News agency, Cape Town, South Africa
Saturday February 16th 2019

Stage lights turn on for deaf learners

It’s the first lesson on a Tuesday morning in the school hall of the Dominican School for Deaf Children in Wynberg, Cape Town, and the sound of feet stomping on wood, hands clapping and occasional laughter fills the air as 14 learners are put through the paces of a theatre class. But apart from the physical noises caused by the exercises, the class is different because it is conducted in silence, with the instructors using sign language to communicate with the learners, nearly all of whom wear hearing aids.
Learners at the school have been taking to the stage since 2002 thanks to the efforts of From the Hip: Khulumakahle (FTH:K), a Cape Town-based company that aims to “revolutionise the South African theatre industry through the development of deaf and hearing performer-creators”.

Although the lessons began as an extra-mural, learners at the school are now exposed to theatre classes during school hours, are assessed and take part in regular performances.

As far as the company can establish, the programme is the only school-based initiative in South Africa that has resulted in a theatre training programme for deaf learners being integrated into a school curriculum. The programme also offers potential future employment opportunities to learners. The possibilities of this approach have been demonstrated by FTH:K in the acclaimed theatre production, Gumbo, which since it first premiered in 2006 has been seen by audiences around South Africa and was performed in Germany.

Billed as South Africa’s first full-length deaf- and hearing-integrated show, it tackles themes of acceptance and rejection. Written by Rob Murray and Floss Adams, it tells the story of a deaf boy who finds love and learns to stand up for himself.

But if Gumbo demonstrated what is possible, the reality is that many deaf children don’t get the opportunity available to those at the Dominican School for Deaf Children. Kirsty Mclons, co-founder of Sign Language Education and Development (Sled), a deaf non-profit organisation, said although statistics were not clear, it was about there were 500 000 deaf learners in South Africa and 43 schools for the deaf.

She said most deaf children were born into hearing families and the families did not often learn sign language. Often these children were not exposed to hearing aids or speech therapy and therefore started learning a language – sign language – only when they entered the school system at age five or six.

But the biggest problem was that most of the teachers were not skilled in sign language so, while the Schools Act states that the language of learning in schools for the deaf should be sign language, this was often not practically possible.

It is in this context that FTH:K operates. The schools programme of FTH:K takes place at the Dominican School and at Noluthando School for the Deaf in Khayelitsha.

Beyond this the company sources talented learners and offers general education and training or prepares them for entrance into other further education and training colleges. Talented learners can be selected to join the company, which also develops professional performances that show at theatre venues and are taken to communities that might otherwise not have access to theatre.

For learners such as Tomri Steyn (18) the classes are a revelation. “Before I was performing it was an entirely different world. Before I did not have access to that world (of theatre), but now it seems anything is possible. It’s like standing on a mountain and you can see everything before you.” Steyn, who has been doing the classes for the past two years, says the lessons give him a skill which he can pass on to others. More than that, it means that although people might battle to understand him in daily life, in performances they can grasp what he means.

FTH:K chairperson Tanya Surtees, known as an educator and director, said the work was driven by the understanding that theatre could be equally accessible to deaf and hearing people. “We want to start sharing these two worlds, smashing together these vastly different cultures,” she said. Surtees said the biggest difference in teaching theatre to deaf children was the high levels of illiteracy in the deaf community, which made using scripts or programme notes difficult.

As a result, masks were used as a tool to learn about the importance of body language. Putting learners in experience-based situations enabled them to watch and discuss what they had seen afterwards as a way of learning.

She said there was often a lot of anger among deaf children and generally they struggled to express their opinions, but theatre was a way of drawing children out and helping them grow their confidence. “It helps them understand how they fit into society and where they stand,” she said.

Much work remains to be done. Gumbo has led to the employment of 10 deaf and hearing people and played to nearly 10 000 people in 89 performances. But while that is important to “plant the seed”, Surtees said it was not enough to lead to change.

“What we need to do is keep coming back for them to be able to see this is actually possible,” she said.

* Reporting by Patrick Burnett. Published in The Teacher, September 2008.

Tags: disability education

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2 Responses to “Stage lights turn on for deaf learners”

  1. Hi! I am Christopher Mabirimisa and I am also really deaf and I was Finished matric in 2011 from Filadelfia Hight school for the deaf in SA. I wish I want to studying this for actor or filmmaker but now I am live in limpopo. How can I visit in your CP because I am from limpopo so we are far the place? I think u must be give me picture of map ar CT that I will be come to at CT. If you want to know about my personal infro that Please just Sms: 0712304661 or Email:

  2. admin says:

    Try the theatre company From The Hip: Kulumakahle, they specialise in working with hearing impaired actors. Email Their telephone number in Cape Town is 021 488 2838.

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