Imagine a world of darkness and silence. Now, think how it would be to live like that every day. The experience of what it’s really like — the thoughts, struggles and emotions of a deaf-blind person — is what a unique Israeli theater group is sharing via its latest production, “Not by Bread Alone.”
Nalaga’at (literally, “Do touch”) is the only deaf-blind theater ensemble in the world. Housed since 2007 in a renovated shipping hangar on Jaffa’s Old Port, the Nalaga’at Center also houses Café Kapish and the restaurant Blackout. Immediately upon entering, one will notice a type of atmosphere different from that of the usual theater reception. All the waiters employed at Café Kapish are deaf; they greet customers with warm smiles, hand them menus that teach the basics of sign language — “Please,” “Thank you” and “Goodbye” — and before long, people are ordering their cappuccinos without saying a word. At Blackout, diners order and eat in complete darkness, assisted by blind waiters. This allows the customers to focus on taste, smell and touch.
Those senses are later intrinsic to the performance as the audience is taken on a tour through the lives of the 11 deaf-blind individuals onstage — all in the time span it takes to bake bread. During the performance (which is accompanied by Hebrew, Arabic and English supertitles), the wonderful smell of baking bread wafts around the theater, emanating from six ovens that form part of the set. As the show begins, the actors, all wearing chef costumes, prepare the dough and introduce themselves. Only three of the 11 can speak; the rest use interpreters. If that weren’t hard enough, the group members also have to translate among Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, English and even Eritrean in order to communicate with one another.
Itzak Hanuna, who was born blind and went deaf at age 11 after falling ill with meningitis, uses glove language, where every joint on his hand symbolizes a Hebrew letter. He introduces himself by shouting, “If you told me a stunning blonde was around, it wouldn’t mean a thing to me,” and goes on to say that although deaf-blind people cannot see or hear, they all dream.
It’s this world of dreams and memories that forms the narrative thread of the show: Zipora Malks’s dreams of seeing a film in the cinema acted out by the rest of the group; Rafi Aku’a dreams of being a magician, and Yuri Oshorov realizes his dream of getting married under a chupah . At times, it’s easy to forget that the people onstage cannot see or hear, as Genia Shtasky plays a Russian folk song on the piano, Marc Yarosky plays an accordion and the whole troop performs a choreographed dance while holding umbrellas.
The title of the show comes from Devarim 8:3: “He fed you the manna that neither you nor your forefathers knew, in order to inform you that not by bread alone does man live, rather by the entire expression of God’s word.” These words, later famously quoted by Jesus, provided the title of Vladimir Dudintsev’s 1956 novel depicting corrupt Soviet bureaucracy. But Nalaga’at’s show has little to do with politics or religion. In fact, the only time God is mentioned is when one of the stars of the group, Bat Sheva Ravenseri, remembers asking her father why she is deaf and blind, to which her father replies, “It comes from God.”
Nalaga’at, a not-for-profit organization that works with people who have Usher syndrome — a common genetic condition in which a person is born deaf and acquires blindness — exists in Israel this year against all odds, overcoming cultural and financial barriers. Amazingly, Nagala’at is a commercially successful organization that generates most of its own funding, with only a third coming from the government and the rest from individuals and corporations.
Adina Tal, who was born in Switzerland and moved to Israel at the age of 20, created this groundbreaking group. Nalaga’at began in 2002 as a workshop for deaf-blind people, but soon the group’s first production, “Light Is Heard in Zig Zag,” became a resounding success. “When I began working with the performers, many of them were very depressed,” Adina recalled. “They had found no enjoyment in life, and some even talked about suicide. Now they feel they have something to live for, because they have the ability to give to others.”
“People come here thinking they are doing their good deed of the week,” added Arieh Rosen, Nalaga’at’s director of development. “But afterwards, people come up to us, the actors and the waiters, to give the most heartfelt, sincere thanks.”
Indeed, at the start of the show, spectators who can hear and see feel pity for the actors. But by the end, the performers’ empowerment has inspired the audience.
In 2002, Tal was asked to do a workshop with a dozen deaf-blind people who have Usher syndrome. Her first taste of deaf-blindness was when she walked into the room and nobody noticed. At the time, she was looking to make a change to her life, but she had no idea that it would come in the form of a not-for-profit organization and theater group.
Rosen spent six years living in London, where he worked as a theater producer. He just happened to see Nalaga’at’s first production and joined the group while the center was being renovated.
To date, more than 70,000 people have
visited Nalaga’at in Jaffa. The group has also given sold-out performances to enthusiastic audiences in Toronto, Montreal, Boston and New York, and even performed at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva.
“We took them to the most amazing venues around the world,” Rosen said. “Being with 11 deaf-blind individuals and dealing with security at Ben Gurion International Airport was like a play in itself!”
Rehearsals for “Not by Bread Alone” spread over the two years the hangar was being renovated. While rehearsing, Tal discovered that a drum and balloon could help the deaf-blind actors. After being taught to recognize the very delicate vibrations of a drumbeat through the skin of a balloon, the actors gradually learned how to take their cues.
The only drawback of such a production is that the stagehands and interpreters become part of the onstage performance. Although dressed in black, the stagehands occasionally distract viewers from the actors, and sometimes the spectator does not know whether to look at the stage, supertitle screen or interpreter. Attention is a privilege, however, and this, a theater of myriad focuses, reminds us of that.
At Nalaga’at, a new (or, you could say, ancient) form of communication is being developed. It is the communication of ideas, dreams and, of course, touch. “It’s beyond words,” Rosen said. “People always find ways of communicating with one another.” An example of this is at the end of the show, when the actors receive taps from interpreters who translate the applause of the audience. Even though the performers cannot see or hear the clapping of hands, the audience’s appreciation is communicated.
To build on its success, Nalaga’at is planning two international tours for 2010. There are also two new productions in the pipeline, one of which will be aimed at children. But already, “Not by Bread Alone” has a childlike innocence rarely found in modern theater. The play demonstrates the gifts that the deaf-blind have to give to society, and shows that even in a world of darkness and silence, there is humor and hope.
“Not by Bread Alone” runs until April 30. For more information, see www.nalagaat.org.il .
Daniel Savery is a writer, poet and freelance journalist from London who lives in Tel Aviv. He blogs at www.danscribe.com .