PULSE Festival Ipswich kicked off on Thu 1 June with 10 days of the most eclectic theatre performances you could imagine. The New Wolsey Theatre’s Agent for Change Amy Nettleton caught up with Jonny Cotsen after his scratch performance of Louder Is Not Always Clearer:
When I met Jonny, he was very determined that he was NOT an actor, “I’m a performer…I tell stories”. Jonny is Deaf and I wanted to grab him for a quick 5 minute chat which turned into a 45 minute conversation that went from karaoke to demanding the Arts Council to give him money for a Deaf Theatre school. Despite his enthusiasm, his lack of experience meant that they turned him down, and they told him to get the experience.
Jonny, from Wales, loved drama but couldn’t hear the language so he soon gave up, believing that it wasn’t possible for him to be part of that world. He also worked as a Graphic Designer for 10 years and a teacher of the Arts in a secondary school for 5 years. Whilst teaching “I realised how Deaf I actually was, I couldn’t follow multiple conversations”.
Jonny was brought up in a hearing family and his Deafness was never really spoken about and he didn’t learn to sign BSL, but lip-read instead. “I didn’t meet a Deaf person until I was 30 years old” and only then he decided to explore his identity in the Deaf world and also pursue his love of theatre.
Joining a theatre training course with Taking Flight Theatre, which was an inclusive course, he said “I realized I could be good at this”.
Whilst exploring the world of theatre he began volunteering with Deaf companies, charities and groups, and now is a Deaf Consultant, Facilitator and Performer.
Louder Is Not Always Clearer is Jonny’s second show, “I’m still emerging”, he says. The 25 minute show was loud, muffled, and extremely energetic. Jonny employed the use of a projector where we watched him type and at one point he asked a fairly personal question – one that he is asked as a Deaf man – ‘Do you have sex with the light on?’ explaining after that as a Deaf lip-reader he can’t understand what is being said in the dark and how awkward this was to explain when meeting new partners. “I wanted to create a language that we can all understand that’s why I ask people to put their hands up and ask them to [come] on my journey”. Jonny’s work was very physical, jumping, dancing and shouting syllables, using the actions that many Deaf children are taught to ‘find their voice’. Putting his hand to his throat to feel the vibrations that he couldn’t hear, he says “I wanted to bring the audience into my world, experience what it’s like to hear but not hear”. He only spoke verbally nearer the end of the work telling a story about how all he wanted for his birthday was a karaoke party “A Deaf kid wanting a karaoke party?? But that’s what I wanted. All my friends sung their favourite songs and I stood and watched, actively discouraged not to sing by older family members maybe to protect me as people would realise how Deaf I was?!”
“I am in the grey area, I don’t feel accepted in the Deaf world because I talk, I am accepted into the hearing world but I can’t truly be part of it as I miss chunks of conversations”. As part of the piece of work we watched short clips of people talking with no sound and he asked us if we could understand what they had said, only one person caught a few words. This is what Jonny experiences every day – not Deaf and not hearing just in a grey area.
I asked him about the choice not to have a BSL interpreter during the show; “It would take away the emotion of the work, hearing people don’t make life accessible for me so I wanted to them to feel how I feel and I believe deaf people would relate to my experiences… I want people to share my journey, it’s always been about empathy, let’s have fun!”
Jonny will be touring around Wales next year and plans to expand his work exploring theatre sessions with people that also feel they are in the “grey” area into his work.