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Erin Hutching (The Promise)

Combining British Sign Language and Spoken English, The Promise is a new play by Deafinitely Theatre, exploring the experiences of deaf people living with dementia. The show is written by Paula Garfield and Melissa Mostyn, and was inspired by their personal connections and the real lives of those with dementia. The production made its world premiere at Birmingham Rep earlier this month and is now embarking on a UK tour. We spoke to Erin Hutching, who plays Jane, to find out more.

Q) For those who haven’t heard of The Promise, can you outline what the story is about?

The Promise is a brand-new play exploring the effects of dementia on a deaf woman, Rita, and her family, inspired by real life stories from the deaf community. The story moves backwards and forwards in time, covering lots of themes and highlights the lack of care homes for deaf people in the UK, where they can communicate in British Sign Language. Although the topics explored are serious, there’s a lot of humour and joy in this story, which is told in BSL and spoken English and is captioned throughout in a creative way.

Q) Can you tell us more about your character Jane?

Jane is a no-nonsense Geordie woman whose parents were good friends with Rita and her husband. She is not deaf herself but is a CODA (child of deaf adults). She has been left with the responsibility of caring for Rita because her son Jake isn’t around, and she’s the first person to notice that there’s something different about Rita’s behaviour and memory. She has a very kind heart and a generous nature, but she’s very direct and tells it like it is.

Q) Have you taken inspiration from anywhere in particular to help your portrayal of this character?

For her dress style and no-nonsense nature, I’ve looked at characters like Bianca from Eastenders and for her accent I have been listening to a lot of clips of Cheryl Cole! I’ve also watched films like I, Daniel Blake for insight into the setting of Newcastle and documentaries on the miner’s strikes to understand what was happening when she was young.

Q) Why do you think the show’s representation of how dementia affects those in the deaf community is important?

This is a topic that is rarely discussed, even within the deaf community, where dementia is considered a taboo subject. Even I, as someone who can sign fluently and has deaf friends and family, had no idea of the lack of resources available to support deaf people with dementia in the UK. Standard dementia assessments don’t work effectively for deaf BSL users because the way that the questions are translated into a visual language often gives away the answer. So, the assessor may have the false impression that the patient doesn’t have dementia. Audience members have been struck by the portrayal of someone being unable to access care in their own language. I believe that theatre, TV and film have the power to change minds and make audiences more empathetic and open minded to the experiences of others.

Q) The play combines British Sign Language and Spoken English, do you think accessibility needs to be more of a priority across theatre?

Yes, absolutely. I think theatre is for everyone, and it’s important that everyone has the opportunity to experience it. I also believe that captions, sign language and audio description can be done in very creative ways which enhance the experience for everyone present in the audience. Relaxed performances, trigger warnings and other access tools can also benefit everyone and should be a standard part of a show’s run.

Q) What impact do you hope the show will have on audiences?

During our run at Birmingham Rep, we’ve already experienced audiences laughing, crying and standing to applaud at the end, so I hope we continue to have this impact on our audiences going forward. I hope that the show will make audiences feel something and leave them thinking about it for days afterwards!

Q) The Promise is making its world premiere, what do you find exciting about working on something completely new and originating a character?

It’s wonderful to work on new writing where the writers are really involved in the rehearsal period, as we were given a lot of freedom to experiment and make changes to improve the script, and adjust the characters to suit our portrayals of them. It’s exciting to know that this story and these characters haven’t been seen before.

Q) What has the rehearsal process been like?

The rehearsal process has been creative, well supported and lots of fun. We’ve done a lot of research together, speaking to experts in dementia as well as family members and carers. The ensemble of four actors has become very close across the rehearsal period. We also have a wonderful team of creatives, from our director Paula Garfield and associate director Lisa Kelly to our movement, voice and BSL coaches, designers, stage management and

everyone in between. It’s been a real team effort and everyone has been welcome to share their thoughts and ideas.

Q) Have you learnt anything new from working on this production?

I play several different characters in the piece, which reflects the confusion experienced by people with dementia where they may confuse a carer for a son or daughter, for example. I have multi-rolled in shows before, but this one includes characters who use different languages as well as different accents, which has been an added challenge. I have learnt how to do a Geordie accent which I love!

Q) What are you excited for about touring?

I’m looking forward to visiting Newcastle and Manchester as they are both great cities and sharing the show with audiences in the North. Then I’m looking forward to bringing it home to London and performing at the Lyric Hammersmith for the first time.

Q) Why should people come to see The Promise?

It’s a story which I believe people will relate to in some way, deaf or hearing. Many of us have complex relationships with members of our families, or family members we love but have trouble communicating with, even without someone in the family being deaf or having dementia. And most of us have taken on caring responsibilities at one time or another. Also, while it’s a serious topic, the play has a lot of humanity and humour. It’s been written as a bilingual piece to be performed in English and BSL in a very realistic way, as all the characters communicate in different ways with each other depending on which language they know and use, and what time period it is (as people signed differently in the 80s). There are creative captions throughout (projected right onto the set so they are very easy to read while watching the action, without having to look over to the side or way up to the ceiling), making it an exciting play which is accessible for deaf and hearing audiences alike.

The Promise is currently half way through its UK tour, with only Home Manchester (25th - 27th April) and Lyric Hammersmith (30th April - 11th May) left. For more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.

Photography by Becky Bailey


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