This is a project supported by The City of Melbourne Covid Quick Response Grant. I have interviewed disabled and Deaf artists about how their creative practice has been impacted by Covid-19.
This is an interview with Jess Moody and Ilana Gelbert from Deafferent Theatre. Jess (she/her) is Deaf and an Auslan user; and Ilana (she/her) who is an Auslan user. In their own words: “Formed in 2016 by Jessica Moody and Ilana Charnelle Gelbart, Deafferent Theatre exists as a reaction to the audism that dominates our stages. Deafferent Theatre aims to re-imagine possibilities. We incorporate own bi-cultural methodologies using authentic representation, sign language, and a deaf aesthetic. We create new productions, and repopulate familiar stories with deaf presence. We champion courage, and collaboration.”
Episode one of Deafferent’s My Blood, with English captions, is also included below.
Jess: “Hello! I’m Jess; I’m a theatre-maker, writer, and occasional crafter. I’ve made art since my days in kinder. Officially in a paid capacity? On and off since 2008. My aim is to create opportunity. Opportunity for me to create, grow, and share my art. Theatre-making isn’t a solo pursuit. I love the familial community of theatrical projects.”
Ilana: “Hi! I’m an actor, cabaret singer and songwriter, as well as theatre-maker. Jess and I have been producing theatre work, workshops, presentations and more as Deafferent Theatre since 2016.”
Jess: “We developed Deafferent Theatre in response to the gap in the theatre community for and with deaf folks.”
Ilana: “As both an actor and an Auslan-user, I believe deaf actors bring incredible skills and experience to performance making and I love working bilingually and biculturally to bring performances to life.”
Jess: “As a Deaf artist, barriers range from audism, lack of funding for access, lack of cultural awareness, cultural appropriation of Auslan in the arts, communication barriers, tokenism, inaccessible meetings/productions; fatigue; microaggressions; and I could go on.”
Ilana: “I moved to the UK in mid-2019, so Jess and I had already moved our producing working relationship online via regular video meetings. We were due to present our latest production, Things I’ve Never Said’, in mid-March, and of course had to postpone. On the plus side, as we were both at home and wanting to flex our creative muscles, we used the time in lockdown to create an online web series, My Blood.”
Jess: “We considered our resources, and missed creating together as artists (not producers). With Ilana’s excellent cheerleading, she encouraged me to write and develop the series. Ilana and I performed the two roles of sisters, and the format was a series of video calls that eventually were dropped via social media in real time.”
Ilana: “It has been a fantastic way of engaging with a wider audience who would perhaps not have been able to attend one of our live events.”
Jess: “This opportunity was a great way to flex my writing muscle, and explore what deaf talent would look like in areas other than performance. Creating film is refreshing since there is something tangible in the end to engage with at any time; whereas theatre is momentary, a capture of time before it disappears.”
Ilana: “I have appreciated the larger scope of things available online, as I feel I can still maintain my connection to my artistic community despite the distance. I have been able to attend workshops, PDs and performances that I would have missed out on otherwise.”
Jess: “It depends on the delivery. Most of the content is video which is fortunately accessible for me as I have internet, and the technology to watch the footage on. If the video is captioned, then I’m more likely to engage with it. I’ve also attended some on PDs that have Auslan interpreters present. If the delivery isn’t accessible for me, I don’t bother engaging.
I’m loving the international theatre companies sharing their past productions online; this is an opportunity that I would not have otherwise had before COVID. I’ve attended online exhibitions, webinars, and watched performances.”
Jess: “The biggest challenge is ensuring one’s own needs. Can I sleep under my roof? Can I eat/drink well today? Can I access support if/when I need it? Then it’s a case of personal resources; how and where can I be paid (so I can get what I need); how can I stay healthy (holistically) throughout a pandemic? How can I grieve through this time? All this is an ongoing conversation before one considers even creating art. There’s such a variety of capacity for the artists that creates a variety of different expectations individually and collectively. For me personally, I’m still working. Now isn’t the time for me to completely and radically go on a self-discovery journey. Yet, I am allowing moments of that to occur in light of COVID and the collective pause this world has taken.”
Ilana: “While I acknowledge that there are plenty of challenges that arise from transferring things to digital mediums, I think the biggest challenge for artists right now is feeling the impact on the industry in general and wondering what the future of the arts will be like. It is hard enough to maintain a sustainable arts career under regular circumstances, so to maintain it through a global pandemic feels impossible. There are concerns for the arts industry globally, and it’s happening at a time when we are feeling isolated as well. I worry for the mental health of artists, and whether it is possible to continue to be creative when faced with such uncertainty about the future.”
Jess: “Deliveries and outcomes that were deemed too hard or not possible are suddenly possible in this pivot, which is exciting for those who have advocated for digital deliveries, working from home flexibility, and breaking the traditional modes of work/art. Another opportunity is for our community to finally acknowledge the importance of our essential workers on the frontline. From an artist perspective, I’ve seen some creations that are innovative with their use of limited resources, reaching a wider audience than ever before. The emphasis on art at home whether that’s mindfulness painting, to watching a television series, to listening to music online, to mending clothes highlights the need to ensure that creators can continue to do so during and post COVID.”
Ilana: “I have definitely seen more projects being created from home, with plenty of short films and web series that are being pieced together from shoots in people’s lounge rooms. I have also seen a strong allyship from people working in the arts industry, a desire for greater connection and continuing conversations. As the conversations are now taking place via online platforms, it feels more possible to be a part of no matter where in the world you are, or how comfortable you would be attending these events in person.”
Deafferent’s top 3 tips to artists and arts organisations for making art digitally accessible are:
“Remember that access includes more than the consideration of deaf/disabled audiences;consider ticket prices; technology access; culture and linguistic diversity; gender; socioeconomic statuses; neurodiversity and so on.
An event is not a standalone experience; consider how the audience will receive information/awareness about the event; confirm their attendance; partake in the experience; and leave the experience. For example, you do not want an intended deaf/hard of hearing audience to book their attendance via the phone.
Money talks, so have your budgets tell the story. What are you telling the community through the budgets? Have a line for Access/Inclusion (this applies to all kinds of budgets; operational, project-based; grants; higher level organisational budgets). This will put Access/Inclusion on the table, and hold you accountable to make it happen.”
“Consider access as you are making the work, not after it is published or distributed. Access should be integrated, not an afterthought.
Consider different modes of access – not everyone will be catered to by simply adding captions or an image description.
And finally, don’t be afraid to reach out to organisations that can give you more information on making your work accessible. “
Ilana: “I hope that we continue to think about how we can make art available via different formats and platforms. If anything, this time has shown us how resilient and flexible artists and audiences can be. It would be a shame to revert solely back to one mode of creating and performing work, when we now know it is possible to provide different options that cater to audiences who may have been previously neglected.”
Jess: “I hope for a world with more empathy, more resilience, more cohesion, more grace, more vulnerability, and one that is dismantling of archaic structures (whether that’s through the workforce, arts delivery, education, and representation). I hope for a new normal.”
This project has been curated by Carly Findlay and supported by the City of Melbourne Covid grant.