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'Hearing impairment is an invisible disability - this can lead to assumptions by people, even those who know us well'

Ailís Ní Ríain’s work for the Dublin Fringe Festival has been inspired by her own experiences of communication and the difficulties we can encounter with it.

Ailís Ní Ríain

HEARING IMPAIRMENT IS an invisible disability. This can lead to huge assumptions by people around us and often even those who know us well.

I am hearing impaired – I wear hearing aids and lip-read. I also have hyperacusis, which is a reduced tolerance and increased sensitivity to everyday sounds. I will often wear ear plugs as it helps reduce the anxiety associated with the condition.

Deafness and sensory challenges come in many different guises.

‘Anne checked into the hotel room and hasn’t been seen since’

As a classical composer and writer, I explore these ideas in my new show for this year’s Dublin Fringe Festival. The show is set in a hotel room where elements of what we have come to expect in theatre – in terms of communicating narrative – are gone.

What is communication? How does it work? What if what we communicate is interpreted as something else?

These are important questions in any domain – like theatre – where we are sealed off from the outside world and information is exchanged. Words are used, usually spoken in a language we understand; but we don’t often go to the theatre performed in a language we don’t understand.

My show I Used to Feel is set in a hotel room – a real hotel room in The Marker Hotel in Dublin. Life goes on around us as the show gently unfurls.

We meet ‘Anne’, who checked into the hotel three days ago and has not been seen by staff since.

I Used to Feel - photo by Ailís Ní Ríain Source: Ailís Ní Ríain

The piece wrestles with the very nature of how we communicate, what gets ‘lost’ and what is never fully ‘understood’; it invites the audience to observe and interpret the unique situation in which we find ourselves.

Is there room for misinterpretation? Yes, absolutely. Can we misjudge communication, maybe even become hostile to someone whose language we don’t understand? Yes, I believe we can and do.

The fundamental question for me – working with the actor Alvean Jones and musician, Kate Romano – is, how much do our judgements, biases and expectations play in our interpretation of such a situation and how hard should an audience have to work to understand something?

A matter of interpretation

Communication, and sometimes language itself, can only ever be an approximation, as two people will very rarely, if ever, have the exact same understanding of what is being communicated.

This means that communication in theatre, as everywhere else, is a process, a live exchange or interpretation. We  interpret what is being shown or shared. 

What happens when the situation, the sound or the language itself is not what we expect, or familiar with? Or, in the case of I Used to Feel, what if the narrative is only what you think it is?

I Used to Feel is written for two performers – both tell the story, neither use the conventions we have come to expect, and in some cases, demand of theatre. We use a combination of languages, including sign, music, movement and situation to tell the story which is, among other things, about the challenge of communication in today’s world.

What happens when we play with the components of theatre? When our aural experience is not what we expect? Does communication ever really break down or do we just give up when the signifiers no longer operate on our terms?

For me, these questions are fascinating and make me, as an artist with my own issues around communication, work harder and more daringly when considering how we communicate story in theatre.

Ailís Ní Ríain is a classical composer and writer from Cork. Her production I Used to Feel is part of this year’s Dublin Fringe Festival. Supported by Arts and Disability Ireland.

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Ailís Ní Ríain

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