Going silent to play the hearing-impaired

Pangdemonium play Tribes is about how a family deals with deafness

Cast of Tribes spelling the play’s title by sign language: (from top) Thomas Pang, Ethel Yap, Adrian Pang, Frances Lee, Susan Tordoff and Gavin Yap. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Cast of Tribes spelling the play’s title by sign language: (from top) Thomas Pang, Ethel Yap, Adrian Pang, Frances Lee, Susan Tordoff and Gavin Yap. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Actor Thomas Pang has cultivated a close familiarity with silence, thanks to his involvement in the upcoming Pangdemonium production Tribes.

The 24-years-old final-year student of Lasalle College of the Arts acting programme cuts a reticent figure in between rehearsals, keeping a sage expression even as the other actors take turns to reproduce lines with comically Singlish and Cockney accents.

Could it be he is still in character? After all, he plays Billy, the youngest of three children in a dysfunctional family who rarely bothers to listen to what he has to say.

After the rehearsal, the real reason is revealed to be much simpler - he is wearing hearing devices that block out sound. These were prescribed for him to simulate the experience of moderate deafness. It is one of the many ways he has tried to get into the head of Billy, the deaf protagonist of British playwright Nina Raine's work, Tribes, which won the 2012 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.

The production, directed by Tracie Pang, also features well-known actor Adrian Pang as Billy's politically incorrect father, young actress Ethel Yap as Billy's love interest Sylvia and British actress Susan Tordoff as Billy's mother.

On his sound-muffling devices, the younger Pang - who is not related to husband and wife Adrian and Tracie - says: "Sometimes it can be isolating, but other times, especially in a noisy city like Singapore, it can bring you a sense of calm."

He has been wearing these devices not just during his rehearsals, but on his own time as well. This intensifies his sense of identification with Billy, a gentle young man for whom disability brings with it both serenity as well as loneliness.

"I am not the kind of actor who likes to say, 'I am the character, the character is me', but, in this case, I really do relate to Billy," he says.

While director Tracie Pang has done a lot to ensure that the play portrays the experience of deafness in an authentic way - portions of the show will be performed in sign language - she says that at its heart, the play is about a family and their inability to communicate. "The play is just a glimpse into the deaf community; it does not make any pretensions of being a definitive experience of deafness," explains Adrian.

Nonetheless, Pangdemonium has done its darndest to reach out to the hearing-impaired. Five of the 19 shows will feature sign language interpreters on stage to translate the dialogue for deaf audiences. For these shows, members of the Singapore Association for the Deaf can buy subsidised tickets. These provisions were important to director Pang, who observes that there have been "little opportunities to draw the deaf community into mainstream society".

She adds that "it would be remiss of us to exclude the deaf community in a piece that is about them".

Since January, Thomas Pang and Yap have been taking sign language classes from Ms Lily Goh, the co-founder of ExtraOrdinary Horizons, a social enterprise that aims to promote arts and culture among the deaf.

"We hope that we manage to sign properly on stage," says Yap with a nervous smile. The actress has a brief that is slightly different from her co-star's, as her character Sylvia was born with the ability to hear and becomes deaf only during the course of the play.

Being deaf, like Billy, and going deaf, like Sylvia, are distinctly different. However, the young actors emphasise that they should not be thought of as contrasting ends of a scale.

"Each individual's experience of deafness is different based on his upbringing and whom he interacts with. It is not so much on a scale as it is a complex experience," says Thomas Pang.

The production has also presented unique challenges in terms of staging. For example, Tracie Pang has had to be very particular with the blocking of actors in each scene to ensure that Billy is always able to read the lips of the person talking.

"We can't have conversations where people walk off into another room. This can create a bit of lag in the pacing so we have to find ways to keep the energy level up," she explains.

The director also notes that it is interesting how Raine, the daughter of eminent British poet Craig Raine, uses Billy's own family members to highlight society's prejudices against the deaf community.

Adrian Pang nods in agreement and warns that his character delivers lines about the deaf community which are "frankly, quite horrible".

"There is a lot of love within this family, but strangely enough, a lack of empathy," he muses. "It's sad, but I think there are many families now which are like that."


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