Summary: From the production team that brought you Blink (2017) and The Effect (2016) comes Tribes by Nina Raine: the story of a deaf boy in a hearing world who wants to be heard. Billy’s fiercely intelligent and proudly unconventional family is their own tiny empire, with their own private language, jokes and rules. Their arguments, equal parts funny and ferocious, are an expression of love. But Billy, who is deaf, is one of the few who actually listens and meeting Sylvia makes him finally want to be heard. Will he get a word in edgeways? Tribes is a fascinating exploration of belonging, family and the limitations of communication both spoken and unspoken.
Dates: Sunday 29th - Monday 30th April, 7.30pm.
Location: The Stage, Union.
ST.ART spoke to the director of Tribes, Louis Catliff, and the actors portraying its two central protagonists, Benjamin Osugo (Billy) and Isabella Sheridan (Sylvia). Photographs taken by Lara Tillotson.
Who did you consult in preparation for a play about being deaf? What measures did you take in order to accurately portray BSL and the experience of being hard of hearing?
Louis Catliff: Ensuring that our portrayal of the deaf experience was accurate has always been a top priority. We contacted Student Services before auditioning the play to make sure all deaf and hard of hearing students were encouraged to audition. While no deaf students did audition, we received a lot of support from people who were really keen to help the production. Courtney Aitken, who volunteers for Action on Hearing Loss, along with staff from Deaf Action in Edinburgh have advised us on the depiction of deafness on stage. Our two actors playing Billy and Sylvia (Benji and Isabella) were taught sign by a fantastic BSL translator, Sofia Garcia Agudo, and now look like they’ve been doing it for years!
Benjamin Osugo: I have found learning about the deaf and hard of hearing world a very rewarding experience. While slightly nerve-wracking at times, we have had members of the community in the rehearsal room from the very beginning. The most vital thing that I’ve learned is that there is no one single deaf ‘experience’. As with anything, different people relate to it in different ways. BSL is such an expressive and intuitive language, so it has been a pleasure to learn. Isabella and I have been in weekly sessions with a person fluent in BSL - who graciously offered to help with the play - since February. I have also watched countless videos of people speaking BSL.
Isabella Sheridan: We were really fortunate to meet a lovely student called Courtney who is hard of hearing. Courtney spent lots of time with us, informing us about her experience and the difficulties that a hard of hearing person can encounter. Courtney offered amazing advice on how to accurately portray a hard of hearing individual who is reliant on lip reading and BSL. During our rehearsal period, coincidentally both the Oscar-winning short film “A Silent Child”, and the horror movie “A Quiet Place” were released. Both were really useful resources which enabled us to understand more about the experience of being hard of hearing and the use of sign language.
Tribes presents a tight-knit ensemble of complex and developed characters; what challenges did this bring? What was stimulating about this?
LC: It has been a challenge to make sure that all the characters have their moments and aren’t overwhelmed by Christopher the father, a professional contrarian and show-off. The entire family are smart and funny and change significantly over the course of the play. Ensuring they develop to their fullest has been tough but rewarding and all of the actors have done an excellent job!
BO: Complex characters are hard work. They are also much more rewarding when you do manage to understand them. ‘Billy’ has been a difficult character to play as he is a boy of few words. This was challenging as it meant we had to get together frequently to discuss what he was thinking in each scene, and how he feels about his family members. In roles I have done before, the characters often say how they feel explicitly, so it has been really interesting looking a person who doesn’t verbally communicate how they feel a lot of the time. At the end of the day, I get to sit back and watch some cracking acting from my teammates - it really could be a lot worse!
IS: The family in Tribes is totally unique, and just like any family it has its own inside jokes and dramas. This means that as a cast we have to be totally in sync and really quick to pick up cues. Each character has their own complexity. For me personally, Sylvia presents an interesting challenge as she is torn between two worlds. She introduces Billy to the deaf community that she was brought up in, and watches as he becomes more and more invested. However as she herself is about to become deaf, she starts resisting both Billy and the community; as Sylvia herself says, 'not everything in my life can be deaf'. She is torn between her love for Billy and a desperation to escape the world which he strives to be a part of.
What about this play resonates with you, what do you take away from the play?
LC: The feeling of isolation when with family or friends is something that I, and I’m sure a lot of people, can relate to. It is a universal experience made specific through the character of Billy, who has grown up deaf in a hearing family. People with hearing loss being left out of conversations is a named occurrence in the deaf community called ‘dinner table syndrome’ and is depicted perceptively in the fast-paced family dinner scene that opens the play.
BO: This play resonates with so many people because it is about family. These are a group of people that for better or worse, you are attached to. Often wires get crossed, and people get stuck in patterns that are unhealthy for themselves and the people around them. Tribes gives the hope, that with a little empathy, and a little careful affection, the gap between you and the people around you can be bridged - even just a little.
IS: I think it’s impossible to watch this play and not take away an important message about the deaf community. It really highlights the everyday struggles for those who are hard of hearing, and it especially increases awareness of the obstacles that face those who are born into a hearing family. It has made me so much more aware of the community, and I’m keen to continue learning sign language after this play is over!
Aside from Billy which character fascinates you the most?
LC: It would have to be Sylvia, Billy’s new girlfriend. We meet her at a turning point in her life, when she is losing her hearing due to a genetic condition. It is a situation with which we can all sympathise without ever coming close to comprehending. She is also intelligent and compassionate and is responsible for pretty much all the drama of the play.
BO: Dan. Dan is a very, very confused boy. He doesn’t really know where he is going in life, and as a result doesn’t really know how to treat the world around him. Through all of his anger, confusion, and sarcastic and ridiculous monkey impressions (thank you Bailey Fear), the only way he can finally heal is by reaching out to others and asking for help. This is a lesson that all young men should try to learn.
IS: The mother of Billy, Beth, is a fascinating character. It is clear that she has dedicated so much time to helping Billy live a normal life, which in itself shows a compassion and strength, which I admire. She was the person who taught Billy language and yet despite this, she is still somewhat oblivious to how isolated he feels, making her character evermore intriguing and complex.
SYLVIA: Isabella Sheridan
BILLY: Benjamin Osugo
DANIEL: Bailey Fear
RUTH: Jennifer Grace
BETH: Tiffany Black
CHRISTOPHER: Jonathan Hewitt
DIRECTOR: Louis Catliff (Blink, The Effect, View From A Bridge)
PRODUCER: Lara Tillotson (Blink, Jerusalem, The Effect)
ASSISTANT PRODUCER: Kris Spence
STAGE MANAGERS: Violet Chaudoir (Blink, Saved) & Chloe Ashley (Anything Goes)
TECHNICIAN: Grace Cowie (Everything tbh)
PROJECTIONIST: Minoli De Silva (Blink, The Effect)
SOUND: Natalie Psillou
SET DESIGN: Lucy Reis (Blink, Saved, The Effect)
COSTUMER: Caroline McWilliams (Also everything, tbh)
BSL TRANSLATOR: Sofia Garcia Argudo
GRAPHIC DESIGN: Jana Tauschinski (Thaw, Blink, The Effect)
ANIMATION: Alexandrina Fleming
With special thanks to Courtney Aiken for all the advice and support throughout this entire production.