Producer’s diaries: interesting inclusive theatre. Part 1

Audio description: In a colour photo, there are two women standing next to each other in a room with white walls. The woman on the left is middle-aged, has purple short hair and is wearing a purple pullover. This is Irina Povolotskaya. Her head is turned towards a young woman with blond loose shoulder-length hair, who is wearing a dark-green dress. This is Victoria Viollo-Avdeyeva. She is standing with her arm bent at the elbow making her hand level with her face. Her hand is tense, and her fingers are spread. Victoria is looking at Irina, who is holding Victoria’s forearm with both her hands. They are both smiling.

Producer and author of inclusive theatrical projects such as In Touch, Absolutely Incredible Occasion. Marriage, Anima Chroma/Alive Pictures, Four Windsand Inclusive Theatre Schools “Inclusion”, Victoria Viollo-Avdeyeva speaks about creating inclusive projects with the participation of deaf-blind actors and about the system of professional training for inclusive theatre actors, about the relationships inside an artistic group and production of international projects in collaboration with the Royal National Theatre (London) and UNESCO (Paris). She also talks about the ways of attracting the general public to inclusive performances.

Producer of inclusive theatre is a new profession for Russia and post-Soviet countries, as is the concept of 'inclusion' itself. Today, numerous new inclusive projects appear. Many sadly remain one-off or short-term, but some live on, develop, get woven into the fabric of cultural life, originate or inspire new projects, influence the perception of inclusive art by society and turn around the lives of its participants and spectators.

The professions of producer, director or manager of inclusive theatre are not yet being taught at any Russian university, therefore, almost everything is learned through personal experience, as well as success or failure. During special theatre festivals and cultural forums, you can attend workshops and seminars of more experienced people or even “stars” who, a long (or not so long) time ago, also were self-learners. This is the reality that, with all its shortcomings, has its benefits: since there are no established templates or patterns, there is a living theatre and experiment, where you can and should be brave, open-minded, and it is important to be compassionate, love people and believe in them, as well as in the cause called 'inclusive theatre'.

In only four years, I have completed a journey from a total novice to a producer of international inclusive projects presented to the public in London, Paris, Moscow, Saint Petersburg and some other Russian cities. It is time for me to share the acquired experience, observations and thoughts. I hope that these notes will be useful for aspiring producers of inclusive theatre. I should warn you that they are not, strictly speaking, about producer’s routine work – this can be learned at theatre university – but rather about people, relationships, ideas, insights and faith.

The first part is dedicated to the beginning of all projects – workshops and the sketch of the play In Touch. In the second part, I wanted to speak about the experience of creating a system of constant professional development for participants in inclusive projects and specifically about the Inclusion Theatre Schools. The next part is about attracting the general public and professional theatrical community to inclusive performances, as well as about how to get noticed by big partners such as the Theatre of Nations, National Theatre in London, UNESCO, British Council and so on. And finally about the most important of all – people.

Beginning. In Touch

When the director of the Territory Festival suggested in August 2014 that I should participate in a very unusual project with the working title The Deaf-blind, I agreed at once, without the slightest idea what it was all about and who the deaf-blind people were. It was a job for the brave – to organise the process of creating a sketch of a play with the participation of deaf-blind people and professional actors in order to present this performance at the Territory Festival on the Small Stage of the Theatre of Nations. Also, I had to organise locations and find participants for filming the documentary about this project – Word on a Palmby the Ostrov Studio. The idea of creating a play and documentary belongs to Yevgeny Mironov, an actor and Artistic Director of the Theatre of Nations and of the Territory Festival.

To be honest, it was my first independent theatre project that I started from scratch and saw it through to the premiere. Previously, I helped the Festival by welcoming foreign troupes and did hear about the process of creating a play, but I had no actual experience in this field. It was kind of a risk for the Festival director, who believed in me, and it was a test for my capabilities. Now I am glad that we both embarked on this adventure.

There was only one day between the moment I found out about deaf-blind people and my first meeting with them – there was hardly enough time to learn more about them, to think and understand who they are and what it is like not being able to hear and see. The next day, Ruslan Malikov, his partner Seva Lisovsky, the Ostrov Studio team and I headed to the house for the deaf-blind in Puchkovo to meet Sergey Sirotkin – one of the participants of the legendary Zagorsk experiment, hardly remembered by anyone at the time, except for those interested in the subject.

In my recollections, the house where the deaf-blind from all over Russia temporarily live smells of a forest. This is where they learn to work on the computer, read in Braille, and where they just socialise with each other. In a large bright room, a man of about 65 and a woman were waiting for us at a big table. He was talking to her softly, almost in a whisper, and she answered slightly louder and placed gestures in his hand. We were introduced to Sergey Sirotkin and his interpreter. Although during our bus ride to Puchkovo, I had learned something from Seva and Ruslan about the experiment (in the 60s, four deaf-blind children were taught by the most prominent defectologists and psychologists, and, as a result, these children later obtained higher education and even academic degrees), I was still surprised by everything – by how Sirotkin talked, and what he was actually saying. Nowadays, even in academia, there are not many people whose language is so linguistically correct and free of any unnecessary words. Much later, I learned from Yevgeny Mironov that the first deaf-blind person that he had ever met was also Sirotkin. Our impressions and emotions were very similar: surprise, lots of thoughts, inspiration etc.

