Producer’s diaries: interesting inclusive theatre. Part 2

Audio description: This is a colour photo. In a white room, four people are talking and smiling. In the middle, there is Victoria Viollo-Avdeyeva. She is wearing a blue dress. Her blond wavy hair is down. To her left, there is a girl who has long chestnut hair and is wearing a dark jacket. She is looking at Victoria. To the right of Victoria, there are two more people. Behind them, there is an image of the fingerspelling alphabet projected on the wall. The light from the projector is falling on Victoria’s face and the girl’s head.

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 ways of attracting the general public to inclusive performances. This week, we present Part 2 of the Diaries. Part 1 is available here.

Continuation: workshops. The life of In Touch

Actors say that there is stage addiction – in other words, if you have, even once, experienced the magic of theatre, you will find it hard to live without it. The deaf-blind participants in the pilot project In Touch– Irina Povolotskaya, Alexey Gorelov, Alyona Kapustyan, Svetlana Shchukina, Vadim Plevako and Alexandr Silyanov – got addicted not to the stage, but to human interaction, which had been lacking in their lives – diverse interaction with hearing/sighted people. It was just impossible for them to return to their former lives, to isolation and the world at arm’s length.

There was a pause between the premiere of the play’s sketch and the rehearsals for the actual play. We filled it with workshops and invited everyone who wanted to come along. This time, the workshops were aimed at introducing deaf-blind people to spaces and people inhabiting those spaces. The purpose was to expand the borders of the world of the deaf-blind. This was how the group welcomed new people and how the performance gained new characters – Vera Lyzhenkova and Alexandr Silyanov. Actress Olga Lapshina became the project’s new driving force. The workshops have, probably, been our most important and ambitious project from the viewpoint of communication since it was based solely on human relations. There was no budget for assistants for the deaf-blind or sign language interpreting and audio description. The budget was only for materials, the necessary transport for Alexandr Suvorov and Alyona Kapustyan, as well as tea and biscuits. We found interpreters and friends, as well as volunteers who understood how important these changes were for the lives of deaf-blind people. The workshops also attracted talented people who were interested in making new acquaintances and wanted to share their world.

In the photo: the architectural workshop at MARCH Architecture School, 2015

Audio description: This is a colour photo. Irina Povolotskaya, wearing large black glasses, is sitting at a large desk. She is exploring with her hands a model of a contemporary building. On a light-grey base, there are two dark-grey pillars. From the top of one of them, a wide semitransparent plate is going down diagonally. The structure is surrounded by a white plastic strip identifying the landings of four open floors and ramps. A girl is standing on Irina’s right and is pointing at a part of the model. Another girl is sitting on Irina's left and is reaching over for the model. The desk is covered by architectural models – small and large, white and multicoloured. Two other women are standing behind Irina and watching.

Thanks to our stage designer Yekaterina Dzhagarova, it became possible for the deaf-blind participants in the project to get acquainted with prominent architect Eugene Asse and his students, who showed them their models of the Moscow attractions they created. Thanks to producer Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė, a film workshop was organised with students of the Moscow Film School, during which they discussed the art of acting, went on a tour around a film studio and were shown special equipment.

Photo by Angelina Vorobyova. A music workshop with a marimba, 2015

Audio description: This is a colour photo. In a white room, there is a large xylophone marimba, with a round drum behind it. A young man with short black hair wearing a white T-shirt is playing the marimba using drumsticks with round tips. Around the xylophone, there are several women listening to the music. Some of them are standing in front of the musician, and the others are sitting along the xylophone. In the foreground, one of the women is touching the side panel of the instrument with both palms.

Students of the Moscow State Conservatory organised for us a unique music workshop, during which we were able to get acquainted (both with and without contact) with seven instruments and determine the most vibrational ones, which evoke emotions and images. The music meeting turned into a journey lasting a few months. During the piano workshops conducted by Aventure Piano Duo, Vitali Gavrouc and Ada Gorbunova played one piano together while the participants learned the storyline of the Daphnis and Chloeballet through vibrations, felt the snow in the music by Debussy and listened to the sound of the angels’ wings in Beethoven’s music. Vladimir Terekhov, who plays the marimba (a musical instrument related to xylophone that is rich in timbre and emits forceful vibrations), introduced us to musical landscapes through the music of different countries of the world. Surrounding the instrument and putting their hands on the instrument's pipes, deaf-blind participants described what they were visualising.

