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One of our favourite Sydney Festival shows involved no sight or sound

Emma Joyce
Written by
Emma Joyce

Have you considered what the world would feel like if you couldn’t hear, speak, or see?

Friends and performers Heather Lawson and Michelle Stevens are deafblind. They’re the central artists in Imagined Touch, a fusion of storytelling and live art that asks audience members to experience the world as Heather and Michelle live it: without sight or sound.

Standing outside Bay 8 at Carriageworks, we’re asked to complete a short questionnaire on our abilities. There’s at least one member of the audience who is vision impaired and the couple next to us are signing to each other. We’re given coloured wristbands and asked to sit on a bench with a dot that matches our bands. It’s never explained why.

Heather, standing tall with a mischievous smile, paces the stage, seemingly unaware of our presence. Michelle, using a four-pronged cane, leans in to take a look, squinting and asking if anyone has arrived yet. There are giggles. We’re all here. Heather and Michelle know that, but it’s a fun icebreaker.

Communicating with each other in tactile sign language, they let us know that Heather was born deaf and lost her sight in her 20s. She speaks to the audience through Michelle, who was born blind and lost her hearing later in life.

We know from the show’s written program that creative director Jodee Mundy grew up as the only hearing person in her family. Her first language was Auslan. During the first part of Imagined Touch, what we see is tactile sign language in action, at full speed; most of us in the audience can’t interpret or understand.

Interpreters help Heather and Michelle learn more about the audience. Heather asks for a haptic map to be drawn on her back showing where the hot men are seated – another crowd pleasing moment. It’s a useful introduction, even if we don’t recognise it yet. Those interpreters will soon be interpreting for us.

Heather and Michelle prepare us for the second part of the show: we’re told to remove our shoes; we’re given safety goggles with smeared vision, like looking through Vaseline; we’re given headphones that play a disorienting soundtrack. Finally, Heather and Michelle go over the rules: no talking, be respectful, and be prepared to be touched.

Interpreter uses sign on a woman's hand
Interpreters use tactile sign language to communicate with the audience at Imagined Touch
Photograph: Jamie Williams

As the lights dim and the music is turned up, my heartbeat accelerates. I’m aware that with the lights out, I’m not able to ask for help. A guide takes my hand and leads me, quickly, to the other side of the room. I can feel the resistance in my body: I might bump into something/someone. I use my toes to feel the ridges in the surface of the floor, to navigate. I slide across it, my hands slightly forward as my defence shield.

I try to meet people through touch. I reach my arms out into the darkness and grab a person’s hand. I don’t have anything to say, I don’t have the tools. I guess their gender, try to read their confidence. We’re guided to a chair at the edge of the room. I can feel the stillness and people sitting by my side.

Heather and Michelle’s voices are played through the headphones, sometimes by interpreters. We hear what it’s like to catch the bus, cross the road. We hear rain and see the flash of car headlights. We begin to understand a little more than we did, in particular the fear and loneliness.

An interpreter grabs my hand and says something – I’m not sure what – via tactile Auslan. I don’t know how to respond. Someone moves me, lifts my arm and twirls me in a dance. This I understand. We sway, we giggle, we bow and shake hands. I do this with everyone I come across. The smell of people’s deodorant is comforting, it’s like a clue for the picture I’m painting in my mind.

People dancing on stage at Imagined Touch
The audience dances with the interpreters
Photograph: Jamie Williams

We’re seated again, and someone removes our goggles. We’re prompted to remove our headphones. Michelle is playing the piano. It’s very moving. She tells us about growing up in an institution for blind children. When she found out she was losing her hearing, the hardest part for her was the thought of never playing the piano again.

Then Heather tells us her story. She feels the vibrations of the music but she’s mostly waiting, she confesses. Heather’s funny. She dances across the space we’d just occupied, her words projected on the curtain behind her. Heather says she’s travelled the world, scaled great heights, abseiled. She likes to move.

Heather and Michelle’s stories remind us that giving up is not an option. They can’t remove their goggles or adjust the volume on their headsets. But there’s a lot we can do instead of giving up: we can dance, we can play, we can move and we can trust. As we reach down for our shoes under the bench we realise they’re on the other side of the room. We didn’t realise we’d changed direction entirely.

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