Out of the Box Productions – Gwen Dobie’s Sound in Silence
Sound in Silence
Out of the Box Productions
Conceived and directed by Gwen Dobie
Choreographed by Jung-Ah Chung
Performed by Jung-Ah Chung, Bud Roach, Patricia Tedford, Joe Bucci, Joanna Bennett and Caitlin Fysh with musicians Jeffrey Wilson and Christina Faye
At the Theatre Centre in Toronto
Sound in Silence was a poignant show that combined dance with science. In fact, it was part of an on-going York University series called “Where Art Meets Science”, and scholarly discussions were built around the show. The piece itself, conceived by Gwen Dobie and William Mackwood, was Dobie’s own life story told through multimedia.
There is a real move in dance today to work with challenged people. In the case of Sound in Silence, the focus was deafness. The subtitle of the show, “A creation regarding the truth of living and excelling in deafness”, was inspired by Dr. Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself. Doidge is an expert in neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to reprogram itself in order to compensate for injury or illness. Apparently, Doidge’s collected research reveals that we see and hear with our brains and not with our eyes and ears. Further, with any illness, injury or disease, the brain can and will change itself to cope with the loss of functioning (as quoted in the program notes).
Creator/director Gwen Dobie is herself deaf, yet she had a successful career in dance before moving into theatre. She is currently an assistant professor in York University’s theatre department. Dobie is a founder and co-artistic director (with William Mackwood) of Out of the Box Productions which is based in British Columbia. Sound in Silence is the story of Dobie’s struggle over adversity using a mix of movement, text, live music and both taped and live video projections. Mackwood, Dobie’s life partner, was the designer for Sound in Silence. He is an assistant professor of production and design at York University’s dance department.
The piece took place within Mackwood’s set where the audience sits on scattered individual swivel chairs among hanging diaphanous material. The latter represents the grey matter of the brain. There are projection screens on each of the four walls. The configuration places the audience within the complex workings of a deaf person’s brain. We constantly had to swivel our chairs because the performing areas were also scattered throughout the space. Mackwood’s visual projections were mostly instructional, and gave the background to what was happening in the drama, like defining how Dobie became deaf through a childhood ear infection, and what was happening in the brain at each phase, etc. In fact, the show was designed so we experienced what Dobie herself had gone through. The hanging material opaqued our vision, and we had to be sharp to turn to catch the action. The was a lot going on in the piece, and deliberately so.
The structure of the ambitious Sound in Silence was Dobie’s own creative journey and the “gifts” that deafness” offered her. Doidge’s conclusion from his research is the development of the “Super Senses”. In the case of the deaf, it is the hyper sensitivity to the visual and physical which compensates for hearing loss. (British percussionist Evelyn Glennie was also an inspiration). Dobie had an actress play her mother using spoken text (Patricia Tedford), an opera tenor was her minister father (Bud Roach) who sang Bach arias, and an actor was a boyfriend (Joe Bucci). Caitlin Fysh handled the live camera and followed the characters around, while live composer/percussionist Jeffrey Wilson and pianist Christina Faye were mixed by sound designer James McKernan and sound technician Sarah Samborsky. The ensemble also functioned collectively as a group, for example, acting out in movement how the brain functions.
At the heart of the work was the exquisitely expressive Korean-born, Vancouver-based dancer Jung-Ah Chung who portrays the heroine, and we watched her (choreography by Chung) literally reprogram herself. Chung’s movement depicted the early stages of deafness, then her living with her first hearing aids which led to sensory overload, to finally freeing herself from the dependency on artificial aids to develop her Super Senses. Chung was absolutely beautiful in her dance. We saw her cut off in her silent world, conveyed as if nothing was around her. We felt the pain as her distorted, crushed body enacted sensory overload, and finally, the triumphal emergence of the gifted artist, supported by her parents’ credo that she could do anything she wanted. Her spoken recorded voice-overs, told through the beautiful poetry of Anna M. Stott, Cynthia Monsen and Shane Koyczan, described her interior landscape from inside the silence of the deaf. The Bach arias sung by Roach added the element of the divine mystery of the brain.
What was particularly fascinating was how sign language interpreter Joanna Bennett was integrated into the dance itself. She functioned as the rendering of the spoken word, and as the livecam focused on her beautiful hands that were signing, she also moved in choreographic fashion as part of the group. Bennett is an actor, so she understands expressive bodies, and was the first Canadian to attend the “Interpreting for the Theatre” program at New York’s famed Julliard School. Her performance was just lovely – evocative yet practical, as it were. She herself is a graceful mover.
In the final analysis, Sound in Silence was both informative and touching. Clearly, an inventive creator can use the beauty and majesty of the arts to convey needed information within an imaginative aesthetic medium. Dancer Chung was the centre of the work, even though bustling activity was all around her. This was the triumph of Sound in Silence – a story well told in dramatic fashion.