Nalaga'at theatre: Blind man's loaf Does baking bread on stage count as theatre? Lyn Gardner reports on a riveting show by deaf-blind actorsI'm sitting in a restaurant in Jaffa, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, unable to see the food on my plate. I reach for my drink but I can't find the glass. Clumsily, I put some food in my mouth instead. It feels strange and unidentifiable, some kind of fish perhaps. Around me, I can hear people chattering, but I can't see them and they can't see me. I feel helpless, invisible and vulnerable.
This restaurant, at the Nalaga'at theatre centre, serves all its meals in complete darkness. I'm relieved when I hear my waitress approach, her soothing voice checking I'm OK. For her, darkness is normal, whether she's at work or not. Blind since birth, she negotiates the chairs and tables with unstumbling ease. She's running a half-marathon at the weekend, she tells me, as I struggle to the exit.
Nalaga'at (Hebrew for "do touch") is a remarkable place. As well as the Blackout restaurant, there's Cafe Kapish, run by deaf waiters. Situated in an old warehouse overlooking the Mediterranean, Nalaga'at is the world's only professional deaf-blind ensemble. All its actors are deaf and blind, often because of a genetic disorder called Usher syndrome, which results in acute deafness at birth, followed by gradual loss of vision. As a result, most are non-verbal, communicating only through touch. Yet they still manage to make extraordinary theatre, under the eye of company founder Adina Tal, a successful sighted and hearing actor-turned-director.
It has been said that Nalaga'at's show Not By Bread Alone, which arrives in London next month along with simplified versions of the restaurant and cafe, is a test of its audience's humanity. I think it's a test of theatre itself: the way good work can communicate across the boundaries of darkness and silence. As actor Itzik Hanuna says in the show: "Welcome to our darkness and silence. We invite you to share our everyday lives together. In the darkness, you may encounter things you would prefer to forget."
In the UK, theatre created by companies of deaf or blind artists seldom reaches a wider audience. But Not By Bread Alone – a show that lasts as long as it takes the cast to make bread, which is then shared with the audience – has been playing several nights a week in Jaffa since 2007. Performances are almost always sold out. There's something deeply touching about this cast of beautiful dreamers: during the show, they remind us that, although they cannot see and hear, we all have the same ambitions and yearnings. The point is that, to really live your life to the full, you cannot live by bread alone. They demand more, both for and of themselves.
"People come because it's a good show, not because coming makes them a good person," says Tal. "In the beginning, some thought they were doing us a favour by coming. Some people asked if tickets were tax deductible, to which I'd reply, 'Is going to the theatre ever tax deductible? No – so why should this be?' Sometimes they would get angry when they discovered they weren't doing us a favour but that we were doing them a favour. Even now, some people are embarrassed because they find it difficult to be given a gift by people who are deaf and blind."
Tal was more surprised than anyone to find herself working with deaf-blind actors; she says she is interested in theatre, not social work. At the end of the 1990s, she was asked to give workshops to a deaf-blind social group. "I kept saying no but they kept asking, so eventually I went. Nobody could see me or hear me. They gave me a coffee and I put it down and somebody stood on it. I couldn't imagine how we might begin to work together. So we sat in a circle and squeezed hands and tapped knees and tried to find a way of communicating. At every meeting I learned something new, but it was frustrating."
Tal wasn't the only one to find the going tough. "After three months of sitting in a circle, one actor said, 'This is stupid – how can we ever be actors?'" Tal wasn't sure they could, but another member of the group, Yuri Oshorov, threw down a challenge to her. "He told me he wanted to do Gorky. I said, 'You are deaf-blind and non-verbal. How are you going to do Gorky?' He said, 'That's your problem – you're the director.'"
They didn't attempt Gorky, but Tal did start them on a piece that would become Nalaga'at's first show, Light is Heard in Zig Zag, which tried to open up the deaf-blind experience to hearing and seeing audiences. "Other people can do Gorky better than us," says Tal. "But what they can't do is what we can do. The strength of Nalaga'at is in being us. That's what we do really well."
