Features Published 14 January 2015

A Meeting of Worlds

George Mann discusses how Visual Vernacular informed the physical language of Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Light.
George Mann

I first learned about Visual Vernacular (V.V.) in 2013, when I began working with Matthew Gurney, a talented Deaf artist who’s very skilled at mime, improvisation and V.V. Visual Vernacular is an art form founded in the USA as a sign-mime genre in the 1970s by a former student of Marcel Marceau and Tony Award-winning Deaf artist, Bernard Bragg. It’s now a recognised and popular genre practiced by Deaf artists the world over.

To understand what V.V. is, think of the way film or cartoon works. The set up is similar, in which performers use the concepts of “wide, medium and close up shots”. Jean St Clair gives the example of “a bird: For the close up, I would describe or act like a bird with facial expression, with the medium close up, I would use my arms to move like wings and for the wide shot, I would use my hand to show the bird flying away into nothingness.” There’s a beautiful and very funny example of V.V. by Bernard Bragg himself on YouTube called Eagle and Squirrel.

In 2009, theatre-maker Ramesh Meyyappan, who is Deaf, approached us after a performance of our production Odyssey at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to tell us how much he had enjoyed and understood the piece. We were delighted. It was the first time we became aware that much of the theatre we were making was also unintentionally accessible to Deaf audiences. When I began working with Matthew I soon realised that V.V. and a large part of our company’s practice were not that dissimilar – I couldn’t believe I had never heard of it before.

Our physical gestural work and mime practice grew out of our training at the Lecoq School in Paris, France. The pedagogy at the school is the brainchild of Jacques Lecoq who preferred to use the term “language of gesture” instead of mime; it is a fundamental part of his teaching. Lecoq wrote:

“All of us express ourselves – unconsciously or not, with or without the desire to communicate – by means of gesture … most of the time our gestures escape us, revealing our profound nature to others” (Theatre of Movement and Gesture)

Lecoq believed that gestural language, or mime, is born out of the imitation of that which we observe in people and our environment – through the body. The language of gesture has a vocabulary, which Lecoq breaks down into five forms: pantomime, where gestures replace words; figurative mime, where actors use the body to represent/create objects and spaces; “cartoon mime, a language which is close to silent cinema, using gesture to release the dynamic force contained within images” (Le Corps Poetique [The Moving Body]); mimage, an abstract form exploring the internal dramatic state of a character; and storyteller mime, which uses all of the above to tell stories.

For me, V.V. comes closest to cartoon mime, but it also draws on all of the above in its own unique form of storyteller mime. What excited me about V.V. is that it shares its gestural roots with our own theatre practice. Language of gesture is an essential part of Ad Infinitum’s theatre making, and a core element of our non-verbal productions like Translunar Paradise and our latest piece, Light, soon to have its London Premiere at the 2015 London International Mime Festival.

Like all of our previous work, Light draws on multiple influences, including the above mentioned storyteller mime, but also strives to find something new, in this case our own torchlit theatre practice developed specifically for this piece. We work with physically trained actors to perform the story while simultaneously lighting it with LED torches used like film cameras zooming in and out (close ups, wide shots, etc.) and controlling what is seen and unseen with light and darkness – giving me as a director a lot more control over the moving images I create with the company. As a result, the visual language is very cinematic like V.V.; V.V. creates its performance through one solo performer, Light uses a chorus of five but they share elements of style.

While working with Matthew on Light, there was a wonderful sense of collaboration and sharing of skills, a meeting of worlds took place. Coming as we do from different backgrounds, we approached the same task from different perspectives, yet we shared a common ground in our love of physical storytelling and desire to create a visual language for both Deaf and Hearing audiences. Working in this way opened up new possibilities, brought about surprising creative solutions, and made the visual language richer and more sophisticated.

We are of course not the only company, and by no means the first, to explore making work accessible for a Deaf and Hearing audience. Deafinitely Theatre, led by Paula Garfield, and Graeae, led by Jenny Sealey, are just two of many companies that have been pioneering accessible forms of theatre for years. Deafinitely’s production of Jim Cartwright’s Two, directed by Andrew Muir and starring Matthew Gurney, was one of the most moving performances I have seen for a long time. They mixed British Sign Language, subtitles, gesture, and live interpreting to create a truly original and extraordinary theatrical experience.

The challenge of making work accessible is an exciting creative constraint; it opens up a whole world of theatrical possibility. More importantly, it can begin to bring together artists and communities that have for a long time remained separated by perceived differences, despite the profound gestural and physical nature that we all share as humans.

Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Light is at the Barbican as part of London International Mime Festival from 20-24 January before embarking on a UK tour. The company will also present Odyssey in the VAULT Festival from 18 February.

Photo: Alex Brenner.

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