In the photo: a workshop on the fingerspelling alphabet. MMOMA, 2015. In the photo: Olga Erokhina and Gennady Alyapin

Audio description: This is a colour photo. A man and a woman are standing in a room with white walls. An image of the fingerspelling alphabet is being projected on the wall behind them. The woman is wearing a red cardigan, and she has a grey scarf around her neck. She has short grey curly hair and glasses. She is smiling slightly. The woman is looking right in front of her and is holding her right open palm level with her face. She is holding her left hand level with her stomach, palm down. On her right, a black-haired man wearing glasses is looking at her with a smile on his face. He is wearing jeans, a dark-navy T-shirt with an inscription, and a light-coloured jacket.

The workshops became part of the rehearsal process for the play In Touch– sometimes taking all of its time, and sometimes were held only at the end of the rehearsal. Musician Sergey Starostin did not come to our rehearsal of the play In Touchempty-handed – he brought 15 different ethnic musical instruments. He did not just play them, but also showed our deaf-blind actors how to play the gusli and blowing horn. It was breathtaking! Even after we were finished with the rehearsals of the play and after an exhibition about it was held at MMOMA in April–May, we still continued the workshops as a separate project. At the museum, visitors were taught the basics of the fingerspelling alphabet and sign language for a whole month. Also, students of BMSTU (Bauman Moscow State Technical University) were invited to visit the museum and get acquainted with technologies available for the visually impaired: we hoped to arouse their interest in this subject. Choreographer Alexey Shcherbakov held inclusive open classes on plasticity.

It was so interesting and even became usual for all of us to constantly get acquainted with new people and spaces! So we started going to open festivals in parks to hold workshops on the fingerspelling alphabet, plasticity and painting with scents Blue Smells of the Sea.

In the photo: Natalya Garist (a volunteer) and deaf-blind actress Alyona Kapustyan. A masterclass on painting with scents Blue Smells of the Sea, 2015, Hermitage Garden

Audio description: This is a colour photo. Two girls are sitting at a table outdoors. The girl on the left is wearing a blue denim shirt. Her long light-coloured hair is plaited, and she has a hearing aid on her right ear. This is actress Alyona Kapustyan. In her right hand, she is holding a brush, and her left hand is resting palm up in the hands of a volunteer girl, sitting on the right. The volunteer girl has long chestnut hair and is wearing a white T-shirt with an orange pattern. She is drawing something with her finger on Alyona’s palm. On the table, there are containers with paint and water.

There were new meetings and acquaintances that later grew into separate projects. The most amazing thing was that, even at the most crowded workshops, everybody got acquainted, practised fingerspelling straight away and did not leave for a long time after the workshop ended. This is how director and artist Albert Rudnitsky, who visited us by pure chance, became stage designer of our new plays Absolutely Incredible Occasion. Marriageand FourWinds, and later – director of the ambitious project Anima Chroma/Alive Pictures.

Museum curator and performance artist Elena Demidova created a touch-screen exhibition for the deaf-blind at the Darwin Museum. It was during this time that Pavel Mazayev appeared – the main interpreter of all our projects and true friend of all the deaf-blind. The son of deaf parents, Pavel was preparing to become a typhlo-teacher and knew for a fact that there is a barrier between the two worlds – between the hearing and the deaf or the deaf-blind and the hearing/sighted. He became the pillar of the interpretering group and astonished us with his qualities: if it was necessary to translate for three or even four deaf-blind people at once – because less responsible interpreters were late or did not turn up at all – he would do the almost impossible. A one-man band! Also, he has become one of the rare specialists in interpreting at professional rehearsals and classes on the art of acting.

To us, the word 'workshop' became a symbol of communication, studying the world, as well as personal and creative unifying of people.

In the photo: at a rehearsal and workshop of the In Touchproject, 2014–2015

Audio description: This is a collage of two colour photos. In the photo on the left, Victoria Viollo-Avdeyeva is sitting at a white grand piano in a large brightly lit room. She is wearing a blue dress and a multicoloured headscarf around her neck. One of her hands is on her lap, and the other is on the grand piano keyboard. Alyona Kapustyan is standing next to her. Alyona is smiling, and her hands are on the keyboard. There are three women standing and talking by the grand piano. In the photo on the right, there is a large brightly lit room, with three tall windows adorned with drapes. There is a crystal chandelier on the ceiling. In the room, there are about ten people, with three of them wearing sleep eye masks across their eyes. Two people in sleep masks are hugging. Next to them, a girl is walking with her arms outstretched in front of her. By the wall, there is a row of empty chairs, one of which is occupied by a man sitting cross-legged. The others are talking and watching. A man with a camera is standing by the window. He is filming the activity.

This was how the deaf-blind actors of the play In Touchwere preparing for the next meeting with spectators, which was going to be at the premiere. The hearing/sighted actors of In Touchalso attended the workshops. As a result, the communication and mutual creative work outside of the rehearsals consolidated the troupe even more. We called ourselves a family. The spectators felt it so none of them left the play unaffected. As the project’s “godfather” Yevgeny Mironov said, “spectators had inverted faces”. It was a landmark play. A lot was said and written about it, and many watched it several times because, for an hour, all of us had been in a single space, heavily charged with emotions and love, where a flow of feelings broke through, barriers came down, and different types of people became united.

