With stories drawn from real-life testimonies collected through 40-hours of interviews with Deaf people from all over the UK, Ad Infinitum presents Extraordinary Wall [of Silence], a new production shedding light on a relatively undocumented history of oppression experienced by Deaf people. Helen, Alan, and Graham are told they are impaired and need fixing. As they begin to question the world around them, three powerful coming-of-age stories unfold, uniting them in a struggle against violence, ignorance and oppression. Connected through a shared past, they are transported to a crucial moment in 1880 that would impair the way the world views D/deaf people for over a century. The production premiered at Bristol Old Vic in October 2019 and now tours to seven arts venues across England.
The stories of these people have largely gone undocumented as sign languages don’t exist in written form, and access to video was, until recently, not widespread. Extraordinary Wall [of Silence] shares these stories in a bilingual performance in British Sign Language and English, using them as a starting point to explore in-depth a culture under threat from fear, prejudice and ignorance.
In 1880, The Milan Conference banned the use of sign language in schools all over the world. The conference declared that an oral education was superior to manual (signed) education, and put Deaf children through an abusive regime of speech therapy to make them speak, ‘hear’ and lip read. The decision prevailed for over a century despite decades of poor results, including the statistic that over 70% of UK Deaf children left school with a reading age of 8.
The show is performed by three Deaf actors and one hearing actor. Ad Infinitum are once again collaborating with Deaf actor Matthew Gurney, who starred in their show Light. Matthew said: “The Milan Conference had a huge impact on D/deaf people’s lives and communities; Deaf adults leaving school were left without power, authority and little ability to communicate in either English or sign language. Since the Milan Conference a slow but steady rebellion has been rising, which has gone unnoticed in worldwide and national media. We want to battle the ‘silent voices’ who continue to push for the Oralist method, and refuse to listen to us, and to fight for our D/deaf human rights in all areas of life.”
Director George Mann said, “Extraordinary Wall [of Silence] is the result of six years of collaboration between Ad Infinitum and a group of exceptional Deaf artists, academics and leaders. The three inter-linking stories of the piece are drawn from real-life testimonies collected through 40-hours of interviews. We hope that these stories will give audiences an insight into Deaf culture, language and history that challenge and examine more profoundly societal perspectives on Deaf people.”