Cultch Theatre’s Culture Lab. Also featured in the rEvolver Festival are several plays led by UBC alumni, including Grace Chin in A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to Canada, as well as Sargil Tongol, director of June Bug. Tickets for all productions are available through Upintheair Theatre’s website.

A previous version of this article misstated that only American Sign Language is used in this play. It includes Signed Exact English and American Sign Language, and the article has been amended to reflect this. The Ubyssey regrets this error.