November 20 at 08:00
Short-story writer, novelist and playwright Louise Stern performed one of her latest works with long-term collaborator and interpreter Oliver Pouliot on the opening night of west London’s Bush Theatre’s RADAR 2013 festival.
This is the second time the venue has run this event, following last year’s successful inaugural festival, and it is organised as a showcase for fresh and exciting new talent while also giving writers the space to explore the most urgent issues facing modern theatre. It is billed as offering “signals from the new writing world.”
Stern’s production follows an intensely creative period for the 35-year-old profoundly deaf American, who grew up in an exclusively non-hearing community in California, and who has just spent four months in Mexico working on her first novel, to be published in 2015 by Granta – she has also completed an accompanying book of photographs. She is developing a longer piece of stage work in conjunction with the Bush Theatre.
Her collection of short stories, featuring mostly profoundly deaf characters neither limited nor defined by their condition, all thirsty for adventure and ready to seize life with both hands, was published to widespread critical acclaim in 2010.
In the piece which she and Pouliot performed for RADAR, The Interpreter, Stern returns to her twin obsessions of language and communication. While both The Interpreter and the longer piece Stern is working on are to do with the voice in its different forms, in the former in particular the writer aims to question notions about ownership of the voice.
Interpreted on the night for Louise by Helsa Borinstein (the evening also had BSL interpretation throughout from Martin Fox-Roberts and Jacqui Beckford), the piece is really a short duologue for just two actors – although there is an invisible character and a heckler planted in the audience.
It’s an abstract, physical, absorbing and very funny work with echoes of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and nothing but a single chair and a few drinking glasses to fill the acting space. Setting, and who these people really are, are kept deliberately vague. There is no plot as such and nothing really happens from start to finish.
In it, Therese, played by Louise Stern, and Javier, played by Pouliot, are sharing a late-night drink with a third, unseen female character – or, given that we never see her, are they? Even gender lines blur as Javier, interpreting for the invisible woman, complains of period cramps. As the highly sceptical heckler challenges: “I don’t believe you’re talking to this here lady.”
There’s some gesturing and finger-spelling as part of the communication, and, at one point, Therese, asked by one of the hecklers to “see what comes from her”, produces a guttural sound, the only audible “voice” Stern has herself.
The Interpreter, accessible to deaf and hearing audiences alike, challenges who is really interpreting for whom, and its multiple layers may sometimes bewilder, but this short, stimulating play is proof, if it were needed, that Stern’s talent is one to watch for the future.
Also speaking on the evening were Artistic Director of Hammersmith’s Bush Theatre Madani Younis, who spoke about prejudice and his experiences of being detained at airports, and Alison Tickell, owner of Julie’s Bicycle, which helps the music industry reduce its environmental impact, on sustainable creativity.
Performance poet Inua Ellams took “the Poetry of Rebellion” as the theme for his work, while freelance outreach developer David Osa Amadasun, the father of five daughters, spoke about some of the challenges facing today’s young people. The platform of speakers was followed by a performance of Heartache, Heartbreak, a new work by Bryony Kimmings.