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Heather Lawson and Michelle Stevens are deafblind performers whose work allows audiences to experience the world via touch, guided through darkness and silence. By Romy Ash.

Heather Lawson and Michelle Stevens’ ‘Imagined Touch’

Michelle Stevens (left) and Heather Lawson
Credit: JEFF BUSBY

“From Flinders Street Station,” she says, “and walking under the subway – temperature wise – it’s considerably cooler, and then as soon as you’re out into the open it’s busy, it’s hectic. There are people everywhere and you’re able to sense all of that movement. People are always slightly bumping into you, and you can smell all the aromas of people sitting at the cafes outdoors and smoking, or having breakfast, and as soon as you turn from Flinders Lane into Flinders Street or vice versa, you can feel the difference in the strength of the wind.”

Heather Lawson is describing how she navigates through Melbourne’s central business district. Heather is deafblind, as is her friend and fellow performer Michelle Stevens. They’ve been friends since 1987 and over the past five years they’ve developed the show Imagined Touch alongside director Jodee Mundy. Imagined Touch is showing at Carriageworks in January, as part of the Sydney Festival.

For Heather and Michelle, smell and touch are important: it’s how they navigate the world. Touch is how they communicate. When we meet, they both thrust their hands out into the air, for me to shake. It feels courageous to me, this small thing, trusting that a hand will be taken. We are in Mundy’s office and it’s bright and hot. She shuts off a rattly old airconditioner so I can hear better.

Tactile Auslan – where signs are felt rather than seen – links the three women. But for us to all talk to one another there are four interpreters in the room. Every 15 minutes, the interpreters swap. Heather and Michelle rest their elbows on a small, soft tabletop. An interpreter sits on the other side of the table and rests their elbows on the top, too. They hold Heather’s and Michelle’s hands and interpret. It’s intimate: they’re very close to one another.

Michelle and Heather met when Michelle began to lose her hearing. She says, “Heather started teaching me some basic signs. I didn’t know any sign language then, and one of the first signs Heather taught me was roast, because I love roast. One of my favourite dishes is roast pork, with crackling and apple sauce and gravy. Oh yum: just go and get some please, Jodee.”

Michelle tells stories with an enviable sense of timing. The punchline is delivered perfectly which, considering the stop-start, conversational rhythm created by the use of interpreters, is wildly admirable. When she’s on a roll, there’s some slapstick to it: she uses her body and her voice to get a laugh. Lawson is funny, too. They bounce off one another.

“We’ve lost the sponsorship of Subway,” Michelle jokes, describing how the smell of Subway bread is a good landmark: it means she’s at the corner of Flinders Lane and Swanston Street. “I really find that an awful smell. I really don’t like the smell: it’s such an artificial plastic smell. But, you see, it gives us a landmark. As deafblind people we need to find the way in our world by smell and touch. Smell and touch are my two most highly developed senses etc. Also underneath our feet, what we are doing underneath our feet. The path, the surface of the path changes, that gives us an idea, an orientation of where we are going etc. So we have to take in all this extra information that many sighted people have really no idea about.”

In Imagined Touch, which is an immersive performance, the audience steps into Heather and Michelle’s world via headphones that give feedback and disorienting sound, and a pair of safety goggles that have been altered to obstruct vision. The audience can see changes in light, and shapes, but not much else. They have become deafblind. Michelle says, “Jodee has in a sense been fishing from us, about us, our lives, what it has been like growing up, firstly as a blind person losing my hearing, and Lawson as a deaf person losing her sight.”

Heather describes that with the goggles, “the light slowly drops away – it’s like, I didn’t lose my sight immediately, it’s just like someone turning down the light dimmer – and so it slowly fades away.” Heather grew up on a farm. She says, “I can remember seeing things on the farm. As I turned blind those memories really stuck with me, the beautiful view out in the country, and the green rolling hills, and the trucks and the cars rolling by in the distance, just looking out the kitchen window, and it’s just a beautiful memory. I’ve got so many memories, of colour, and things, what they look like – so many memories.”

During the performance of Imagined Touch the audience experiences a way of communicating called haptics. At its most pure, haptics means communication via touch. They explain that it’s not a language; it’s a more abstract way of communicating ideas, messages and emotion.

Jodee Mundy leans in and draws a smiley face on my bicep. “I know they’re smiling,” says Heather. “Or laughing is just a scratching.” Jodee gives my arm a quick, ticklish scratch.

Jodee says, “When you put your hand on the traffic light and it vibrates for blind people, that isn’t necessarily a language, but it’s telling you that you can cross the road. Or we can do things: we could draw a room on your back, or a map, and you as a deafblind person would feel the haptics, to navigate your way through a room.”

Michelle says, “Because we can’t see people’s facial expressions, haptics is particularly useful for giving us the non-verbal information. The audience is introduced to this concept during the show. When they become deafblind through the goggles, and the headphones etc, the audience learns, like Lawson and I have had to learn, how to trust people when people are helping us, or interpreters, or people who are guiding us. The audience learns how to trust, and believe you me, for some people, they can find that a very difficult concept.”

