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I have just completed my first semester of an American Sign Language/English Interpretation Program. This may not sound like anything significant but for me, it is. Throughout my life people have asked me if I would ever consider becoming an interpreter. The idea could not have interested me in the least. Now, I am living in a new city and province, having put my acting career on hold for two years to do exactly what I said I would never do. How did I end up here? In a strange turn of events, I was brought here by a play. Actually, it was the idea of one.

I grew up in a Deaf household. This is my normal. I never thought much about what my normal meant until I moved to Montreal from small-town Ontario when I was 18. I met new people who discovered my parents were Deaf and for years had to answer the same questions about my family and upbringing. Until that point, it had never occurred to me that I was raised in a different environment than most; my normal was another’s fascination. I knew a different language and culture that I had never thought critically about before, probably because I had lived in the same town for 18 years where everyone already knew my family, so nothing ever felt out of place.

This revelation of having a unique life experience also led me to recognize that I did not know very much about my own background. I had taken it all for granted. I was now profoundly interested and invested in my past, my family, their upbringings, the Deaf experience, and all that comes with it. I became fascinated with American Sign Language which, yes, I was already fluent in, but had never truly explored as a form of expression. ASL had only been used to communicate with certain family members and friends. Memories came flooding back and instances of oppression toward my parents that I had normalized, resurfaced. I read. I asked questions. I wanted stories. I learned who my parents were as people, beneath mom and dad. I learned about other peoples’ experiences in Deaf families and that there was such a thing as a Deaf Community. I recalled events that I had attended with my family where instead of paying attention, I would get bored and play with other children. Now that I am older, I wish that I had taken it all in and absorbed every moment. But as my father would remind me, kids would often rather play than listen to dad’s boring stories, and besides that, he always knew that when I got older my curiously about our heritage would ignite. He was right.

As an actor, I see the world in images and moments. My family’s experiences became increasingly vivid images in my mind that were gently tugging at me for many years. I am an actor, a teacher, and a facilitator. These are the titles I feel comfortable with. Writer? That sounded terrifying, so I moved on with my life for the time being. Fast forward four years: sitting on the floor of a rehearsal space at Black Theatre Workshop with actor and playwright, Julie Tamiko Manning. She and I are discussing the right to speak on behalf of a culture that we “only half-belong” to. She being half-Japanese and I being raised in a Deaf community while not actually being Deaf. Although they are very different circumstances, the ethical dilemma is similar. I speak the language, I know the culture, it is my home and my life, but I can also hear. Do I have a right to speak on behalf of the Deaf community? Is my parents’ blessing and acceptance enough? I told Julie about my images and she advised me to trust my instincts and dive in.

A few days later I was walking down a street in Montreal and I bumped into Micheline Chevrier, Artistic Director of Imago Theatre and director extraordinaire. We were both in a rush but I mentioned that I had an idea I wanted to discuss with her. I do not know why I felt the need to tell her in that moment, it was just a gut reaction. She told me to send her an e-mail and we both scurried off. We ended up meeting for coffee where I shared my brain-trapped images and ideas. They were disconnected, unsure, but pulsing. Micheline gave me her blessing and told me to write them all down. I started with the title, The Sound of Dogs.

The number of people who have become involved with this play over the past two years seem random but intertwine beautifully in the web they exist in. One coffee led to a dinner between two others which led to support from the NAC in Ottawa to continue writing. A phone call led to Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal linking me with a mentor, Alex Haber, to guide me through the playwriting process. Dean Fleming, Director and former Artistic Director for Geordie Productions, hosts a workshop about writing plays for young audiences where I learn that my Deaf play can actually be split into two separate ones: The Sound of Dogs and Thumbs Up! The first being darker and more related to my personal experiences whereas the latter is about a little girl who is a superhero and also happens to be Deaf. The list goes on and on in terms of the level of support from theatre creators in and around Montreal.

While this process was slowly unfolding, I could not shake the feeling that I was somehow disconnected from ASL culture. I began toying with the idea of attending interpreting school but did not want to suspend my career. When the first draft of Thumbs Up! was complete, I had a wonderful Deaf actress, Elizabeth Morris, come in for the first reading. Although the experience was incredible, I felt my confidence begin to wane relating to my Deaf background. I still didn’t know what Sound of Dogs was “supposed” to be and felt frustration, fear, and hesitation on how to move forward. This is also the precise moment where my respect for writers and playwrights increased dramatically because I learned that writing can be personal, terrifying, and immensely difficult.

There are a number of reasons why I decided to go back to school to become an interpreter, but underneath it all, honestly, it was calling me. I wanted to go and study ASL, and I wanted to learn more about the culture that I love. So here I am.

Sound of Dogs is always with me and as Micheline reassures me often, it will eventually shape into a cohesive whole but that a process is a process and I am not to judge it. The decision to move to Atlantic Canada was the right one. Studying aspects of your childhood can be very strange but also an astoundingly rewarding experience. I highly recommend people take a trip to visit their roots and heritage. It is funny how many quirks are a part of you because of that culture. I feel a connection with this program that I did not anticipate. I thought I would go in, gain some additional skills, and come back out raring to go. I could not have foreseen the spiritual journey that exists in parallel. I am developing amazing linkages, my vocabulary is already stronger in both ASL and English, and I understand who I am a little bit more everyday. I am in love with American Sign Language and its culture and I feel more whole and connected to not only myself, but my family as well.

I still do not know how Sound of Dogs starts or ends, least of all when it will be finished. However, I do know that it has become a guiding friend. It is with me while I write, I see more of those pictures, and I know that eventually it will come together. This little friend brought me here in the first place and here is where I need to be. A huge part of this playwriting process was the research and reconnection I needed to a childhood experience that I never truly explored. I am grateful for the opportunity to be supported by friends, family, and fellow theatre creators in the journey that is Sound of Dogs. I think the journey to a play’s creation is in itself, a gift.

Jennifer Roberts, Artist in Residence

 

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