Tal soon discovered that there are some advantages to working with deaf-blind actors. "Because they can't see each other, they can't imitate each other. So every action they make is very personal. If you ask them to mime eating grapes, you get 11 entirely different ways of eating grapes. That wouldn't happen with seeing actors. They can't be like anyone else. Nobody has ever seen Marlon Brando or Al Pacino act. They can't copy. That's why they are great."
It's also what makes Not By Bread Alone such a compelling, idiosyncratic and joyous theatre experience. As the audience shares the fresh bread, communication starts to take place – a mad melee of chatter, sign language and glove language (each finger joint stands for a letter). Not darkness and silence, but something shared and understood.
"The audience I like," says Hanuna, "is the audience who don't just thank me and tell me they enjoyed it, but the ones who try to talk to me as I have tried to talk to them on stage. The ones who have not just seen or heard the show, but felt it." Lyn Gardner, The Guardian 21.6.10
Not By Bread Alone “We all have visions and dreams, we do not live by bread alone.” So begins the remarkable Not By Bread Alone by deaf-blind theatre ensemble Nalaga’at. In the time that it takes to bake a loaf of bread (a loaf they invite you to share with them afterwards) the 11 members of this company reveal their desires and frustrations in an event that is tenderly defiant. It's also very funny with some mischievous clowning propelling this confidently performed and stylishly staged piece along. Because although all these performers are deaf-blind, there is nothing to be patronised here. Nalaga’at artistic director Adina Tal and the company have created a production that would impress under ordinary circumstances; as it is this piece is extraordinary.
If theatre is about communication, here we have an ensemble so in tune with one another and operating within a communicative system so complex and subtle to the outside eye as to be positively virtuosic. Taking into account each actor’s needs and abilities, the performers and their interpreters 'speak' to each other through a sequence of drum beats, sign language, vibrations and touch to create vibrant and visually dexterous scenes. It's a testimony to the human potential to work together to achieve the seemingly impossible (a word Tal refuses to acknowledge).
At a centre in Tel Aviv, Nalaga’at houses not just the theatre but two cafés as well: Café Kapish, where you interact with deaf waiters; and a pitch black restaurant where you are served by blind waiters. LIFT artistic director Mark Ball has wisely chosen to transport all of the above to the Artsdepot and it is a vital part of this experience. Having sat, 10 minutes earlier, in the pitch black, fumbling about trying to do the simplest things like eating and drinking, it gives you a palpable sense of the worlds our performers inhabit, albeit in the smallest possible way. There is also something inherently joyful in eating and drinking in these exceptional spaces, with these exceptional people and it is a joy that permeates this inspirational and warm show.
Nalaga’at means ‘do touch’ in Hebrew and as we are invited to go up to share the bread with the performers and translators at the end, a true act of theatrical communion is performed as appreciation is shown not only through clapping, but touch. We are reaching through the boundaries of darkness and light and communicating clearly with one another. Honour Bayes, Whats on stage.com
BAT-SHEVA RAVENSERI: In the beginning it was a dream of mine to be an actress. But I didn't really believe that blind and deaf people could be actors. But now I'm so happy because my dream came true.'
Deaf and blind, and performing on stage. Every move, every gesture, they have had to learn by touch and years of rehearsals.
Of course they can't rely on words to give them cues. They have to memorise everything, or rely on vibrations of music, the bang of a drum. Many of the group have ushers syndrome. Born without hearing they then lose their sight, and often, hope.
ADINA TAL, Nalaga'at Theatre Company: 'It basically changed their lives. When we started to work, I believe some of them thought about suicide, because they could not accept the fact that they were getting blind. Now it's an ensemble, like every ensemble, they fight they get angry if someone hides them on stage or something like that. And they are stars, knowing that they are giving to society.'
How do you begin to understand this isolation? Well this theatrical experience begins in the lobby. The waiters are deaf. If you want to eat, it's a crash course in some basic sign language. This though is only the beginning. Here a blind waitress leads you into a pitch-black cafe. Unnerving, bewildering.
