If Adina Tal knew what she was doing, none of this might have worked.
That’s what she says about her initial efforts to conduct an acting workshop with participants who are both deaf and blind.
“If I really understood what it means to be deaf-blind, I would never be able to get angry at them, to be demanding,” Tal, speaking recently from her home in Jerusalem, says of the 12 deaf-blind participants who were in that workshop. “I was surrounded by some social workers, and they kept telling me that I’m asking too much from them, that I’m not nice enough. But I feel that it was great for them that someone was demanding.”
The Swiss-born stage director, who immigrated to Israel in 1973, had been asked to lead similar workshops previously and declined. (“I’m not Mother Teresa,” she said, explaining her reticence in a TEDx Talk last year.) But eventually, in 1999, she gave it a shot.
The workshop was meant to last two months. Fifteen years later, you might say it’s still going on — though it has since evolved into a professional acting company, Nalaga’at, with a permanent home in Tel Aviv.
This troupe, made up of 11 participants from the original dozen, made its US debut in New York City last year with a 21-show run of its original piece “Not By Bread Alone.” It’s the group’s second piece of devised theater; each took years of preparation, and the actors perform them at home in Tel Aviv and on international tours. Presented by ArtsEmerson, “Not By Bread Alone” is now headed to the Emerson Paramount Center Mainstage in a production that begins performances on Tuesday.
It’s structured around a universally understood ritual: baking and sharing bread. Throughout the one-act performance, actors knead and then bake loaves onstage while taking turns presenting vignettes from their lives and imaginations. The scenes vary in mood, from a monologue about a lonely holiday to the comical depiction of a hair salon visit. Some of the actors are nonverbal; an onstage translator, and supertitles, help audiences follow along.
“I believe that while the bread is made onstage, a tolerance and love are made between us and the audience,” actress Bat-Sheva Rabansari says by e-mail, through a translator. “The audience gets to know us, our talents and our world. I believe that because of that, the next time they will meet a deaf-blind person they will be able to see the person and not the disability.”
Many of the actors have Usher syndrome, a genetic condition that causes deafness at birth, followed by gradually encroaching blindness. Some speak with traditional sign language, some don’t. When they gather to work together, each actor needs a translator. Onstage, the bass frequencies of a drum assist the actors with cues. In one emotionally potent sequence, an actor is led across the stage, his outstretched hand passed from one actor to the next.
“Not By Bread Alone” has also taken these first-time actors to London, South Korea, and Australia. Each performance concludes with the audience invited onstage to meet the actors and eat the bread. This is a crucial part of the process; it gives the actors their first contact with their audience.
“We cannot really understand what people have thought about the show. Some of us cannot even know that there are people at the theater. By touching the audience, we can feel them, their applause, and their reaction,” Rabansari says.
The Nalaga’at Center in Tel Aviv includes a theater, cafe staffed by the deaf and hearing-impaired, and a restaurant called BlackOut where patrons are served by blind waiters in a completely dark room. It’s all part of an overall effort to help theatergoers better relate to the world of the performers.
But Tal is adamant that their chief goal is to create good theater. Early on in the troupe’s life, she realized she had work to do in adjusting people’s expectations when some patrons asked if their tickets were tax-deductible. The essential exchange that happens in the theater, Tal says, is for audiences to receive something from the performers, not the other way around. “It’s not me that came to give to them,” Tal says, speaking for the audience, “it’s me that came to get from them.”
This was not the attitude of early audiences, before Nalaga’at earned a reputation based on its performances.
“I’ll tell you the truth, I had to force my family and friends to come,” Tal remembers. “Outside they’d be laughing and everything was fine, but then they came into the show and it was like going to a funeral. People would sit with very sad faces and look at the clock. Then after 15 or 20 minutes, they realized something is wrong here — it’s a good show.”
Since the troupe began touring internationally, Tal says, audiences are more likely to enter the theater expecting to be entertained, rather than just supporting a good cause.
“The whole event is conceived from the standpoint of an artistic experience,” ArtsEmerson director of artistic programs David Dower says, “which is part of why it’s such a surprise and so rewarding — everything about the look of it, the shape of the story, and then the virtuosity of the performers.”
Though the performance is centered on people who are otherwise isolated sharing their inner lives, Tal says there’s much for the audience to gain.
“I think it’s very much about the hope that says there’s no limit to human spirit. All of us can change, can accept our own imperfectness, can accept imperfectness in other people, and basically can change reality,” Tal says. “If the actors have the courage to leave the silence and darkness they used to be in — to become stars — maybe I can have the courage to change my life, too.”