Celebrating Our Imperfections
A Conversation with Adina Tal of Israel’s Nalaga’at Center
The Disability in Theatre series on HowlRound explores issues of diversity, accessibility, exposure, and inclusion. This series is curated by Ariel Baker-Gibbs.
No amount of research or conversation can quite prepare you for a play where eleven deaf-blind actors are telling their own stories and dreams while baking bread. Adina Tal is the Founder and Artistic Director of the Nalaga’at Center in Tel Aviv and the director of Not by Bread Alone. In a conversation with ArtsEmerson, Adina said that once you see the brave artistry of these actors, you have a new sense of your own potential and the potential of those around you. It is a truly unique theatrical experience born from years of work in developing new ways for the actors to express themselves. This interview, conducted two weeks before the company arrived in Boston, gives great insight to Nalaga’at’s process and their experiences touring the globe.
Kevin Becerra: You’ve done a lot of interviews and two really great TEDx Talks, so I don’t want you to have to repeat yourself too much. But for people who may not be familiar with the history of Nalaga’at, would you mind giving a bit of context about how you started working in the DeafBlind community?
Adina Tal: Actually, a little bit by coincidence. Because my background is theatre, I was often asked if I wanted to work with people with disabilities and I always very politely said no, because it did not really interest me. Then I was asked if I wanted to work with DeafBlind people—and I said yes. I was in a stage of my life where my kids were grown up, I had a lovely career, and I felt I understood life and was ready to be surprised. I had no idea that what would surprise me was that I would run a workshop for DeafBlind people for two months and that those two months were fourteen years ago.
Kevin: And in that two-month workshop what kind of work did you do? What was the process of the workshop?
Adina: It was basically a process of learning. I had never met a deaf-blind person before that, so it was a journey of finding out a lot about myself, about the people I work with. There is a lot of deaf theatre and some blind theatre but no professional DeafBlind theatres. It was a very personal and intimate journey for myself and I loved it.
Kevin: How did you enter into the work with DeafBlind people? What kind of skills from your background did you use as the entry point to starting this conversation?
Adina: I think, it was because of my skills as a theatre person that I knew how to work with improvisation and a lot of drama and exercises. What helped me the most is the fact that I knew when I work with people I ask a lot from them, and I don’t care if they’re Deaf or Blind or DeafBlind.
Kevin: What results did you see from that two-month workshop?
Adina: It was very interesting and it was very fascinating. I was very surprised when after two months one of the actors said that he thought that the workshop was boring—I was even offended. I asked him why and he said, “All this pantomime,” and I said, “Yeah, but what would you like to do?” And he said to me “I would like to do Gorky.” I said, “How? You don’t speak, you don’t hear, you don’t see.” And he said “that is your problem! You are the director.” Once he said that to me, I realized he’s right, it is my problem. I am the director. But then I said “it’s your problem that you’re DeafBlind and you must find a way to act and to express yourself.” And this is actually the main part of our journey—to find a theatrical language between the actors and our audiences. There are so many actors that might be much better than they are, but there are no actors that are DeafBlind. The question is not what they cannot do, but what they can do much better than anyone else.
Kevin: What have the performers’ reactions been to entering this kind of process?
Adina: I think they loved it for many reasons. First of all, they loved it because I was very demanding. I was surrounded by a few social workers at the beginning and they kept telling me you are asking too much, you’re too demanding, and I think this is one of the reasons for the success of this company. Let’s not say oh poor you, you’re DeafBlind, and everything you do will be good. No. Nobody chooses to be DeafBlind, but if you’re DeafBlind make the best of it, and it’s possible. It really is possible.
Kevin: So your first production was Light Is Heard In Zig Zag. What was the bridge between the two-month workshop and the creation of that piece?
And this is actually the main part of our journey—to find a theatrical language between the actors and our audiences. There are so many actors that might be much better than they are, but there are no actors that are DeafBlind. The question is not what they cannot do, but what they can do much better than anyone else.
Adina: The process is always very long and that’s perfectly okay. I have very little patience in my life, but when I work with DeafBlind people I know that I am in a different time zone, DeafBlind time and this is perfectly alright, so this is the time zone we work in. It took us months, years to do a show, but that’s okay.
Kevin: Could you give me an idea of what the process of gathering the stories and staging them, what that’s like working in that deaf-blind time zone?
Adina: First of all, as I said, there are many, many actors in the world, but there are very few deaf-blind actors, so they can give us something nobody else can give us. It does not interest me to do Gorky, Shakespeare, or Chekhov—what I was looking for were their own dreams. I asked from the beginning what is your dream, and their dreams are sometimes really similar to our dreams and sometimes different. They dream to be famous, rich, beautiful, but one of the actors really didn’t understand what I was asking when I kept asking him what is your dream? It took a few months. When I say it takes a few months, it’s not that we meet every day, we usually meet once a week, twice a week, and I kept asking what is your dream and he would always answer I have no work, I have no work, and he was really stubborn and I was really stubborn and I kept asking, and one day he looked at me and said, “I would love to drive the car.” He was deaf-blind and he would love to drive the car. And I said, “No problem we are on stage, you drive the car.” And then I said to him, “You know, while we’re on stage why don’t you drive the bus.” And this was actually the closing scene of the first show, he was the bus driver and I said to the others, “Now, you get on the bus the way you’d like to go on the bus.” So one was reading a newspaper and another listening to music and another one was pregnant and one went in limping. I asked him, “Why do you limp?” And he said “Because I want to get the discount on the bus,” and I thought, if he thinks that he can limp and it’s not enough to be DeafBlind and nonverbal in order to get a discount on the bus, we made a very big step.