AUDIENCE: 'It's amazing. You can't really imagine what it's like, until, you know.'
This then is far more than just a night at the theatre. It's a chance to share a world without sound, without light. David Sillito, BBC News
First Blind And Deaf Theatre Co Hits the UK The world’s first blind and deaf theatre company is bringing its critically-acclaimed play to the London stage for the first time.In Not By Bread Alone the actors - from the Israeli Nalaga’at Company - share stories as they knead, leaven and bake bread onstage.
Using touch, mime, sign language and music they create a cabaret-style show which is as funny as it is thought-provoking.
And while most actors' top concern is remembering their lines, when the entire cast is deaf or blind priorities are somewhat different.
Actress Bat Sheva Ravenseri, who is deaf and blind, says rehearsals can be hectic.
She said: "In the beginning sometimes the director would yell at us and sometimes we would make mistakes.
"There was a lot of chaos, but finally after a long time everyone knows how to do it and where they should be on the stage."
Production staff had to devise innovative ways to interact with the cast.
Adina Tal, artistic director, said: "We learned to communicate with the drum. The actors couldn’t see or hear the drum but still it cues the show.
"They felt the vibrations so they would know they had to do something.
"We also taught them songs by holding their hands to a loudspeaker and feeling the vibrations and learning the rhythm.
"We had to be inventive and it was hard work, but we got there."
Through the stories told onstage, the production aims to show that people aren't defined by their disability.
Tal hopes it will give audiences a fresh take on both theatre and disability.
She said: "One of the hopes for me and all of us coming here to London is that maybe something will grow from it.
"Also knowing that something like this is possible shows there is no such thing as impossible."
The play took two years to make and has been seen by 150,000 people.
And it seems to be going down well with London theatre-goers.
Jimmy Jameson said: "It was mind-blowing actually - really inspiring.
"I came out and I felt that my eyes had been opened to something not just to the actors and how they communicated but what is in front of our eyes that we don't see normally." Lucy McDonald, Sky News
To Adina and the whole Nalaga'at ensemble,
I was treated to your performance last night in Finchley as a birthday
present, and it was the best present I could possibly have asked for. Your
performance was accomplished, imaginative, beautifully performed and
deeply, deeply moving. And that is not even mentioning the extra insights
provided by the Blackout Bar and Kapish Cafe, both of which were wonderful
experiences. My best friend is blind. We went together and we both came
out having had an amazingly thought-provoking evening. I really hope you
can come back to London again soon, because I know you could have done
many, many more packed out performances.
If not, I'll have to come to Jaffa instead!
I have just seen Not By Bread Alone in London. I was moved to tears, it was so thought provoking and honest and yet positive too. I only attended because someone else couldn't be there - to think I might not have witnessed this. Truly, one of the most significant pieces of theatre I have ever witnessed. Please visit London again soon, and best wishes to everyone involved.
David Gold 2010-07-14
my wife and i have just been to see not by bread alone
fantastic experience communicated with Itshak woundreful man all cast
brillant staff at cafe capish brilliant thankyou tried to see you in Jaffa
2 years ago but my wife became ill so we had no time to see you.
Henry Poser 2010-07-14
Just returned from a great dining experience in the Blackbox with our party of 11. We enjoyed the food and the experience more than we can express. Elli, our waiter, was fun, kind and very attentive. Thank you all for making our evening meaningful and oh so memorable!
Dr. Sheila 2010-07-07
Yesterday in The Arts Depot in London I sat in the BlackOut Cafe and then saw Not by Bread Alone
Both experiences opened my mind and reafirmed my belief in the human spirit and that anything is possible.
Our waitress Galina was a joy and all the actors had such wonderful stage presence and talent.Everyone should go.
Can't wait to visit the centre when next in Israel
I recently saw Not by Bread Alone performance while I was visiting Israel
and I loved it! It was the best performance I have ever seen.
Keep up the amazing work!