The life of In Touch

The Deaf-Blind Support Foundation “Con-nection”, which undertook financial and organisational responsibility for staging the play after the sketch was presented, suggested that I continue as executive producer of the project. It was another project from scratch: this time, I had to find a base for rehearsals, a technical team and organise the complicated logistics of some participants – in addition to staging the play itself. After the sketch was presented, our project gained one more patron – producer Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė. Thanks to her and Yevgeny Mironov, we started getting help from various partner companies. We rehearsed at RSSU (Russian State Social University) and had meetings at Jean-Jacques restaurant to have a chat, hold our storytelling workshops and Christmas gatherings. It was important for us to become close, as well as find “equality” in our relationship: to ensure that one party was not serving or catering while the other was not taking anything for granted. It was important to treat each other with mutual respect and consideration because there should be no passengers in a large professional project.

I would like to emphasise that no one was paid for the rehearsals. It was agreed that only the final product – the performances – should be paid. Sometimes, it made things more complicated because, when there are no standard work obligations to each other, you might think it is ok to skip a rehearsal or arrive late. Sometimes, I received text messages from the deaf-blind participants the day before the rehearsal saying that they had to go away to visit some friends. In a situation like that, my firmness and strictness helped: “You are an actor, we are creating a professional play so you must work as hard as everybody else.” They came along and rehearsed.

The members of the creative team were balancing each other out – plasticity director Yevgeny Kulagin established proper discipline straight away while director Ruslan Malikov gave a lot of freedom, but was strict when necessary. You could say that the play was born as a result of our faith in each other. The premiere took place on 19 and 20 April 2015 on the Small Stage of the Theatre of the Nations and was very successful: there were seven deaf-blind and seven hearing/sighted participants, as well as two narrators (Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė and Anatoly Bely). It seemed we had reached the finishing line, but we were only at the beginning of our journey.

Audio description: This is a colour photo of the play. The actors are dancing with enthusiasm. There are 12 people on stage. In the foreground, there is a man in a black suit. He has grey hair and is wearing dark glasses. He is paired with a girl who has long blond hair and is wearing grey tracksuit bottoms and a T-shirt. Near the dancing people, there are several Venetian chairs. Over the stage, there is a piece of scenery made of red smooth hoses and round lit-up light bulbs. The hoses fixed in a few places resemble schematic waves. The auditorium is full.

Theatres are not ready to add inclusive plays to their repertoire: both the readiness of theatres and a system of support are required. Now we were looking for theatre stages for our regular performances. Also, it was important that the largest possible audience should see the performance. That was how we got the idea of using various theatrical spaces to stage our play. That would help to both attract various audiences and establish relationships with different venues. The following theatres allowed us to use their stage for free: Teatrium at Serpukhovka, Alexandrinsky Theatre, Theatre of Nations, Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, Mayakovsky Theatre and Hermitage Theatre in Saint Petersburg. We held four charity performances, but in the new season we started selling tickets: if we consider our play professional and would like to convey this to our audience, they should buy a ticket like they would to any other play.

In the new season, the takings raised from the first performance at the Electrotheatre were directed towards the project’s development – all tickets were sold. The following five were played to support other funds: it was an action to show that the deaf-blind can work and help others and not just ask for help for themselves. When the Hospice Charity Fund “Vera” managed to pay half of the price of an ambulance vehicle for a Novosibirsk hospice with the money that had come from the ticket sales of our play, the performers realised, perhaps for the first time in their lives, their human and social value. Later, there were performances in support of children with cancer and the Podari Zhizn Foundation (Gift of Life). With each new performance, the play was updated thanks to the participation of new narrators, including Chulpan Khamatova, Alisa Freindlich, Egor Beroev, Albert Filozov, Dmitry Brusnikin, Igor Kostolevsky, Yevgeny Tsyganov and Elena Morozova. According to them, participation in the play became an exceptional experience in their lives and creative work.

You might want to ask: how was it possible to attract so many legendary actors? It is, perhaps, one of the most striking qualities of the project – to gather people who otherwise would have never met. In most cases, there was an immediate response. I remember how long it took me to pluck up my courage and call Alisa Freindlich, and how relieved I was after the first seconds of our conversation. She said simply and with an interest in her voice: “Of course, I agree! Just let me make sure that I haven't got another play on that day.” For the performers, the arrival of new narrators and a change of venue became an additional source of inspiration.

