Bruce Hunter speaks with Adam Pottle about Ultrasound debuting at Theatre Passe Muraille, Toronto, April 28, 2016.
How apropos that Ultrasound debuts during National Poetry Month as it was inspired by poetry. That in turn led to a series of events culminating in a powerful new play. But first, a little about its author.
Adam Pottle is gaining recognition for his noirish, robust and intelligent exploration of Deaf and disability culture in his award-winning poetry and fiction, including Beautiful Mutants, and Mantis Dreams. 2016 is a banner year for Pottle with the debut of Ultrasound, the completion of his PhD thesis and a novella, The Bus, to be published by Quattro Books this fall.
Originally from B.C. but now based in Saskatoon, 32 year-old Pottle is deaf, having profound hearing loss in both ears and says he is not yet fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). (“Deaf” with a capital “D” typically means culturally Deaf and fluent in ASL). Pottle’s accomplishments are remarkable for anyone, but he says, “My accomplishments come as a result of my hearing loss, not in spite of them.”
Adam Pottle’s work eschews disability porn and pity politics in a style free of sentimentality and stereotype. His work is literate, accessible and compassionate. In his poetry and fiction, he uses fresh, sharp language to create nuanced, believable characters, who face dramatic moral and emotional quandaries. Ultrasound is no exception. Pottle is a passionate and visionary writer.
In Cahoots Theatre’s press release, Pottle says, “Deaf and disabled people seldom get the chance to share their stories, whether in the theatre, in literature, in film or in television. For two major Canadian theatre companies to throw their weight behind a play like this constitutes a distinct shift in the artistic landscape, a shift that will hopefully spur other Canadian theatres into exploring these subjects.”
I first saw Ultrasound at a table reading at Cahoots’ Creation Space in Toronto’s Cabbagetown a year ago. After a powerful performance by Deaf and hard of hearing actors, I learned the play would debut this year. When I returned to Cahoots April 5, 2016 for an Intense, interesting morning at another reading of this co-production between Cahoots Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille, the artistic directors spoke about the play’s unique challenges. The packed room buzzed with the excitement of the creative team and members of the Deaf community in attendance. There was a sense of a pivotal, if not historic, moment in the making in Canadian theatre. When the play concluded, many hands rose aflutter in the ASL sign for ovation. It was an emotional morning.
Cahoots’ Marjorie Chan then described how the actual production will use ASL, dramatic titling and creative projection design to accommodate both hearing and Deaf audiences. There will also be two ASL/English interpreted (DI) performances in which a Deaf interpreter will shadow the female lead, Miranda, who is losing her hearing and has only basic ASL.
Theatre Passe Muraille’s Andy McKim discussed how Ultrasound has challenged his theatre to reconsider the accessibility not just of one co-production but their whole season to include an audience of the autistic, Deaf, hard of hearing and hearing, to name just a few.
It was inspiring for me, as a deaf writer, for the first time to read a play written in ASL. Through my own writing and research I’ve learned we are not a small or inconsequential group. According to the World Health Organization, over 360 million people or about 5% of the world’s population have significant hearing loss. Above all, we want and need to be heard. Adam Pottle is a compelling voice from our midst that demands attention. And it is exciting for me as a poet to consider too that this remarkable moment in Canadian theatre was all sparked by his poetry. My conversation with Adam about his journey from the page to the stage follows.
Bruce: First, congratulations. But Ultrasound is just part of a triple-header for you: you’ve also just completed your PhD and learned that your novella will be published. How are you feeling about all of this?
Adam: I tend to go through cycles. One day I feel excited and proud of the work I’ve done, and the next I feel anxious and impostor syndrome-y. At this moment, I feel proud.
Bruce: Before we talk about your play, can you discuss your other creative work? And can you tell us how your own deafness informs your work?
Adam: I’ve written since I was sixteen, but I didn’t actually become a writer until my mid-twenties, when I started writing about Deafness and disability. I was born with hearing loss in both ears, and that, combined with family and work experience, drives my writing. Deafness and disability inform my work in a few ways. They inform my perspective of the world, and they drive me to do things differently—to deviate from what’s familiar, or to highlight what we seldom notice. To that end, I’ve published two books to date: a poetry collection called Beautiful Mutants, and a novel called Mantis Dreams. I have a third book, a novella, coming out this fall. It’s called The Bus. It’ll crack people’s hearts in half.
Bruce: You’re also an accomplished critic and academic. Can you discuss your PhD dissertation and what motivated you to choose this topic?
Adam: My dissertation discusses Deafness and disability in Canadian novels published between 1984 and 2007. A few things provoked me to write about this subject. First, I wanted to see how Canadian writers portray Deafness and disability, and whether there’s a connection between how these people are portrayed and how Canadians think about disability in reality. Second, we seldom explore Deafness and disability in academic circles outside of the medical and rehabilitative spheres. I’m interested in disability’s social, cultural and political presence: how we think about it, why we think about it in certain ways, and how we react when we encounter Deaf and disabled people. A third motivator was the desire to see more acceptance for Deaf and disabled people in this country.
Most Canadians think they’re quite accepting, but the truth is their attitudes toward disability are nebulous at best. Part of the problem is that we typically define diversity in terms of only colour and gender. Sexuality doesn’t often enter the conversation, and Deafness and disability almost never come up. I’m hoping that my academic and creative work brings Deafness and disability into the discussion.
Bruce: Poets who are playwrights are not uncommon in literature, to wit: William Shakespeare, W.H. Auden, Langston Hughes and e.e. cummings all wrote plays. Was it a leap for you?
Adam: It was a major fucking leap. Ultrasound began as a long poem, with the sign language and English and Shakespearean verse kind of bouncing off one another. But then the speakers began to become more than speakers; they became people, so the text became a play.
All throughout Ultrasound’s production process, I’ve been constantly reminded of my audacity. How dare I write a fucking play without any background in theatre whatsoever? I’m used to writing poetry and novels, where the voices remain inside my head and nobody questions what I’ve written—at least not as much as with Ultrasound. With the play, I’ve had a dozen or more people asking me questions: what do you mean by this line? Why does this character phrase it like that? What’s the motivation here? How can we smooth the transition? That’s been the biggest shift for me: accepting feedback from so many people. But really it’s all for the best, because it improves the play, and I think I’ve improved as a writer. And the people I’ve worked with have been absolutely fantastic.
Bruce: What inspired you to write Ultrasound? How did it come into being?
Adam: Two things provoked me into writing Ultrasound: my own experience as a deaf person, and the persistence of eugenics in contemporary society. Throughout my life I’ve hovered between the Deaf and hearing worlds, never fully becoming part of one or the other, though I have become aware of the tensions between them. Those tensions find expression in the play.
About eugenics: we often hear about the latest scientific advances that allow us to detect genes for Down syndrome or cerebral palsy or Huntington’s disease. Eugenics is not a thing of the past; it’s very much alive and well. Thanks to eugenics, we often have this attitude that, because we have the technology and resources to eliminate them, certain traits and conditions and disabilities should be screened out of the population. But what does that do to the people who have those conditions, those disabilities? It makes them feel their lives are not worth living. It’s a terrible feeling.
With Ultrasound, I wanted to take the basic idea of eugenics and turn it on its head: “In what situation might someone not want a child because it was normal?”
After interviewing geneticists and researching Deaf culture, I wrote the first draft in Saskatoon in 2012, and have been developing it since then. In 2013, Ultrasound was selected for a workshop and public reading for the Saskatchewan Playwrights Centre’s annual Spring Festival, which took place at the University of Saskatchewan drama department. Many people were involved in that workshop, such as Yvette Nolan, Charlie Peters, Gordon Portman, Peter Owusu-Ansah, and Elizabeth Morris. The initial script was written in English, but the grammar of ASL doesn’t allow a direct translation, so we had to translate the English into signs. That took up quite a bit of time during the workshop.
The public reading was on a Friday, and when I went in that morning for rehearsal, I saw the festival staff bringing in extra seats for the theatre. I asked Gordon Portman, then the festival dramaturge, about the extra seats, and he said that Ultrasound was the hot show, that there was a lot of buzz around it. The theatre was full to bursting that night. It was a great feeling.
When it was over, Yvette Nolan said she had to use her entire bag of theatrical tricks to prepare the actors and the script for the public reading.
The infrastructure to put on a play like this doesn’t exist in Canada. There’s little to no support for Deaf actors and artists, so we have to feel our way through. Hopefully this play will build a foundation that theatres and artists across Canada can use to their advantage.
Bruce: What’s Ultrasound about?
Adam: Ultrasound is about a married couple, Miranda and Alphonse, and the tensions that arise when they decide to have a baby. Miranda is hard of hearing and has cochlear implants, and Alphonse is profoundly deaf. They both use ASL, but it’s not Miranda’s first language; she speaks also. The tension in the play comes from Alphonse’s desire to have a deaf baby.
Bruce: Your play is written in both English and ASL. Can you speak about the challenges of writing a bilingual play using a very visual language such as ASL.
Adam: The initial drafts of the play were written in straightforward English, but after the workshop we had in Saskatoon in 2013, I saw how the grammar of ASL functions, and that I needed to write the lines in both ASL and English. Since then, whenever I’ve worked on the play I’ve been writing in two languages at the same time. It’s like trying to get your eyes to see in two directions at once. At the same time, though, ASL is a performative language. It’s very animated, and seems to lend itself naturally to theatre. It was fun imagining how certain signs would show up onstage and how much resonance they’d have for the actors and the audience.
Bruce: How did your script come to the attention of Marjorie Chan, artistic director of Cahoots Theatre?
Adam: Marjorie and I met at the IMPACT conference in Kitchener in 2013. Majdi Bou-Matar, the artistic director of the MT Space in Kitchener, had invited me to speak about the possibilities of using ASL and telling stories about Deafness. Marjorie approached me and we began talking about Ultrasound. She then gave me her card and asked for a copy of the script, which I sent her. Since then, we’ve been working together. It’s been great.
Bruce: Ultrasound presents a Deaf husband and his hard of hearing wife struggling in a moral quandary over whether to raise their child in Deaf or hearing culture. What would you like listeners/viewers to take away from the play?
Adam: I’m hoping that people become more open to these types of stories—that is, stories about Deaf and disabled people. I also hope they see the vitality of Deaf culture: the beauty of ASL, the way Deaf people see the world. Deaf people are currently experiencing a major cultural moment—shit, more than a moment. They’re showing what they’re capable of: Nyle DiMarco, Spring Awakening, the #DeafTalent movement in America. All these things are demonstrating the possibilities, and we need to build on that, particularly here in Canada.
Bruce: Based on what I’ve seen and heard of the play so far, you write beautifully and poetically in both ASL and English. There is no doubt your play will speak powerfully to Deaf and hard of hearing people, but what do you hope those who are hearing will take away from it?
Adam: Deaf people have a lively and vigorous cultural voice that refuses to be ignored. With a little imagination, we can make room for everyone in this world.
Bruce: Thank you Adam, for another engaging conversation. I look forward to many more.
Adam: Ditto, Bruce. Thank you for your questions.
Adam and I spoke previously in this project on the Brick Books website during Week 35 about writing, deafness and disabilities.
Deafened at the age of 18 months, Bruce Hunter is the author of seven books. His novel, In the Bear’s House, about a young deaf boy who comes of age in the wilderness of Alberta’s Kootenay Plains, was selected from 100 books from 10 countries for the 2009 Canadian Rockies prize at the Banff Mountain Book Festival.