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seen to be heard

Shane's parents are Deaf - so he wrote the first Irish play for deaf and hearing people

The actor stars in a one man show that uses sound, light and Irish Sign Language in a unique way.

willfreddtheatre / YouTube

GROWING UP WITH parents who are Deaf, Shane O’Reilly has always been aware of how differently they were treated by some people.

He grew up in a house with doorbell lights and subtitles on the TV, a house where the theatre and cinema were often off the agenda as they simply didn’t cater for Deaf audiences in the 1980s.

When he became an actor and playwright, he again noticed how the acting world was catered towards those who are hearing. But with his work Follow, which is currently on the Abbey Theatre’s Peacock Stage, he has co-written a play that anyone can enjoy, whether they are Deaf or hearing.


Shane O'Reilly in WillFredd Theatre's show FOLLOW at Peacock Theatre until 6 December 2014

A one-man production, Follow is the first theatre show in Ireland created for both a deaf and hearing audience. By using sound, light, music and sign, it reflects the stories and experiences of people growing up as part of a deaf community in a hearing world.

Before you assume it’s a piece that drives its point home heavily, that’s not what O’Reilly is into.

Often times these pieces can feel very worthy or very much catering to a special audience. We weren’t trying to do to that.

Follow was first run four years ago, and every time it’s brought back, it’s a chance to review and strengthen the work. It has gotten a “fantastic response” from deaf and hearing audiences, said O’Reilly

After getting into acting, he realised it’s all created “with a hearing mainstream audience in mind”.

He’s aware that when interpreters or captions come into play, it means there’s somebody else delivering the text, so it’s not a ‘true’ interpretation. But he felt that it was possible to create something that was sophisticated and interesting enough for both audiences at the same time.

“You’re asking two audiences to sync and engage - and also asking them to have a great time,” he says. He speaks sign language with his parents and family, and says sign has its own syntax and its own structure.

“The language is borne out of a need to communicate,” he explains. ”The structure seems to be to get to the point as quickly as possible, delivery of information as efficiently as possible.”

O’Reilly sees sign language as similar to performance: “You perform the intention of the sentence in order to eradicate any unnecessary words.”

In the show, his signing is in harmony with the physical gestures throughout. It can take a little while for hearing audiences to click into, he says, but soon they make sense of it.

Treated differently

follow gif

Growing up with Deaf parents, he became very aware of how they were treated by others.

“In the 80s and 90s it was not accessible to the Deaf community to watch theatre, and in the cinema, subtitles were relatively new,” he remembers. 

“As a child you observe an awful lot about the way your parents are treated and you learn a lot of things,” he adds.

I have distinct memories of being in the post office or bank with my mother and people’s initial reaction to deafness is something that means zero communication is possible, so they get a pen and paper. It’s quite crushing for people’s morale.

To see this so many times as a child made him feel sadness, “and also a feeling of being second thought or second priority to everybody else”.

Things have moved on: the Abbey has signers or captions at its shows, and O’Reilly has even worked with the theatre’s staff to teach them sign language in the bar and box office for Follow.

He realises that people’s fear of getting it wrong is what fuels the ‘pen and paper’ approach to deafness, but says that what is needed is “a tiny bit of education or exposure to fact the people you are dealing with are intelligent, thinking people as well who just speak a different language”.

He gets a kick out of watching hearing people chatting with Deaf audience members after watching Follow, as he feels the play helps them feel equipped to do this.

Follow is about communication and miscommunication, and stories from his family are interwoven throughout.

Music and lighting are ‘characters’, and every element of the play is on show – you can see what everyone does, from the rigging to the lighting technicians to the stage manager to the composer.

What do his parents make of the play? “They come into my work world a little bit and my professional world and they’re able to have an opinion on the work and they use it as a doorway into the rest of the work they have access to,” he says.

The show for them has opened the door for what theatre actually is and what its potential is and why people find it so magical.

Follow, which O’Reilly co-created with composer and sound artist Jack Cawley, is directed by Sophie Motley. It runs on the Abbey Theatre’s Peacock stage until 6 December; Monday – Saturday at 8pm; Saturday matinee at 2pm. It is performed in Irish Sign Language and is also captioned.

Read: Nine-year-old who’s lobbying RTÉ to use sign language in Toy Show wins award>

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