Deaf actor doubles as narrator in ‘Prince Hamlet’

TORONTO — Standing in the company of her castmates, Dawn Jani Birley looks intently at a familiar face enshrouded in the shadows offstage: her interpreter.

As her fellow actors receive guidance from director Ravi Jain during a rehearsal for “Prince Hamlet,” Birley follows along through a flurry of interpretive hand gestures.

Growing up in a third-generation deaf family, Birley experienced no communication barriers at home as American Sign Language was the common parlance.

Birley remembers recruiting her younger sister to stage homemade theatrical productions for the family during Christmas and other holidays. But she encountered obstacles as she looked to pursue acting seriously.

“When I went to school, I did want to go into a theatre program, but I was declined because it was deemed to be impossible to provide opportunities for a deaf person,” recalls the Regina-born Birley.

It was only after Birley moved to Europe that she discovered professional sign-language theatres and found a natural fit. While she started off as a lighting technician, she had little desire to remain behind the scenes.

“I wanted to be under the lights, and it felt like a real rebirth of that passion in me when I saw those opportunities. And really, the rest is history,” says Birley. “I always say theatre found me.”

Birley spent the past 15 years in Finland where she was afforded more acting opportunities, including a role in the world’s first sign-language opera. Now, she has returned to Canada to perform for the first time with a homegrown company.

Toronto-based Why Not Theatre is marking its 10th anniversary by mounting another production of its inaugural play, “Prince Hamlet.” The latest incarnation is a multicultural, gender-bending interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays and is further broadening the boundaries of accessible theatre.

Jain has retooled the play and added a new focus on Birley’s character of Horatio, the trusted friend to Hamlet, portrayed by Christine Horne.

“The way we’ve reordered the text is that Horatio is the narrator of the whole story,” says Jain, who is also Why Not Theatre’s artistic director.

“At the end of the real play when Hamlet dies, Horatio is the last one left, and Hamlet says to Horatio: ‘Please tell the world my story.’ So, in our production, we start at that end moment where Horatio is telling us this entire story…. It’s a storytelling device where you have Horatio who’s narrating the story; but then also we have an embedded ASL interpreter who’s able to communicate what’s happening to a deaf audience,” he added.

“It’s been a really interesting way to integrate signing into the show rather than have it as someone signing outside while the action is happening.”

Birley has had previous opportunities to work with non-deaf productions. But she admitted ”Prince Hamlet” presented an “extraordinary challenge” in creating one fully accessible show for both hearing and deaf theatre-goers.

“I think that prejudice and discrimination can’t stand in the instance of art that’s being hosted like this in terms of the gender of the people playing these roles, in terms of deaf and hearing, in terms of the language,” says Birley.

“It really just tells the story from a totally unique perspective … of shared humanity and shared emotional life. And regardless of where we come from, it really brings us together in this immersive experience.”

“Prince Hamlet” is onstage at the Theatre Centre in Toronto until April 29.