Jonny Cotsen is a Cardiff-based artist and theatre-maker, a campaigner, avid football-fan and father. He’s also deaf. We interviewed him on the eve of his 2020 tour, and just after the birth of his second child. Here’s what he had to say…
When did you first realise you wanted your story to become a theatre piece?
In 1993 I left home to study Fine Art – the first time I’d ever been far from my parents who very much protected me. Before this I’d never really identified myself as D/deaf but when I moved it became increasingly obvious that that was what I was. I started a bit of a journey of what words like ‘deaf’, ‘language’ and ‘identity’ meant to me. This resulted in an exhibition ‘Louder Is Not Always Clearer’ which I noticed had a massive impact on those who came to see it.
Since then it’s always been on my mind. 25 years later I decided to bring it to life – I’d worked in the arts as a consultant and facilitator and realised I could do something really powerful with my story. I wanted to connect with other D/deaf people and those who had stories similar to mine - those who were born to hearing parents and were told they can’t sign and had to speak, and this play really provokes the question about whether that’s right or wrong. When we started developing the play it was clear it was moving people powerfully and now over the last 3 years I’ve done about 50 shows.
This play is highly personal to you and inevitably very emotional. Are there any emotions you’ve felt or come across that surprised you?
I think an emotion that has come out particularly strongly is a real vulnerability, which my director particularly wanted to bring out. There’s a scene about when I was a kid in the classroom and I was desperate to go out and play with the other kids but I had to stay in learning how to speak words and that was so difficult and upsetting.
However, what’s really amazed me is the response from D/deaf members of the audience, I’ve been made to realise I’m really not alone. I’ve grown up pretty exclusively in a hearing world, I didn’t really meet a D/deaf person until I was 35 which is really very late in life and now I’m getting the chance to meet lots of D/deaf people. Strangely, I think this has really made me want to find closure! I think also the emotions I have seen coming from parents of D/deaf children has been really poignant. There’s a part of the play where my mum speaks and whilst I don’t actually hear what she’s saying I’ve seen Mum walk out and get very emotional about it, which really surprised me.
What's been the most rewarding part of the experience?
I’ve been so fortunate to have a great, supportive team around me. We spend a lot of time talking to each other and trying to understand each other, my safe and happy place is definitely around them. However, the happiest place I’ve been is on stage and parts of the play where I get to interact with the audience and I’m not just up there performing to them is so inspiring.
I’m not a trained actor and in that there is definitely a vulnerability with my performance, but that connection is so lovely.
Oh yes…there’s been lots of challenges! A big one is that it’s very difficult for me to speak and move at the same time, as the language I think in is really visual. Gareth has always said it’s OK when I mess up – sometimes the audience wants to see that – but I’m a perfectionist so that’s tough.
The most difficult challenge however has been when Gareth wanted me to sing, properly. He and the show’s musician took 2 days out trying to teach me, but I just can’t. If you think of a melody, a beat, a rhythm - that is something I’m not able to grasp. I can never understand when someone does karaoke how they can read something on a board and get it in tune – I can’t hear the beat, or the rhythm so I just don’t know how they do it! After that rehearsal I went home and it really destroyed me, I felt horrible- I’ve always wanted to sing. However, it also taught Gareth and the musician that there are some things I can’t do and that’s really important. Gareth moved on and said please sing however you want to sing, it just doesn’t matter – and that’s what I do in the show.
Who do you think benefits the most from seeing this production: hearing members of the audience or D/deaf members, and why?
I think the hearing audience must benefit better for sure as the whole purpose of the show is to teach them all those barriers a D/deaf person can face to communicate in this crazy, chaotic world. A lot of responses I get from the hearing audiences are that they feel so ashamed of what they don’t know. It’s so important that people feel they want to have a conversation about it after, and hopefully this is what they’re doing as a result.
My mum has always been very critical of the word ‘Deaf’, but she’s now seen the show about 7 times (my biggest fan!). She has only just signed up to learn BSL as I think she’s accepted how important it is to me – I’m going to teach my daughter sign language. Throughout my life I’ve not really felt included either by the hearing or D/deaf communities because I can proficiently lip-read and also speak, but whilst I’ve learned BSL, I am a long way from fluent. I think it’s interesting because the tables have turned now – when I was a child my mum was always trying to tell me things to keep me included, and now I have to do that for her!
For a D/deaf audience, I mainly get ‘thank yous’ for telling my story, because it really isn’t just my story but our story.
Do you feel differently in any way about your own experiences as a D/deaf person after having worked on the show?
Absolutely. I feel different because part of my reasoning behind the show was for me to discover who I was. I’ve never had a D/deaf identity, but the more I perform this show I realise I do feel that I am D/deaf. I didn’t feel it so much before because I can speak – I suppose I’m a failure of the medical model. During the show I remember talking to a D/deaf academic and he said for a D/deaf person it’s always about the ear, and how you hear and how you communicate when really that’s not important – it should be about you and how you feel. The more I speak to D/deaf people through signing, I feel more myself. However, I’m proud now that I can speak and I can use my voice as an advantage to tell my story.
Louder Is Not Always Clearer will be showing at MAC on Tuesday 10 & Wednesday 11 March. For more information please click here.