Improvising in Sign Language and Gestures
The Sign Language Theatre Laboratory is a practicebasedartistic research group that began operating in2014 as part of the Grammar of the Body (GRAMBY) Interdisciplinary Research Project led by University ofHaifa linguist Wendy Sandler and funded by the European Research Council. Most of the nine Lab actorsare deaf and hardofhearing,and all of them use Israeli Sign Language (ISL) on a daily basis. We use ISLcombined with expressive gestures and physical theatre in order to develop a form of visual theatre that isaimed at both deaf and hearing spectators. Improvisation is our principal method of operation. We play withthe mimetic component of ISL, highlighting facial expressions and body language, and experimenting withgestures that are normally performed and understood by hearing and deaf people alike. We are inspired bydeaf culture as well as by the work of 20th Century theatre experimentalists such as Meyerhold, Artaud,Grotowski and the Living Theatre. We also draw from the language of two forms of traditional Indian dancetheatre, Kutiyattam and Kathakali, which employ combinations of codified hand movements (mudras) andfacial expressions (rasas) to present the dramaticaction. When our group was introduced to these genres in a workshop, we discovered a surprising affinitybetween the signs of traditional Indian theatre and those used in ISL. From this potpourri we devise ourtheatrical materials. We improvise within certain movement routines and exercises, realizing that free groupimprovisation can only stem from clear, at times even rigid structures and rules. Also necessary, of course,are “comprehensive listening”, which deaf actors practice visually, the ability to lead and be led, and finally,the skill of contributing to a collective creation. These will be demonstrated in my presentation through ananalysis of a few short videos of our work.