In an earlier workshopped version of Imagined Touch, they personally guided audience members through the performance space, and she says that many people “shook like a leaf” from fear and nervousness. She says in her regular life people also often shake. “When you meet someone and let’s say someone is assisting you, quite often you can get some idea of what they’re like, how you can take that arm. Sometimes some people are rougher than others, sometimes some people are very kind, very… You can actually feel how soft people are.”

Heather, who lost her sight in her 20s, says, “From a face you can tell a lot. From a voice you can tell a lot. You can understand whether someone’s kind through their intonation or through their facial expression, so I’m receiving that same sort of information through how they’re touching me, how they’re communicating through touch, through the hands.

“I went to Queensland once, and I went to a wildlife park, and there was a white possum and it was very, very furry and I couldn’t take a photo of it, of course, but I wanted to touch it, and I asked the zookeeper if I could and she said, ‘Well, it will bite you’, and I said, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter.’ I really wanted to be able to do that, so I went in without the zookeeper knowing and was able to pat the possum, and it didn’t bite me and the zookeeper saw me and came charging in because she completely freaked out – but touch is very important.” Heather emphasises that word, touch, and everyone laughs. Jodee shakes her head as if this incident is but one of many, and entirely within character.

Michelle says, “When I was young, growing up as a blind person or a person with very low vision, whenever I used to go to the supermarket with my mum and whenever I wanted to have a look at something, touch something in the supermarket – ‘Don’t touch, you’re not allowed to touch.’ ” She slaps her own hand. “Of course, that was how in the old days we were brought up, whereas today, children with impaired vision would be encouraged to touch things. In our day: ‘You’re not allowed to touch; can’t touch that.’ ”

Michelle was a professional musician before she lost her hearing, and as a child used to travel around with her family performing and raising money for blind charities. Her father would always find “a bloody piano” and get her up on the stage. Playing piano now, she finds her way with the help of a cochlear implant, touch, breath and emotion. She says her music is as good now as it ever was.

Jodee, who directs Imagined Touch, grew up in a family where everyone was deaf except her. Auslan is her first language. She says, “I grew up with deaf and deafblind people. I used to know a deafblind man called Billy, when I was six, and he used to come over for dinner, probably once a month, and he used to feel my face over time, as I was growing up. I used to always – as a little girl, right through to being a teenager – just be fascinated by how I could talk to Billy on his hands. And that stayed with me forever.

“When Lawson and Stevens approached me to develop a work with them, I knew it was a big task because I see and I hear – I’m not deafblind. I think they asked me because they trusted me. The ethics of working with people who don’t see or hear what you’re creating is a very big thing. Within our team, all of us together, we are always navigating this. Heather and Michelle need to know everything. They consult us on everything and then if they feel like they’re not being consulted they let me know.”

Jodee practises a theatre of creative inclusion. A great deal of her work is dedicated to increasing the presence of marginalised communities in the arts. This is the opposite of tokenism. She is often “straddling two worlds”. “I go out into the mainstream and I need to explain to all the advocates, all the funders, all the festivals, presenters, all of the people who know nothing about deafblind people, we need to keep explaining to them, too. My job is to move between worlds. It’s a privilege, and I’m very honoured that they’ve trusted me to do this – I didn’t know it would take five years.” Everyone in the room laughs.

The world of a deafblind person is usually described as isolated. Heather and Michelle talk about how for a deafblind person there is so much “waiting, waiting, waiting”. But here in this room there’s this intense feeling of connection between everyone involved: between Jodee and her two deafblind performers, and between the interpreters, some of whom have worked very closely with these women over the years. Bringing the audience into their world requires of the viewer a leap of faith – trust and empathy that goes beyond what it means to be deafblind, and hits at the heart of what it means to connect with another human being.

Jodee says she found out her family was completely deaf when she got lost in Kmart. She was six. She says, “I went up to the lady at the desk and said, ‘I’ve lost my mum,’ and she said, ‘I’ll make an announcement on the microphone.’ And obviously Mum didn’t hear that and I waited what felt like a really long time. I remember the Red Light Special and then Mum emerging, signing, ‘Where have you been? I’ve been looking for you.’ And I said – I signed to her, ‘But the lady at the desk made an announcement’, and my mum signed, ‘I’m deaf, you know that.’

“Now, I always knew that they were deaf, but I didn’t know that it meant that they couldn’t hear. And from nought to six, I just never encountered a cross-cultural clash. It was cultural shock for me that moment, because in my bubble we were safe: sound didn’t matter. But as soon as we stepped into Kmart, and the mainstream, where it’s an exclusive system, they were discriminated against, in that sense. So that was a real shock, and I think my work is continually trying to re-create a world that was my life before I was six. That inclusion, that bliss. That it didn’t matter. That you could do anything. Rather than being in a world where people look at what you can’t do, which is exactly what Imagined Touch is about.”

In the finale to the show, Heather dances across a large room. She navigates her way through the space, using just the feel of the floor under her feet. Even on video, as I’ve watched it, it’s exhilarating to see. Michelle plays piano and Heather dances, completely in control.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 24, 2016 as "Hand in hand". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.

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