A theater troupe without sight or sound

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Pass the butter: “Not by Bread Alone” draws on experiences, dreams and memories of the performers loosely kneaded together. Courtesy of Nalaga’at Theater Deaf-Blind Acting Ensemble.
Pass the butter: “Not by Bread Alone” draws on experiences, dreams and memories of the performers loosely kneaded together. Courtesy of Nalaga’at Theater Deaf-Blind Acting Ensemble.

Nalaga’at – or “please touch” – exhorts the visionary theater company that unapologetically carries this Hebrew name. All 11 members of the troupe are deaf and blind, which would be an insurmountable obstacle for most theater directors. But not Adina Tal.

Next week, when the company arrives in Washington – 30 members strong, including translators and interpreters – to perform as part of the Kennedy Center’s World Stages International Theater Festival, area audiences will see what the fuss is about. An evening in the theater shared with a group of people who can neither see nor hear has moved audiences around the world to tears and gratitude. Nalaga’at’s signature piece, “Not by Bread Alone,” makes its Washington, D.C., premiere March 25 and 26 at the Terrace Theater.


Tal, a Swiss-born Israeli director, said she was frequently approached and asked to work with individuals and groups with special needs. Each time she politely declined.

“It just did not interest me,” she admitted. “Then I was asked if I wanted to give a drama workshop to deaf-blind people. I said yes, because I was at a point in my life where my kids were grown and so I said, ‘Okay, this is life, let’s see what life has to offer.’ And I was ready to be surprised.”

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She committed to a two month workshop. That was 14 years ago.

“Not by Bread Alone,” which made its U.S. debut in New York a year ago, draws on experiences, dreams and memories of the performers loosely kneaded together as sketches, monologues, reveries and
interactions.


During the course of the 100-minute, intermission-less show, the 11 cast members – whom Tal unabashedly calls “stars” – mix, rise and bake loaves of bread, the warm, yeasty smell wafting through the audience, adding another sensory layer to what many have described as an indelible theatrical experience.

Beyond seeing the loaves (which the performers cannot do), bread offers tactile and olfactory experiences, which is one reason Tal wanted to use the bread-making process in live performance. She spoke from Nalaga’at’s rehearsal studio and offices in the Old Jaffa port area adjacent to Tel Aviv: “I also found the process of baking bread gives a common time frame to the actors and the audience. A deaf-blind person is so completely isolated. He might be living in the past or living in the future, because the present actually creates itself by viewing each other or hearing each other.”

As the audience filters in and takes their seats, the cast members are already at work. Wearing floppy chef’s toques, they pour cups of flour, pound and shape the dough, then put it in ovens.

Bread, too, carries other deeply rooted cultural, religious, social and even political meanings that cross borders and belief systems, hearkening back to our most basic human needs and capacities.

“Bread has a very deep meaning in many different cultures so that was one reason we decided to do it,” said Tal. “But we also invite people up on stage [at the end] to taste the bread. We’ve been all over the world, and [the act of] people tasting the bread baked by people that they may not have associated with otherwise, that means they accept them. We would never eat something made by someone who disgusts us. … I think [this show] changes people.”

The majority of the performers, who range in age from their 40s to 60s, have Usher syndrome, a disease that affects both hearing and vision, ultimately robbing sufferers of both.

Though relatively rare, it is often associated with Ashkenazi Jews and a number of members of Nagala’at are Russian-Jewish émigrés.

As children, they are born deaf or with hearing loss and thus many learn sign language as children; then later in life they begin to lose their sight as well.

Some performers use a tactile form of Hebrew signing, which is a different language completely from American Sign Language, or ASL. In the troupe, each actor has a sign translator/interpreter and when the group travels the translators accompany them and stay together in their hotel rooms. It is, Tal sighed, a major logistical operation.

Tal has learned a bit of sign language over the years, but she claimed she is far from proficient. Besides, each person has different linguistic needs.

“Everybody needs his or her own translator. And it is also not only one kind of translation. One hears a little bit so we talk close to her ear and she’s of Russian origin, so if I have someone who speaks Russian she understands much better,” described Tal. “Some can still see but only if it’s far away from them, so they have to sit far enough to see you sign; if you sit too close by, they won’t see.”

While there are challenges, for the most part they are not insurmountable, and the rewards, for both Tal and her intrepid performers, far outweigh the communication difficulties.

“The biggest problem is interpretation,” she admitted. “It’s quite a challenge.”

Before she began her work with deaf-blind people, she had never known either a blind person or a deaf person, let alone someone who was both.

“I came home and Googled what’s happening in the deaf-blind theater world and I discovered that there was no deaf-blind theater company anywhere in the world,” said Tal.

“I feel very privileged to do something that nobody has done before me.”

“Not by Bread Alone,” Nalaga’at Theater Deaf-Blind Acting Ensemble, March 25-26, Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, Washington, D.C. Tickets $29. Call (202) 467-4600 or www.kennedy-center.org

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