On the way back, the director and I discussed the proposed meetings of deaf-blind participants and volunteers: Ruslan believed that this could help explore communication between deaf-blind and hearing/sighted people, and he also thought the more new people on board, the better. That’s how the workshops began, attended by potential deaf-blind participants in the project and volunteers – actors, non-actors, students of the Rodchenko ArtbSchool, friends and people who joined us via social networks. The workshops usually took place in the rehearsal hall of the Theatre of Nations, which we all still consider our home.

Workshop 1. Getting Closer, MMOMA, August 2014

In the photo taken in the cafe of the Meyerhold Centre: actress Yekaterina Sakhno, director of the MIRT Studio Nataliya Oralova, deaf-blind actress Irina Povolotskaya, producer Victoria Viollo-Avdeyeva, deaf-blind Professor Alexandr Suvorov and assistant Alexandra Zolotova

Audio description: In a colour photo, there are people sitting at round wooden tables in a cafe. On one of the tables, there is a paper cup and a few sheets of paper. Four women are sitting at a table in the foreground. On the left, the young girl with light-brown hair wearing a blue loose pullover is Yekaterina Sakhno. She is looking attentively at her neighbour, a middle-aged woman with chestnut hair wearing a purple pullover. That is Nataliya Oralova. Yekaterina’s right arm is resting on the table; her hand is covered by the hand of a woman with purple hair, who is wearing a white pullover and is sitting in front of her – Irina Povolotskaya. Next to Irina, there is a young woman with blond hair wearing a blue dress and pink scarf – Victoria Viollo-Avdeyeva. She is looking at the nearby table. It is occupied by an old man in a grey vest – Professor Suvorov – and a middle-aged woman in a red pullover – Alexandra Zolotova. The man is drinking tea.

The group consists of five deaf-blind participants invited by Irina Povolotskaya and four hearing/sighted volunteers. Irina informed me that the deaf-blind love having a conversation over tea and a dessert. Tea with gingerbreads and chocolates were waiting on the table, but nobody knew how to make a conversation: where to begin and how to even get acquainted with each other. The first solution that comes to mind, which is also a way out of an awkward situation, is to give each other a hug. Ruslan started the workshop by getting the deaf-blind participants to sit down on five chairs while the hearing/sighted, including myself, walked over to each of them every two minutes and got acquainted by any possible means without the help of interpreters. Then each deaf-blind person had to choose someone they wanted more communication with. Irina chose me. And it went off in a whirl! She told me at once that I could print letters on her hand. She read instantly whatever I tried to quickly convey about myself. As for me, I already started to understand her outlandish voice. This magical moment will forever stay in my heart as one of the happiest. Although I was more a participant than observer during that workshop, I noticed that not all the participating pairs had achieved an easy and smooth communication. It was most difficult for the pairs in which the deaf-blind person was unable to use their voice at all and could only communicate by gestures, while their hearing/sighted partner was too inhibited and, therefore, found it hard to decipher the gestures.

The director’s next task was to establish a joint creative atmosphere. Irina taught me to dance tango! Then there was a tea break, when the pairs continued to socialise over tea and establish better contact with each other. Having discovered a new way of communication, I could not stop – I kept writing my questions and answers on Irina’s hand, spelling them out loud and clear. Actually, it resembled a children’s fun game. After the tea break, we went out to the courtyard and familiarised ourselves by touch with the sculptures. While we were all laughing and socialising happily, dramatist Marina Krapivina was watching us and taking notes. The next workshops took place at the Theatre of Nations with new volunteers, a tea break, modelling clay and cardboard. This workshop led us to conclusion No. 1: it is important to establish personal contact with each participant in the project, find common language and a way to communicate, no matter how hard it might be. It applies to everyone: actors, director, dramatist, set designer, producer and managers.

Workshops 2-3. Space

In the photo: deaf-blind actress Irina Povolotskaya and actor Mikhail Vidyakin

Audio description: In a colour photo, there is a large room with guidance tactile tiles on the floor. In the middle of the room, Mikhail Vidyakin is dancing with Irina Povolotskaya. Mikhail is a dark-haired young man. He is wearing a grey T-shirt, grey trousers and white ballet shoes. On his head, he has a blindfold that is moved up to his forehead. Irina has short red hair. She is wearing a light-coloured tunic, black leggings and trainers. In the background, there are black chairs along the wall, with people sitting on them and watching the pair dancing.

