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Krazy Katʼs Midsummer Nightʼs Dream

Kinny Gardner and Alastair S MacMillan founded Krazy Kat Theatre in 1982. The company produces theatre which employs puppetry, mask, storytelling, and sign language to create work which is both engaging and accessible to both hearing and deaf audiences. Their latest production, ʻA (Midsummer Nightʼs) Dreamʼ, loosely based on Shakespeareʼs play, features a cast of three actors, Jim Fish, Alison Neil and Kinny Gardner, and is crafted to be ideal for deaf and hearing family audiences of 3-11 years.

For schools audiences it plays in two different versions for both Key Stages 1 and 2.

Kinny Gardner, Artistic Director of Krazy Kat Theatre, talks to PuppeteersUK about his work, Krazy Kat Theatre, and creating accessible work for all audiences.

Krazy Kat Theatre was established in 1982 – Tell us a bit about what led you to choose to form the company.

Alastair S Macmillan and I wanted to establish a fully professional touring company creating imaginative visual theatre. It was a reaction to what we saw as the plethora of serious ʻpoe facedʼ theatre in eduction and young peoples companies that proliferated in the late 70ʼs. We were always laughing and enjoying life, and brought that fun and sincerity to the company and it took off. We wanted to specialise in introducing young people and their grown-ups to the delights of live visual theatre, and began to create work combining mime, dance, song, Commedia dell Arte, puppets and sign language.

The highly visual aspect of our work has always been our strength, allowing us to engage with many audiences where English is not their first language. I was a member of The Scottish Mime Theatre for many years, have a Deaf nephew, and am now seen by both the Deaf and Hearing communities as a major innovator within visual theatre using Sign Language Arts. And I revel in the recognition, whilst remaining humble and giving to charity…

Tell us more about the your artistic purpose and the artistic purpose of Krazy Kat

It is not my purpose as an artist to point out something the disabled child already knows. It is my job to help teach them how to continue each day with their head up despite the efforts of others to try and transmute fear of difference into hatred of visual, audial and neurological difference. Each time we encounter this hate the child needs to instinctively recognize it and needs the tools to overcome its impact. We must accomplish this without verbal speech. Itʼs a sort of mission, to give voice to Deaf potential, extending the impact of signed theatre and encourage other artists to bring it centre stage into the life of the mainstream community. I also believe that currently there is a profound under-representation of mature males working visibly in Childrenʼs and Young Peopleʼs theatre. As I’m hitting 55, this is a fundamental area of Krazy Katʼs work and ethos.

Your shows are interpreted for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences – when creating your shows, do you need to give special consideration to how the show will be interpreted?

Our shows are NOT interpreted as all our actors sign. We sign and speak together, onstage, not hampered by an interpreters ʻversionʼ. This ensures that the audience are not playing ‘Wimbledonʼ - looking to the interpreter, then the stage, then the interpreter. In my shows we say EXACTLY what we want / need to with no clarification from the side! In order to directly engage, the sign is as important as the text and validates the initial posit of use of any language. This has attracted disabled and non- disabled artists to the company who seek to reflect the ʻlived experienceʼ of deaf and hard of hearing children. This use of British Sign Language influences greatly the design of the work, and brings many challenges; the challenge of having to use your hands to both manipulate puppets and also sign; the challenge of creating clarity of statement to allow lip patterns to match signing; and a need for constant reiteration of text as that is part of the language and culture.

Given the special nature of your work in creating accessible theatre for deaf and hard of hearing children and families, what sort of venues or events do you perform at?

We take our work directly into the community, working extensively with disadvantaged disabled children in their local area or schools. Last year 70% of our touring was to Special Education Needs venues and events. All our performances are ʻRelaxed Performancesʼ, making them suitable for all disabled, mixed ability and Autistic children. All our work is fully accessible for families who are unable to bring their severely disabled child to the local theatre or arts centre due to the understandable issues of noise and physical displacement that a child with severe disabilities often exhibits.

Hearing audiences are fascinated by the visual language, the signs and gestures resonate as much as the movements or turns of a dance. However it must be said most Hearing people tell me that ʻafter a wee while you cease to notice the signingʼ.

Our early years work is recognised by many professionals working in the Disability Arts and Education field as being successfully reflective of aspects of patterns of early years play. There is so very little inclusive theatre available for deaf and mixed ability disabled children and hearing peers to enjoy together so there is a high demand for our work. We receive regular repeat bookings, and Iʼm delighted to receive positive feedback from audiences and critics.

By performing your work in spaces where the audience is largely hearing, do you feel that, though your work may help people who are deaf to hold their head up, by exposing hearing audiences to work designed to be accessible for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, your work helps to address that fear of difference?

Yes indeed. Deaf Identity is about being seen, we see our language!

How has your mime experience influenced your performance style?

My mime and dance background has a huge influence on the choices we make in the shows. Working for so many years with Lindsay Kemp has given me a strong visual aesthetic, and in this work Iʼm looking to develop a ʻvisual vernacularʼ that fuses movement and visual theatre skills with accessible and age appropriate sign language.

What were the challenges / opportunities you encountered in taking on such a well known work like Midsummmer Nightʼs Dream?

This new adaptation concentrates on the fight of deaf Fairy Queen, Titania, and her hearing husband Oberon over the Changeling Boy. We explore choices made within the ʻfamilyʼ and how a child may mediate within conflict. This allows us to reflect upon social definitions of ʻfamilyʼ and choices we make around acceptance and diversity. Three actors, lots of puppets and vast amounts of imagination!

We use highly stylised puppet figures, masks, dolls and toys as ʻperformersʼ alongside the three live actor/storytellers. The work is largely table –top with a fair amount of rule breaking. There’s even a bit of shadow work, in assorted ʻmoonsʼ. Some of the figures are large bunraku style creations, with moving mouths and glove like hands that allow for signing. Puck is a rod figure, with a few different incarnations: as a poi, as a shadow figure, as a length of fabric…

We tell the potentially dark story in a child centred and light hearted style to explore the chosen edited texts. This work explores images of the performer/story tellers as the manipulators and transformers of theatrical space and objects, and asks questions about the unique possibilities of engagement that can happen when the performers are in harmony with a young audience. It explores the concept of the theatre artist as the magician who effects the transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary through imaginative play and empathic engagement with children. Shakespeare writes in picture sohis visual texts translate authentically to a sign language treatment.

You describe your company as integrated company of deaf and deaf-aware practitioners. What does it mean to be ʻdeaf awareʼ?

Deaf awareness is a recognition of the state of aural difference, the need for oblique access to information, and the awareness of a need for development of communication skills. Deaf children’s need for communication assistance are very different from hearing children, and can lead to community groups mis-reading and misunderstanding the cultural and sociological issues involved Deaf and disabled children need extraordinary practical and pastoral care. Furthermore in many cases the primary disability issue does not come alone, but is often part of a multi-strand of other debilitating physical issues including Ushers disease, Diabetes, M.S. and spectral Autism. The needs of parents are equally kaleidoscopic. Often disability is a new and frightening condition that few people have much awareness of or contact with. To find oneself with a disabled child is often a traumatic and isolating experience which causes much stress and insecurity in even the strongest of family units.

March 2014

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