Arts & Culture / Mosaic / January 28, 2009

Communicating without words

Harbach Theater was filled last Friday with conversation from an audience of students, teachers, and community members, just as it would have been for any other event. However, not all of the conversation was spoken aloud this time. People were waiting for Peter Cook, a deaf performer, to start his show, and many of those in the audience, like Cook, were deaf.

The house lights dimmed, but did not go dark, and Cook walked out on stage. The show began with Cook performing an interactive pantomime with the audience involving throwing a “ball” back and forth, at first between Cook and individual audience members to whom he would throw the ball, and then, as the ball grew in size, to groups of people. As the game progressed Cook signaled to audience members, communicating increase in size of the ball and where it was being thrown. Eventually, the entire audience was involved in throwing the ball.

Following playing catch with the audience, Cook brought several children from the audience onto stage with him to play pantomime baseball. Cook then began to speak to the audience in sign, introducing himself and explaining how each deaf person has a personal sign for their name. Cook was interpreted for non-signers by Assistant Professor of Theater Lindsey Snyder.

The evening continued with Cook conveying to the audience, by way of Snyder, basic information about the deaf community and humorous stories about his son, Ethan, as well as teaching the audience how to sign the word “fart.” Peter then recounted stories from his childhood. He talked about growing up in a family where he was the only one who was deaf and the only one who could sign.

He first began to experiment with movement and pantomime as a form of communication and entertainment when he saw a Charlie Chaplin silent movie during Thanksgiving, and his cousin enjoyed it as much as he did. His mantra at that point became, “WWCCD?,” or “What Would Charlie Chaplin Do?”

“I saw Peter perform as Feste (the fool) in Twelfth Night in Philadelphia and was completely blown away by his performance. I first met him a couple of years ago at a performance and workshop he gave in Washington D.C. We have overlapping research interests and I have always wanted to work with him. This gave me the perfect opportunity,” said Snyder.

The performance continued with more humorous stories from Cook as well as more interactive pantomime with audience members. He had students “teach” him how to make spaghetti and how to play tag without using words, and he had several children from the audience play the part of inanimate objects which he interacted with as if they were marionettes.

To conclude the performance, Cook told the story of Sir Gawain & Lady Ragnell without sign or interpretation, simply using movements and pantomime to convey it to the audience. The audience watched, rapt, in silence. Cook’s movements were expressive and lucid, making the story not only easy to follow, but engaging and beautiful to watch.

“I was thrilled with the audience response and felt like this was something the Knox community needed and appreciated. I would love to bring more deaf performers to Knox. I am waiting for the right performer and the right time,” said Snyder.

“I am very excited and grateful to have the support from the theatre department, Caxton Club, Campus Events and the Dean in order to bring a new perspective to the campus. I hope this will be a first step in recognizing [that] diversity includes Deaf culture and disability culture awareness,” Snyder said.

As part of the new focus on diversity and the Deaf community that Professor Snyder has brought to the school, a new American Sign Language club has been started by junior theater student Samantha Newport.

Ben Reeves

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