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Source: University of Waikato

A University of Waikato academic’s research programme is continually adding to a body of theatre works that are fully accessible to New Zealand’s Deaf community.

Equal Voices Arts is the collective created by Theatre Studies Senior Lecturer Dr Laura Haughey 15 years ago, drawing together Deaf and hearing performers and theatre professionals to devise pieces that blend multiple languages, including New Zealand Sign Language.

Dr Haughey’s work with Equal Voices Arts forms her research into inclusive theatre practice, creating and exploring sites of cross cultural and cross linguistic exchange, while providing a platform for Deaf performers to hone the physical storytelling skills that come naturally with using a visual language.

In our productions, NZSL and English aren’t directly translated, but are given the same priority on stage. Overall the dramaturgies weave together to offer an accessible experience for both Deaf and hearing audiences. This way we can play with narratives for each community – respecting their very different cultural experiences and diversity.

Rehearsals are now underway for Equal Voices Arts’ latest work, ‘Where Our Shadows Meet’, which features both Deaf and hearing actors and has had the benefit of input from Denise Armstrong, a renowned Deaf Sign Theatre specialist from the UK.

“Denise is supposed to be here in New Zealand working with us now, making a Deaf and hearing creative team. We’re still able to meet with her on Zoom, but with the time differences and because of the embodied nature of sign theatre, it’s more challenging. We are pleased with our creative approaches to make online rehearsals work.”

Key to the success of the work produced by Equal Voices is the cultural and linguistic input that can only come from those for whom NZSL is a first or preferred language, which is central to the work.

Dr Haughey says while her expertise in dramaturgy, movement and actor training is a catalyst for the performers to devise original physical theatre, it’s crucial the linguistic choices made are Deaf-led, by someone who uses NZSL as a first language.

“Especially when working with Denise, as a British Sign Language user she may introduce BSL signs that are well-used in theatre, whereas NZSL doesn’t have much history of use in a theatre context. So Rachel, the company’s NZSL Consultant, acts almost as an NZSL gatekeeper, to make language choices that balance the need for expression in a theatrical setting and ensuring the authenticity of the language used.”

  • What: ‘Where Our Shadows Meet’
  • When: January 2021
  • Who: Equal Voices Arts:
    • NZSL Consultant and Company Manager: Rachel Turner Fahey
    • Director and Project Manager: Dr Laura Haughey
    • Co-devised and performed by: Thora Hübner, Cian Gardner, Mihailo Ladevac
    • Music: Dr Jeremy Mayall


Learn more about Equal Voices Arts’ work and sign theatre in this Conversation article.

This week is New Zealand Sign Language Week and International Week of the Deaf. Today is International Day of Sign Languages.