Clin d’Oeil: Deaf Arts Extravaganza

Four smiling people are standing together in a row, wearing stage makeup and dressed in squidgy-looking, structured, brightly-coloured costumes intended to represent bodily functions. From left to right, the first person is wearing a yellow costume, second is purple, third is beige and fourth is red
Amygdala, Lymphocyte, Cortex and Sanguis from “Jonas and his Body” by Teater Manu

Clin d’Oeil is a biennial 4-day extravaganza of deaf arts, spread across seven cultural venues in the French city of Reims. Attracting a global audience of 13,000, the festival programme includes: performances, street theatre, an exposition of 71 artistic and business stalls, an art exhibition and Film Awards ceremony, not to mention the renowned Deaf Party taking over the Festival Village at night.

A long line of people waiting to watch performances at the CirquePeople lining up to watch performances at the Cirque

It is a real thrill to encounter the sheer range of sign languages, conversing openly in public and seemingly taking over the city, particularly considering its long history of suppression – where local businesses are unfazed, readily adapting to gesture and other visual methods of communication.

A crowd of people talking and dancing fill the photo with a large outdoor stage at the back left and a large tv screen on the right.The Deaf Party

Interestingly Clin d’Oeil defines itself as “NOT a Deaf Festival”, emphasising a need to bridge “two worlds separated by a language barrier.” Its aims to challenge perceptions of deafness and preconceived ideas of a “closed-community” by inviting hearing people to immerse themselves in deaf culture, discover sign language, and enjoy arts that are accessible to all.

Accessibility in this case required that all works were either completely visual, or bilingual – specified as a combined use of an oral and sign language, for instance theatrical production “Le Tabou“ merged spoken English with LSF (French Sign Language).

However one drawback of this was that, despite the abundance of French and English subtitles for the cinema screenings, there was a distinct lack of captioning for the live performances. This is a surprising decision that one could argue excludes those who do not fit neatly into either groups of being fluent sign language users, or having perfect hearing.

Considering that for the majority of deaf and hard-of-hearing access to cultural events is gained by captioning or subtitles, perhaps it would have been more illuminating for hearing audiences to have experienced the same, gaining an awareness of its evident advantages (and areas to improve upon.)

It was certainly a refreshing experience to enjoy a diverse programme where sign language is proudly centre stage, eliminating the usual post-show-crick-in-the-neck from flicking back and forth between the action onstage, and access provisions off to the side!

Despite not having captions, it was interesting to note the different approaches to tackling this need for voice, whether translation provided by voice-over offstage, the inclusion of a hearing actor responding naturally to the signs whilst in character, or opting to forgo language altogether.

Personal highlights of the festival included:

  • Zymanther’s ‘The Nu Visual’, a spectacle of supreme Visual Vernacular* (VV) skills transporting audiences across time encountering key moments of history, from the evolution of mankind to projected events in the future (featuring a spot on impersonation of Trump!) all squeezed into 45 minutes.
  • The family-friendly show ‘Jonas and his body’ by Teater Manu (see banner image), whose creative use of animation, balloons and colourful costumed characters amusingly answered those awkward questions about bodily functions!
  • ‘Le Joueur d’echecs’, a haunting non-verbal performance examining the nature of talent, borne from obsession, escapism and the aftermath of torture. The two performers successfully prove that language is not a prerequisite for the conveyance of strong emotions, ideas and powerful storytelling.

Overall the quality of the performances were sky high, thanks in part to the competitive selection process narrowing just over a hundred applicants to 17 shows in the official programme. I was particularly impressed by the diversity of the programme, ensuring there was something for everyone, from clowns and magic to poignant tragedies, solo performances and fully fledged companies.

On top of which the beauty of International Sign** enables, and encourages, new artistic collaborations between countries. As demonstrated by the seamless alliance between Riksteatern Tyst TeaterTeater Manu and Teatteri Totti, from Sweden, Norway and Finland, collaborating for the first time to perform ‘Bernardas Hus’ (The House of Bernarda Alba). Each acknowledged the advantages of this unique partnership as an opportunity to work and learn from each other, plus the value of being able to combine tours to sell-out audiences.

This spirit of integration and learning from different deaf cultures around the world is also reflected in the Clin d’Oeil tradition of inviting a guest country to join the programme. Previous guests include Russia, Mexico and Japan, with this year’s invitation extended to Brazil, adding another distinct cultural strand to the atmosphere, whether sipping caipirinhas to Samba and Capoeira demonstrations, enjoying signed poetry, or attending ‘The City of God: a case of conflict’, a graphic theatrical performance depicting the daily lives and issues concerning young deaf Brazilians from the favelas.

A line of people stand on the stage facing the audience as they take a bowPerformers of ‘The City of God’ take a bow!

It was heartening to discover that the 12 deaf actors were all  volunteers across different states of Brazil, managing to attend 16 rehearsals in the space of six months, reliant on the support of families, local deaf associations and donations online, all united under the one common goal: to attend the Clin d’Oeil Festival.

In short, it is not surprising how Clin d’Oeil has maintained its success and grown in popularity since being founded 15 years ago. Its appeal to multicultural, multilingual audiences forges strong international friendships that ensures the return of regulars, on top of welcoming new faces. Such a jubilant celebration of deaf talents further endorses a powerful message that “Deaf Can!” [do anything] – Who wouldn’t want to join in?

The cast members all dressed in white are stood on the stage in a line saying cheersCheers at the end of ‘Bernarda’s Hus

*Visual Vernacular is a theatrical art form using physical expression to tell a story; it does not use sign language, but gesture, facial expressions and body movements to create a visual story.

**International Sign is not a sign language in its own right but an amalgamation of different sign languages into one, typically used in international gatherings where people do not share a common sign language.

All images c. Emily Crowe

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