Fusing language, technology and performance to show what it’s like growing up in a Deaf family
By Josephine Burford
Tuesday night saw the opening of Jodee Mundy’s new production, Personal, an intimate performance that recounts her experience growing up as the only hearing member of a Deaf family, also known as a CODA – child of deaf adult/s. Prior to the show, the Arts House foyer was filled with the movement of hands in all directions and the sounds of laugher, the rustling of clothes and murmured conversations. While the performance didn’t begin until we entered the theatre, the experience of Personal began as soon as we arrived. All information was conveyed in both English and Auslan (Australian Sign Language), and from the moment we stepped through the door, we were immediately transported into Mundy’s dual world, straddling the Deaf and hearing communities.
Written and performed by Mundy, with direction from Merophie Carr, Personal seamlessly blends spoken English, Auslan, subtitles and physical theatre to create a unique and engaging form of storytelling. The story of Mundy’s atypical upbringing is fascinating in itself. Mundy describes a childhood characterised by discoveries – mum can’t hear Kmart’s lost child announcement, the creaks and bangs I hear at night are not an intruder, I can sing in the shower as loud as I want! – in such a way that the audience are able to make the discoveries along with her. We feel her relief, her joy and her embarrassment, and when things start to become more serious, we feel her frustration, her anger and her fear. While Mundy’s circumstances are unique, we can all recall the angst that comes with growing up.
Mundy is a captivating performer with an infectious smile. She openly laughs at her youthful naivety, and moves between languages and storytelling modes with grace. Auslan is already a highly emotive and expressive language, and Mundy beautifully highlights, celebrates and integrates its unique rhythms.
This rhythm, and Mundy’s high-pressure role as family interpreter is carried through into Jen Hector’s design. Mundy is surrounded by a number of large boxes which serve as screens upon which video, text and abstract designs are projected. With projectors directed all across the stage, Mundy is frequently required to move, turn or pile up the boxes in order to present a clear image; she is literally navigating and interpreting a world of almost-overwhelming stimuli. Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey’s sound design is simple yet precise. The performance is underscored by disconcerting beeps, alarms and static which reflect the noises, unheard by her family, that sound tracked Mundy’s youth. Flynn and Humphrey seem to have relished the opportunity to explore the questions raised about the nature of sound and hearing, taking advantage of the large space to create highly directional sound and distinct shifts in volume.
In fact, one of the most evocative moments of the performance occurred when a surprisingly loud cuckoo clock began to tweet in the middle of an interview with Mundy’s parents. The intrusive noise made it difficult for hearing audience members to hear the voiceover or concentrate enough to interpret their signing. In this moment, as Mundy’s parents are explaining their own childhoods as the only deaf members of their family, it is remarkable that they are interrupted by something so mundane as a clock. This beautifully encapsulates the central idea of Mundy’s performance – that her childhood was atypical and special, yet at the same time, totally pedestrian and ‘normal’.
Theatre’s greatest asset may be its ability to transport an audience into an unfamiliar world, allow them to empathise and to realise that despite physical or social differences, there are fundamental things we all share. Throughout Personal, Mundy shows us that her family is unique only because it traverses the line between two worlds; otherwise, it is like any other family – filled with laughter, frustration, anger, joy and love.
Personal runs until 29 April at Arts House, North Melbourne. Tickets are available online and by calling the box office on 03 9322 3720.
Personal will then be performed in Sydney as part of Sydney Opera House’s premiere season of UnWrapped 9 – 13 May, before touring regional Victoria and New South Wales. See here for a full list of dates and venues.