During the following workshops, we got acquainted with open and closed spaces. At first, the volunteers led the deaf-blind participants along the rooms and corridors of the theatre, wrote and drew plans on their hands. To feel what a deaf-blind person feels, at least to a certain degree, the hearing/sighted team members, including set designer Yekaterina Dzhagarova and the director, explored the premises and courtyard of the Theatre of Nations in blindfolds and earplugs, with the deaf-blind colleagues being their guides. This enabled us to later create a comfortable and comprehensible space for everyone, and also led us to conclusion No. 2: participants with vision impairments should, first of all, get acquainted with their new space, they should be helped to find a way to navigate it independently or, if impossible due to its inaccessibility, be accompanied at their request. Also, it is very important to prepare the working space every time: to remove all redundant objects from the places of orientation, try to keep the space maintained in the way familiar to the visually impaired or deaf-blind and notify them about any changes.

A bit later, we together created the space for our play: we glued thin, thick and medium ropes to the floor making different shapes. Some of us moaned and complained that rehearsals were for rehearsing and not for gluing ropes to the floor. The director stayed silent, and it was only later that we all realised that our collective creation and work had brought us all closer together, as well as helped us get used to this particular space.

Workshops 4-5. Body Interaction and Plasticity

In the photo: choreographer Yevgeny Kulagin, actress Irina Povolotskaya and male volunteer actor

Audio description: This is a colour photo of a brightly lit room with big windows and parquet flooring. In the foreground, there is a young male actor and Irina Povolotskaya. The man is sitting on the floor in the middle of the room. He is leaning on his left hand, and his right arm is stretched forward and upwards. Irina Povolotskaya is standing in front of him. She is slightly inclined towards him. Irina is holding her left hand over the extended right hand of the young man. The woman's right hand is also extended towards the man. The man is wearing a grey T-shirt, black trousers and white socks. Irina has short purple hair. She is wearing a purple tunic and black leggings. Another man is approaching them from further away. His head is shaved. He is wearing a red polo shirt, grey tracksuit bottoms and grey socks. He is extending his left hand towards Irina. All three are smiling.

Yevgeny Kulagin organised a workshop on plastic interaction for a group of actors and dancers, and instructor Andrey Urayev conducted a workshop on plastic improvisation. During those workshops, it became obvious that body language – common to all – would be the easiest and quickest way to communicate. Yet, the team wanted more – to make personal verbal interaction more accessible to each participant. The communication workshops continued… The circle of actors and deaf-blind participants in the sketch of the play In Touchstarted to emerge. It was going to be an inclusive play about deaf-blind people and also participated by them – the first ever in Russia and the whole world. The rehearsals began. At each of them, there was what we called a “circus” – about 40-45 people: participants, assistants and volunteers. After the rehearsals, we did not leave straight away – we had tea, socialised, waltzed blindfolded, someone played the piano for the deafblind participants etc.

At the same time, the documentary Word on a Palmwas being shot, both during and outside of the rehearsals: in the house for the deaf-blind in Sergiyev Posad, on the streets and in Professor Suvorov's house. It was the professor who became my third and, perhaps, most striking discovery of that period. He is, if I may say so, an advocate for all deaf-blind people: he at once defined the words and phrases that should not be used in relation to the deaf-blind or when addressing them. He showed self-sufficiency (even with his reduced mobility), explained to us how to begin to communicate and, within ten minutes, taught all of us the Fingerspelling Tale– the next day, we chatted with deaf-blind participants in fingerspelling language.

Rehearsals and the sketch

Audio description: This is a colour photo. There are four people, men and women, standing in single file, with two more people standing next to them. All of them are wearing white T-shirts, white loose tracksuit bottoms and white ballet shoes. Their eyes are covered with white sleep eye masks. They are standing in front of a piece of white fabric stretched over a big metal frame. On the fabric, their shadow profiles are sharply defined in the circles of red and white light. In the foreground on the left, there are thin tree branches with sparse red-lit leaves.

At last, the deaf-blind cast of the sketch was confirmed: Irina Povolotskaya, Alexey Gorelov, Svetlana Shchukina, Vadim Plevako, Alyona Kapustyan and Alexandr Suvorov. There was no formal casting – everybody who came and stayed was accepted. The hearing/sighted actors were invited mostly from the Theatre of Nations' team. Not everyone stayed, but almost all of those who did stay continued to perform in In Touch, which is constantly changing and updating.

A week before the premiere of the sketch, the play about seven deaf-blind people, including two legendary personalities – Olga Skorokhodova and Alexandr Suvorov – was ready. At each rehearsal, it was changed and abridged. The deaf-blind participants were given small goals that were still challenging for aspiring actors: to focus on non-routine existence, master the space and polish movements. The main event was the appearance of deaf-blind people – who were non-actors – and their stories on stage for the first time, which introduced the audience to them. The text was narrated by professional actors. Each of the two performances was followed by a standing ovation and stamping of feet – someone who knew that it was the only way for the deaf-blind participants to feel the reaction of the audience started stamping their feet, and the others joined in. It was a real success!

Continue reading Producer’s Diarieson our website in the article Producer’s Diaries: Interesting Inclusive Theatre.