Deaf public speaker Nathan Jesper is running late for an event—but, as he begins giving his speech, there’s clearly been a mistake. So begins Deafy, the tragicomedy solo play from accomplished Deaf actor and dramatist Chris Dodd.
The play began taking shape back in 2017, with Dodd working alongside playwright Vern Thiessen, and initially premiered at the SummerWorks Performing Arts Festival in 2019. But Dodd says he’s been fine-tuning the performance ever since.
“It wasn’t until recently during our run at the Citadel Theatre [in Edmonton] that I considered the play to be ‘finished,’” he says in an email interview. “It’s been very interesting to me how the language of the play has evolved. Writing dialogue on paper is one thing, but getting up on stage and speaking it out loud is another altogether.”
Using American Sign Language (ASL), surtitles, and spoken dialogue, Deafy mixes different modes of communication. The idea partially grew out of an earlier solo work called Silent Words—one of many that Dodd’s worked on in his quarter-century in theatre.
“I always knew I wanted to create another solo show with surtitles, but use them in a creative and unique way,” Dodd explains. “The interesting thing about the combination of English, captions, and ASL is that it makes Deafy accessible for everyone, regardless of their level of hearing or their knowledge of sign language.”
Dodd loves a good one-hander. As the only person on stage, it’s up to him to keep the audience’s attention: physicality, emotion, and staging choices are all heightened with nobody else to focus on. And the viewers, as the only party responding to lines, become enmeshed as part of the fabric of the play.
“In solo theatre, without another actor to perform opposite, the actor must use the audience as their secondary character,” Dodd explains. “The play is very much a journey for both of us, and it’s always a thrill to take a new audience on that trip each time I do it.”
While the show is deeply tied to Dodd’s experiences, there’s also a clear delineation between himself and the character he plays. It’s not autobiographical; but his life contributes to the scaffolding of the story.
“Deafy is a very personal play and it makes sense for me to be the one telling these stories,” Dodd says. “While the central character, Nathan Jesper, is not me, at the same time he is very much me. The stories that the play is built around have been borrowed and modified from my own life, as well as the lives of Deaf friends.”
Running at the VIFF Studio Theatre as a Pi Provocateurs Presentation, all three of Dodd’s performances are already sold out.
There are a limited number of tickets left for the November 25 performance, reserved for members of the Deaf or Hard of Hearing community.
And while the play digs into what it’s like to be Deaf, Dodd explicitly wrote the play for everyone, regardless of hearing status; whether it reflects back parts of your own experience, or introduces you to a different world, is left up to you. At its core, the story is about looking for a place to feel at home: something relatable to everyone.
“It deals with a central theme of where we belong. It asks the questions of: how do we fit in within our communities? And what makes us good enough?” Dodd muses. “It addresses a lot of things that go unspoken or answered about gatekeeping, which we should really talk more openly about.”
When Dodd originally graduated from the University of Alberta’s drama program in 1998—as the first Deaf person to do so—he found himself in an industry that didn’t love him back: there was little consideration for accessibility in live performances, and theatre companies cared less about both telling diverse stories and appealing to diverse audiences.
“Things started shifting for me around 2014 and the shift in mindset, not only for myself but for the BIPOC and LGBTQ2S+ communities, began creating opportunities,” Dodd reflects.
Accessibility has increased for both audiences and creatives, but that’s only part of the solution.
Deafy is far from the only show starring Deaf actors; Dodd founded SOUND OFF festival in Edmonton, which hosts six to nine shows a year, and events like Toronto’s Unity Deaf Film Festival or an upcoming retreat for Deaf playwrights indicate there’s plenty of interest in pushing that work further.
“The community has been dynamically responding to the rise in opportunities and it continues to grow and flourish,” Dodd says. “If theatres don’t engage with Deaf or disabled consultants, or challenge the status quo of how we provide access and look for unique solutions, then we’re only getting Band-Aids instead of true access.”
When: November 24 and 25, 7:30pm; November 26, 2pm
Where: Viff Studio Theatre, 1181 Seymour Street, Vancouver
Admission: $25; reserved seats for Deaf and Hard of Hearing community members available for November 25 via email