DUBLIN’S WILLFREDD Theatre come to the Town Hall Theatre next week with their remarkable play, Follow, written and performed by Shane O’Reilly, which explores the world of the deaf.
Shane O’Reilly is a CODA (child of deaf adults ); both his parents are deaf. He grew up in a house with doorbell lights and subtitles on the TV. A house where to be heard, you had to be seen.
In Follow, O’Reilly and his WillFredd collaborators relate humorous and moving stories and experiences from the Irish deaf community through sound, light, Irish sign language, and traditional storytelling. Follow is the first piece of theatre in Ireland created for both a deaf and hearing audience and won the Spirit of the Fringe Award at Dublin Fringe Festival,
Ahead of Follow’s Galway run, O’Reilly took some time to talk about the show and how it came together. First I asked him what it was like growing up within a deaf household.
“As a child I myself adapted to it readily but I remember there were times when friends called around and they wouldn’t make eye contact with my mother because I guess it was easier for them not to have to deal with trying to communicate,” he recalls. “My mother used to find that a little offensive. So my role as a child would sometimes have been to impart that kind of information to my friends or even other adults at times, to let them know the most appropriate way to communicate with my parents.”
O’Reilly has been working as an actor for five years, and Follow is the first show which he has written as well as performed.
“I wanted to make a piece of theatre I could invite my parents to,” he says. “A show that they could enjoy without any extra interpretation and with a subject matter and style of performance they could engage with organically.
“I also wanted to explore performing through sign language. As it happens, Sophie Motley, the director, had already been talking with her designers about notions of communicating with light and sound and she saw the opportunity to bring us all together and spark this journey of exploration that became Follow.
“We started by taking random phrases and translating them into sign language. Then we looked at how you might give that same information purely through light or sound and we started to mix them all together, as well as my own speech, and we developed a style over the ensuing months.
“Then we gave the piece a try-out before a mixed deaf and hearing audience and we were overwhelmed by the response. Deaf audience members appreciated seeing a show that didn’t need to be interpreted while hearing audience were fascinated to see Irish sign language at work.”
As the initial impetus for the show had been to create a piece of theatre his parents could enjoy, I ask O’Reilly what their reaction was when they came to see it.
“Initially their response was an emotional one,” he replies. “It was their first time being able to engage with a performance that I was signing in our language and I think there was something special about that, a moment where they could connect with me and what I do as an artist.
“Also, some of the stories in the show belong to my parents and they responded to those. Other stories in the show belong to the wider deaf community – we worked a lot with the Dublin deaf community in developing the piece. There is a lot of comedy in the show but also a strong emotional core to the piece.
“Part of that is the way it looks at the theme of miscommunication and what happens when you don’t understand what the other person is telling you, especially if that information is very important.”
O’Reilly is keen to emphasise the collaborative nature of WillFredd’s work and the huge input from designers Jack Cawley and Sarah Jane Shiels.
“The sound and lighting are as important as the direction and my own performance,” he declares. “Jack Cawley our sound designer went on a very interesting journey with this show as it entailed coming up with a soundscape that would work for a deaf audience. So he explored the world of sound and vibrations, and the instruments that are played in the show are all visually interesting, they might be lit in a certain way to create an unusual perspective and the sound is filtered into the audience underneath their seats.
“So while deaf people obviously can’t hear the music, they know it is happening and through vibrations can feel the different levels of intensity in it. Sarah Jane who did our stage and lighting design has also made a really important contribution, and everyone involved in the show has really engaged with the truth of the deaf experience.”
Follow is at the Town Hall on Friday February 15 and Saturday 16 at 8pm. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie