Louder Than Words

Don’t get me wrong, I love language. I am fascinated by its roots and evolution, and by the similarities and contrasts between different languages. With words we can express our thoughts and feelings, explain our needs and desires, give directions and share stories. The rhythm and cadence of words can be incredibly evocative, and generally seen as our primary means of communication, the majority of people would feel lost without them. What somebody says and the way they say it give us useful clues as to what kind of person they are, but the language of spoken word can also be a hindrance. It can divide us from our fellow human beings into separate groups of ethnicity, religion, nationality, intellect and class.

We often fear that which we do not understand, probably in part a result of the intrinsic human fight or flight survival response system. But in the current global political climate, that ‘fear of the unknown’ is undoubtedly played upon and exacerbated, and in some areas of society the sense of ‘us and them’ seems to be disconcertingly prevalent. As an actor, theatre maker, and I like to think to some degree an activist, I am particularly interested in how theatre can be used to break down and communicate across our perceived boundaries and barriers. And I think that physical theatre, and in particular the wordless medium of full mask theatre, is the ideal tool with which we can do this. Primarily because it is a universal language.

This year Vamos is embarking on a number of ventures, with which I am delighted to be involved. One of these is ‘relaxed performances,’ where people with additional needs can watch the show without worrying about the traditional constraints that theatre can often present. Last month we had the honour of performing at the National Star College in Cheltenham, for a wonderful group of young people who have limited opportunities to get out to the theatre. Vamos has been working with National Star for a few years and it was a very humbling and joyful experience to perform for and meet the students. They gave great feedback, asked some incredibly intelligent and complex questions about the themes of love, life and death, and really shared in the emotional journey of the story with us.

We have performed The Best Thing in a variety of settings to audience members from all walks of life. From GCSE drama students to senior citizens, NHS nurses to army veterans, seasoned theatre goers to those who have never stepped foot in a theatre before. We have had audience members who don’t speak English, and over the next few months we will be taking the show to Belgium and France, without a translator. We also performed the show for a group of students from Braidwood school for the Deaf in Birmingham, again without an interpreter. Before performing for different types of audience I often wonder how they will respond to and connect with the show, and whether they will understand it – it’s quite a complicated storyline after all. But while the immediate audience response naturally varies from night to night, sometimes with laughter, gasps, applause, or silence in unexpected moments, the feedback afterwards is generally the same. People, no matter who they are or where they are from, really do ‘get it’. Even if an odd detail of the story is occasionally missed, the human connection and empathy seems to be consistently felt.

It never ceases to amaze how a seemingly inanimate mask can say so much, without actually saying anything. Our audiences regularly comment on how the masks appeared to change their expressions to convey many different emotions, and how easy it was to understand what the characters were saying. In Vamos Theatre productions, an audience is required to really engage their imaginations to fill in the lines of dialogue and piece together the story. Imagination is very much linked to memories, feelings and emotions, meaning that once the imagination is open, so is the heart. Mask is a very different experience from the theatre that most people are used to, and yet Vamos’s characters, storyline and emotions are somehow very familiar. This mixture of strange, unknown and yet deeply personal, creates a very pure and universal human language. Having been honoured to experience performing with Vamos, I believe it is a language that can speak louder and connect more deeply than words.

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