For months, cameras followed the challenges and successes of a local theater company. Maureen Marovitch and her production company, Picture This Productions, produced a documentary titled Seen and Heard about the process of putting together this group’s annual play. While every production comes across speed bumps, this group faced unusual challenges as Canada’s only theater company with both hearing and deaf actors and crew members.

Being in Quebec, of course, there are cast and crew members who use either English or French, but this production wasn’t bilingual — it was quadrilingual. Together, the cast speaks English, French, American Sign Language, and La langue de signe québécoise. While ASL is often used in English-speaking communities and LSQ in francophone communities, sign languages are not based on spoken languages. They’re languages in their own right. One linguist wrote that the syntax of ASL is more similar to spoken Japanese than it is to English.

The documentary covered both on-stage challenges and off-stage issues. The group had to figure out how to indicate to deaf audiences that music was playing, how to create costumes that didn’t interfere with signing, and how to cast appropriate voices for signing cast members. Off-stage, one of the cast members had been looking for a job for a long time. “He’s a perfect example of how hard it is to find a job when you’re deaf — you can’t just pick up the phone and call for an interview, it’s much more complex.” The Canadian Association of the Deaf estimates that about 10 per cent of Canadians are deaf or hard-of-hearing. About half of people with hearing limitations are employed, according to the 2006 Participation and Activity Limitation Survey conducted by Statistics Canada. Even among those who are employed, however, nearly a third believed their condition hindered their ability to be move up in the workplace or be promoted.
People who are deaf or hard-of-hearing and looking for work can get some assistance in Laval through L’Étape-Laval, which provides free evaluations and workshops. MAB-Mackay’s satellite office in Laval at the Jewish Rehabilitation Hospital can also evaluate people’s hearing and provide follow-up visits. My Smart Hands Quebec, located in Laval, runs sign language classes for all ages — even for very young children. Seeing Voices also runs two ASL classes for beginners — one for healthcare workers and one general class, which integrates theatre and performance.

Theatre has been an important part of Seeing Voices since the beginning. “I fell in love with how expressive the language is and performed a small class skit with some friends,” said Aselin Wang, the director of Seeing Voices and a former Laval resident. She and Jack Volpe founded the group in 2012. “[The plays] are very important because theatre is the medium in which we showcase these subjects and it aligns with our mission, which is to raise D/deaf awareness through performing arts, education, and social interactions,” Wang said. (The culture that belongs to people who are deaf is often referred to with a capital letter, the Canadian Association of the Deaf notes.)
The inaugural play in 2014, an adaptation of Snow White, did extremely well. “We sold out all three nights in Montreal with lots of people begging for us to do more shows since many of them could not get in,” Wang said. In 2015, their version of The Little Mermaid ran for three nights in Montreal from May 21 to 23. They also performed in Ottawa and Toronto. The documentary crew planned to follow the play’s tour as far as they could. However, travelling to Toronto and beyond costs money, and finances have been a challenge for both Seeing Voices and for Picture This.
This summer, Picture This ran a crowdfunding campaign to cover travel expenses and pay for interpreters. Marovitch isn’t fluent in ASL yet, though she has taken a course. “I maybe understand seven per cent,” she said. Interpreters are vital, but they aren’t cheap. Two hours of an interpreter’s time can cost over $100, and they’re needed even after the long rehearsals are over. “Every hour of footage takes three hours of interpreters and editing.”

The cameras didn’t faze Mounir Boudjema, an actor in the play, when they first came to set, and they still didn’t throw him off. “Now, I'm used to it and I feel pretty comfortable around cameras,” he said. Good thing, because Marovitch said the cameras were sticking around until the fall. She intended to send it to festivals after it was done, and she hasn’t ruled out bringing it beyond the Canadian border. Though each country has its own sign language, Marovitch thinks the themes of the film are universal enough to travel to other countries. “If you had no interest in this topic whatsoever but you got sucked in anyways — that’s our goal. Just an entertaining, challenging film that you want to see,” she said. She just might be right — as Wang said, “Deafness knows no boundaries.”