Hanna Szekeres, for NoCamels
In Tel Aviv’s Jaffa port, there is an old warehouse overlooking the Mediterranean. There you can find the “Nalaga’at” Center, the world’s only professional deaf-blind acting ensemble. The theatre is composed of 11 actors, most of them suffering from genetic disorder called Usher syndrome, which results in acute deafness at birth, followed by gradual loss of vision.
Nalaga’at means “Do Touch” in Hebrew. “Because the actors of our show are blind and deaf, the way we communicate with them is by touch. We ask people who come to our center to communicate, to touch,” says Jonathan Tomkins, Development Manager.
“Nalaga’at,” a nonprofit organization, was founded in order to integrate deaf-blind people into the community, giving them an opportunity to express themselves in a creative way and give their audience a meaningful experience. Besides its theatrical ensemble, the center also boasts two cafes; Café Kapish – run completely by deaf waiters and the popular BlackOut, a pitch-black restaurant with blind waiters, where patrons are shown the menu in advance and call upon their waiters with the use of a bell.
Nalaga’at was founded in 2002, when a social club for deaf-blind people approached the actress and director, Adina Tal and asked her to set a drama class for its members. “Although I had no previous experience with the subject nor had ever closely known any deaf or blind person, not to mention any deaf-blind, I decided nonetheless to accept the challenge. The general expectation was merely to teach a drama course for several months. Little would I know that this interaction would change my life, ”says Tal, who is now president of Nalaga’at.
Tal recalls her first day with the group, “Nobody could see me or hear me. They gave me a coffee and I put it down and somebody stood on it. I couldn’t imagine how we might begin to work together. So we sat in a circle and squeezed hands and tapped knees and tried to find a way of communicating. At every meeting I learned something new, but it was frustrating.”
The beginning wasn’t only hard on Tal. One of the actors, Yuri Oshorov, gave Tal a challenge she felt could not be met. “He told me he wanted to do a play by Gorky. I said, ‘You are deaf-blind and non-verbal. How are you going to do Gorky?’ He said, ‘That’s your problem – you’re the director.’” Oshorov never got to play Gorky: “other people can do Gorky better than us,” says Tal. “But what they can’t do is what we can do. The strength of Nalaga’at is in being us. That’s what we do really well.”
Tal soon discovered that there are some advantages to working with deaf-blind actors. “Because they can’t see each other, they can’t imitate each other. So everything they do is completely unique. If you ask them to mime eating grapes, you get 11 entirely different ways of eating grapes. That wouldn’t happen with seeing actors. They can’t be like anyone else. None of them has ever seen Marlon Brando or Al Pacino act. They can’t copy. That’s why they are great.”
After a year of intense practicing and with the help of personal tactile-sign language interpreters, the first show was born: “Light is Heard in Zig Zag.” The play was performed at the Israeli Parliament, in Canada and even at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva.
Following this success, the “Nalaga’at” Center opened its gates to the public in 2007. Their second, and most successful play, entitled “Not by Bread Alone” has had150,000 viewers to date.
Adina Tal describes the preparations: “All along, we looked for new methods of communication, as a group and as an ensemble of actors. In the course of the show the beat of a drum is occasionally heard on stage. This cue announces the start of a new scene. The actors on stage can neither see the hand hitting the drum nor hear the beat, however, they can feel its vibration. This capacity is the result of a long and complicated process during which the actors have learnt to feel the vibration of the beat as it travels in the air.”
“Not by Bread Alone” was performed in Israel, as well as at a London drama festival, with extremely positive critiques. In May the troupe will perform at a festival in South Korea.
Nalaga’at has aimed not only to provide a workplace for the deaf-blind, but also to provide them with a place where they feel at home and can communicate daily with Israeli society.
Aside from the search for a unique “theatrical language,” Nalaga’at hopes its actions will increase awareness of deaf-blind people’s needs in Israel and the rest of the world.
“Nalaga’at” Centre hopes to serve as a national and international learning centre, and as a role model for the integration of handicapped people in society as equal citizens, said Tomkins. In the future, Nalaga’at plans to develop various types of rehabilitation programs and to open other Nalaga’at Centers around the world.