In spring 2016, the Golden Mask nomination became a kind of new starting point from which tours and workshops for the deaf-blind began in different Russian cities, and later the first groups of “Inclusion. Schools” appeared in various parts of the country.

Over the year of performances and classes conducted by theatre lecturers and directors, the deaf-blind participants in the play In Touchchanged very much, and their lives became very different – it seemed logical to create for them a new existence on stage and a new angle of perception of the play itself. Also, there was a strong interest among our foreign colleagues from Britain and France, where the deaf-blind had not yet entered the professional stage. As for the Russian team, they were attracted by inclusive theatre tradition, the possibility of intercultural dialogue and the study of the lives and nature of the deaf-blind in other countries. That is how the idea emerged to create an international version of the play with the participation of deaf-blind and hearing/sighted actors from Britain and France. Our idea was at once supported by Yevgeny Mironov and artistic director of the Graeae Theatre Company Jenny Sealey.

Photo by Patrick Baldwin. A scene from the playIn Touch, Royal National Theatre, London, 2017

Audio description: This is a colour photo. It is a scene from a play, with about 20 people on stage. The actors are talking, hugging, dancing, and some are standing still. On the right-hand side of the stage, a man is sitting on a bench and looking at the others. There is a tall tree behind him. At the back of the stage, there is a black screen with English text printed in white. Above the screen, there is a large glowing moon-like sphere and a structure of smooth winding hoses resembling intertwined tree branches.

There was one final task to do – find a theatre in London and funds for the project. I remember walking along the Thames and then past the National Theatre during my visit to London for the Unlimited Festival in September 2016 and wishing: “It would be great to show our play here, at this theatre.” When I started looking for a venue, I decided to contact the National Theatre straight away. I did not know anyone there. On their website, I found the number of the director’s secretary and called it. I was told straight away that this was not possible because their programme was full for two years ahead. However, I was persistent and kept trying. On receiving the prized email with the name of an employee of the theatre, I sent them a detailed letter. Eleven days later, I received a response that the theatre was interested, and that they had one available date during the period that I had proposed! Within a couple of days, I was talking via Skype to the theatre’s programme director. Then meetings followed one after another – with the technical group and accessibility specialists. Funds came from three sources: the British Council, Sberbank and from patron of art Maxim Poletaev, who had, by chance, attended our other play, was impressed and offered to support our projects. Everything came together in this project, and, most importantly, – our dreams. I described this in detail in the article.

The speech of visually impaired singer Jane Constance in the framework of a panel discussion on inclusion, 4 December 2017, UNESCO headquarters. In the photo: Jane Constance, UNESCO moderator, Chulpan Khamatova and Victoria Viollo-Avdeyeva

Audio description: This is a colour photo. A girl is standing behind a rostrum on the stage. She is visually impaired singer Jane Constance. She is wearing black trousers and a pink jacket. Behind Jane, there is a tall tree. Three women are sitting on the stage near her: a UNESCO moderator, actress Chulpan Khamatova and Victoria Viollo-Avdeyeva. They are turned towards Jane and are listening attentively. In front of the women, there is a low table with nameplates and water bottles. Behind the stage, there is a large screen. On the screen, there is a text editor window with English text.

So, on 14 October, exactly three years after our deaf-blind actors first entered the stage, we were holding an international premiere at the Royal National Theatre. After another two months, on 4 December, at UNESCO headquarters, we presented our play with our highest number of performers, where Russian, British and French actors played together. The texts of French deaf-blind girl Marie Heurtin were narrated by UNESCO Artist for Peace blind singer Jane Constance, Olga Skorokhodova's diaries were narrated by Chulpan Khamatova, and the text of Professor Alexandr Suvorov was narrated by French actress Estelle Aubriot. The performance at UNESCO had also been a dream that we bravely pursued, and, within three months, we organised an unforgettable day for everyone.

In the photo: a scene from the play In Touch,presented on 4 December 2017 at UNESCO headquarters

Audio description: This is a colour photo. It is a scene from a play. Paired actors are standing on a brightly lit stage. The women are wearing long dresses of different colours. The men are wearing shirts and trousers. In each pair, one of the actors is touching their partner’s head with both hands. On the right-hand side of the stage, three women are sitting on a bench and reading from tablets in their hands. Behind the bench, there is a tall tree with small leaves. Behind the stage, there is a large screen with a blue background and white lines of text in English and French. The English text reads: “It was invisible, inaudible, intangible, but still it followed me everywhere.” The auditorium is dark.

The grey conference space turned into an apple orchard, where a new play was being born. Before the performance, a round table on inclusion was held, after which Pavel Mazayev and I, as his assistant, taught the multinational audience to introduce themselves in Russian sign language. The play now continues its life and journey across Europe with December performances in the Netherlands and Belgium.