The Stage Where Silence Holds Sway

For MT"Wings" co-director Anna Bashenkova said the newspapers used in the production's sets and costumes are "symbols for freedom."
Acting is an ambitious undertaking for anyone. But when the challenge is taken up by deaf students who use neither sign nor spoken language on stage, it becomes that much more difficult. Nevertheless, a troupe of student actors from the city's Specialized Institute for the Arts has dodged the obvious pitfalls and risen to the challenge -- with their staging of a physical-theater adaptation of the Richard Bach's 1970 novella "Jonathan Livingston Seagull."

Until this production -- a graduation requirement for the fifth-year students who make up the majority of its cast -- the show's 14 deaf actors didn't have much choice about whether or not to speak on stage. In previous shows, they had always signed their dialogue, with simultanous translation from signed to spoken Russian for hearing audience members.

But this show is one entirely without words.

More than a year ago, the deaf acting troupe began work on "Seagull" with a trio of co-directors -- two actors and a teacher from the institute, none of whom accept payment for their work on the play. The group of three -- Anna Bashenkova, an actress at the Dzhigarkhanyan Theater; Yekaterina Migitsko, an actress at the Lenkom Theater; and teacher Alexander Martyanov -- together adapted the book into a play, which they named "Wings For Everyone."

"The deaf should speak their own language, and our goal is to show that they can communicate with all audiences and succeed just like other actors," said Bashenkova, whose parents are deaf. "'Jonathan Livingston Seagull' is a story everyone can enjoy: the deaf and the hearing alike."

Bashenkova said the trio chose "Seagull" because its plot speaks about the plight of the disabled -- and particularly of the deaf. Bach's novella is the story of a seagull that is scolded by the other members of his flock for his nonconformist tendencies: He is less interested in food than in "flight," a word that is used synonymously in the book for individual freedom.

"The deaf wish for freedom, just like the seagull that wants to fly," Bashenkova said. "It's a play about choices, family, happiness. We've tried to do the play so that everyone can understand it. We don't need words."

The Specialized Institute for the Arts is the only school of its kind in Russia, a training ground in the performing and visual arts for the deaf, blind and physically handicapped.

"During the Soviet era, the deaf had no opportunities -- and the same is true today. They are not considered people," Bashenkova said. "Sometimes, the deaf are able to attend university, but, afterward, there is nowhere for them to work. In films produced in the West, for example, deaf actors play deaf characters, but in Russia, even deaf actors are not cast to play the deaf."

It was against this background that the troupe conceived of its heretofore new-to-Russia brand of wordless physical theater.

"There is no other [Russian] theater working in this genre," Migitsko said.

The genre is a blend of physical theater, dance and mime that uses the particular strengths of deaf actors -- visual perception, body language and an alternate cadence unique to the deaf -- while eliminating words altogether. Migitsko coaches the students in movement, and in using their facial expressions and body language to communicate story and emotion to the audience.

"The actors don't hear music and they can't dance like the hearing, but they do follow their own internal rhythm, their own language," Migitsko said. "To teach, I show them [what to do]. And, because they can't hear, their visual understanding and their memories are much more precise."

The show's lead roles are played by Natalya Khokhlova as Joe (Jonathan in the book), Sergei Semenkov as The Teacher, Mikhail Matyushin as Nobody and Alexei Rayev as The Leader. The other 10 members of the cast play seagulls.

Khokhlova and Semenkov are the only members of the cast who lost their hearing as children; the others were born deaf.

The actors use their hands and bodies to mimic actions such as flowers blossoming, the sun rising or birds taking flight. The show is performed with musical accompaniment, in addition to sound produced by the actors, who throughout the play strike the set's several large boxes and crush newspapers with their hands.

The set is composed entirely of boxes and newspapers, and each audience member is given a crushable newspaper of his own before the house lights are dimmed. Throughout most of the performance, cast members wear shirts covered in strips of newspaper.

"The newspaper is a symbol for freedom -- for information, for power, for data," Bashenkova said. "All of the things that we did not have in the Soviet Union, and all of the things that the deaf would like to have."

"Wings For Everyone" has been in production since late January and will likely continue until the institute's fifth-year students receive their diplomas in June. For those soon-to-be-graduates, though, commencement day is likely to mean unemployment.

Although the Theater of Mime and Sign Language (Teatr Mimika I Zhestva) employs deaf actors, it cannot hire the school's entire graduating class of 12 (two members of the cast are second-year students).

"There are few places where I can work," Matyushkin signed. "Maybe I can find a job in furniture."

The students next perform "Wings For Everyone" (Krylya Dany Vsem) at 6 p.m. on Sunday and at 7 p.m. on March 28 at the Specialized Institute for the Arts, located at 10 Reservny Prospekt, Bldg. 12. Metro Studenchesakaya. No direct telephone. Admission is free.