Interview with theatremaker Jonny Cotsen: “Hearing people are not very good listeners”
Note: This article originally appeared on Bristol 24/7, 9 May 2019.
Created and performed by deaf performer Jonny Cotsen, Louder is Not Always Clearer (Bristol Old Vic, May 13–15) is a moving, passionate multimedia performance, explaining how Jonny negotiates life as a deaf man in a hearing world.
Heather Marks spoke to Jonny about the show and his own journey.
Where did the idea for the show come from?
It’s been on my mind for a long time. I am a visual artist and had an exhibition that was called Louder is Not Always Clearer in 1993. The exhibition was about my identity, and it was the first time I’d been away from my mum.
My mum has always protected me in a way of telling me what’s going on. I thought that was normal, but when I went away to university I thought ‘fuck, how am I going to cope?’ So I started to use my art to express my feelings, and it was when I became a teacher I realised how deaf I was. In the adult world I don’t have to hear everything, but when you’re working in a classroom with young people and they put their hand up, you have to understand them and that’s when I realised how deaf I am.
I went on a discovery finding out about my deafness and I started doing work in the arts as a consultant. It made me realise how much work needed to be done. Some places take on board the need to make a difference, but a lot are ‘in one ear, out the other’.
So I thought, ‘what can I do? Fuck it, I’m going to become a performer and tell them my story!’
[The show’s producers] Mr and Mrs Clark and myself did some workshops with D/deaf communities all over Wales. Louder is Not Always Clearer isn’t just my story, it’s *our* story. The show’s very different to normal mainstream stories, but people connect with it I think.
What have been the best and the most challenging parts of making this show?
The best thing has to be talking to the D/deaf community. We did a lot of workshops inviting D/deaf communities to have a chat and the question we’d always ask is, ‘what do you hate, or what do you love, about hearing people?’
All the conversations I’ve had have shown me we’re all connected in many ways in the response we get from hearing people, and I took that on board into the production.
The hardest thing about making the show has been that, as a deaf person it’s been difficult for me to do physical movement, listen and speak all at the same time. But Gareth [Clark] wanted me to push myself, because he wanted the vulnerability to happen inside me.
A lot of my friends see me as a confident person, which I am, but they don’t see the vulnerability inside me because I constantly have to pay attention wherever I go, to lipread, to make myself known. I do this by being confident, but as soon as the conversation goes, I don’t know what’s going on and the vulnerability is there, I just don’t show it. But as a performer, vulnerability is important so that’s why Gareth pushes me.
And learning how to sing!
You won an award from disability arts commissioners Unlimited for your project The Hearing Hearing Aids (HHA). Tell us more.
The Hearing Hearing Aids draws on the Social Disability Model and is an immersive project which uses your senses and technology to explore how you communicate and engage with others.
I realised how much empathy comes from the audience in Louder is Not Always Clearer, and how much they are taken on this journey of what’s it like to be deaf, but I wanted to go deeper. The key aim of the HHA is to get hearing people to listen, to learn how to have a conversation. How do we communicate? What’s the best way of communicating?
Hearing people are not very good listeners. They don’t know how to hold eye contact very well, they’re not very tactile, and they’re constantly on their phones — but they hear. They hear sounds and are taking on that information, but D/deaf people have to look at the lips and process what the sounds actually are.
The HHA will be designed so that when the audience looks at the performer, the sound will become clear; if they look away, the sound becomes distorted. It is a fun, playful piece where you will feel something… what that will be is up to you. Fortunately, I am a resident at the Pervasive Media Studio with a team around me to create that experience through technology; I’m in partnership with Watershed for the development, and with the Riverfront in Newport to present, hopefully in April next year.
What advice would you give to young deaf people aspiring to get into theatre?
Be fearless. Don’t be afraid to fail. At 43 years old I became a performer — I’d never been on stage before. I have failed many times, but I’ve always grown stronger.
Louder is Not Always Clearer showed at Bristol Old Vic from May 13–15. To read the full article, visit https://www.bristol247.com/culture/theatre/interview-jonny-cotsen/
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