Kevin: Do your actors tend to stay involved with your company for a long period of time? Did the actors that were in Light Is Heard In Zig Zag stay on for Not By Bread Alone, and to work at the Nalaga’at Center?
Adina: All of them but one. I started with twelve actors and now we’re eleven. They are all a part of the company and we have a new deaf-blind company, which is comprised of Jews and Muslims. They actually are having the premiere of a show in a few months, and that show is called Is Anybody Here? Our company has been together for fourteen years. When we started many of them could not accept the fact that they were going blind. Many DeafBlind people have a syndrome called Usher syndrome which means that the person is deaf or hard of hearing and from around the age of twelve gradually starts to lose their eyesight until they are completely blind.
So when we started some of the actors were already completely blind, some of them were in the process of going blind. Some of them really could not accept the fact that they would be blind, and some of them talked about suicide. If you meet them today, fourteen years later, you’ll meet eleven stars. Like a normal theatre ensemble, they complain about not getting paid enough. We’re getting ready now for our next tour We just got back from a theatre festival in Australia three weeks ago and one of the great things that really struck me was a big party for all the groups that came from all over the world to perform at the festival. I would see our actors and I’d say, “This is crazy to have a party with all the best theatre companies from all over the world and it’s normal.” The craziness of this being normal is what really struck me and I think it’s one of our biggest achievements. For me this is ultimate accessibility. I think it’s very important to do ASL or audio descriptions and its really important to be accessible. I think the real accessibility is being a part of society, not only the possibility to engage with what’s happening in society by ASL translations, which again is important but it’s not enough.
Over 700,000 people have seen the show and its not about deafness or blindness or deaf-blindness. It’s about being imperfect as all of us are imperfect. By accepting our own imperfectness we’ll accept the imperfectness that exists in people around us, which means we’ll change our society to be a more tolerant society. If that comes from eleven deaf-blind people I think it’s great.
Kevin: Can you talk a bit about interactions with audiences? I’m curious to hear what’s happened around the world as you’ve encountered different audiences and people in different situations facing their own imperfections.
Adina: In Australia, we were sold out long before we arrived and people were fighting for tickets. I think what I mentioned was that we would love to have young people from underprivileged schools. In Israel we do quite a lot of afternoon shows for schools. And sometimes the students come and the teachers say, “Please don’t take it personally but they never sit through a show. And if they make noise please don’t get offended.” And our experience says that it’s exactly the opposite. Usually the noisiest schools are the quietest and they love it and they don’t want to leave. And I think this is so important.
Kevin: I imagine part of that comes from a sense of community that’s built between the audience and the performers. Not only from the intimacy of the stories being told, but culminating in this ritual of baking bread and then finally sharing the bread. How did you come to bread? How did this show end with the process of baking bread?
Adina: I really love food and I love food on stage. We made salads, we made pasta, we made a lot of things. Then I felt I needed to find something really basic and a really basic thing is bread. It took me a very long time to develop a bread recipe, but we found a way to make very good bread within the timeframe of the show. Bread is so basic for so many cultures. I mean for Jews and for Christians, and the smell of bread, I think, is also something so basic because it is something that binds you. The actors do not see the people in the audience, but the audience and the actors smell the same smell of bread. Sometimes people in the audience hope that the show is going to end quickly because they want to taste the bread.
Kevin: Can you talk a little bit about your experiences touring to cultures that may not have bread central to their culture?
Adina: The only place we actually went that does not have bread was South Korea. I didn’t think about it until we got there. I thought, “Oh my God we are going to make bread but bread is nothing for them.” We should have made Not by Rice Alone, not Not by Bread Alone. We performed in this big theatre venue for 1,200 people, which is much bigger than our venue at home. I spoke to the artistic director and she said to me, “You know you have to understand that Koreans are shy and they will never come up on stage.” I knew one Korean person in the audience and he came with five friends. I said to him, “When the show finishes, please come up on stage.” When we finished the show I couldn’t believe my eyes, because about 1,000 people were on their way up to the stage. It was incredible. The next day at the performance, it was like a rock concert; we put the translators on the stage to protect the actors.
Kevin: Are there plans for other Nalaga’at Centers around the world?
Adina: Oh, what a tricky question! The answer is yes. Of course, not like McDonald’s or Starbucks, or something like that. My understanding is there is interest in other Nalaga’at Centers, in London and someone talked about it in New York. I think because we have done something nobody has done before it means we are still in the process of learning. We opened the center a little over six years ago and it’s a journey. We are always learning and doing new things. We create a routine, but part of the routine is asking questions and doing new things. I think the first step would be that the Nalaga’at Center in Israel, in Tel Aviv at the Jaffa Port, would become a learning center where people from all over the world could come. As I said before this is not about Deafness, Blindness, or DeafBlindness; it’s about being imperfect and using the imperfectness to create. So let’s say step one is to really make the center in Tel Aviv sustainable, then step two is having a learning center, and step three is Nalaga’at Centers all over the world.