TRIBES – Why the father ROCKS!!

I attended theatre last night. It was my first experience of theatre since seeing The Phantom of the Opera. On that occasion I bought tickets for our first wedding anniversary. I quite enjoyed the special effects. That chandelier falling down and the swift stage changes left me fascinated. The story line was something else altogether. But the wife enjoyed it. My best memory is rushing of to Jezza’s house for the FA Cup final. There is only so much romance in me.

Tribes was different. It was my first experience of captioned theatre. I found it a bit difficult to get in the groove. The captions are on two TV screens to the corner of the stage. The stage being central and the screens being far right or left meant catching some of the nuances and emotions of the actors was difficult but not impossible. Occasionally the actor’s thoughts were captioned on a large type of LED screen centrally above the stage. When this happened you almost got whiplash – captions, LED Screen actors, all at once. No matter it was manageable. It is the best technology going so until better technology comes around I am thankful for the access. (And before the knockers start, CAPTIVIEW at the cinema is NOT the best technology going, it is a different kettle of fish.)

But Tribes was about all things Deaf and to its credit it is one of the first productions I have seen, Children of a Lesser God included, that made an attempt to properly examine the issues that confront Deaf people, deafened people, the Deaf community and hearing attitudes. It did so with humour, sensitivity and intelligence. I have always found Children of a Lesser God melodramatic tripe. But Tribes is different, it really explores the issues properly.

Sure parts of the story were a bit disjointed which I think occurred because the writers tried to cram in too much into a short time frame. The ending, I found, was really unsatisfactory and failed to conclude what was, until then, a great story. Perhaps I am being overly critical but it seems that I am not the only person to feel that way.  Kate Herbert writing in the Herald Sun, said of Tribes, “ …in its entirety, it feels unbalanced with various narrative threads not converging coherently.”  Herbert was also quite harsh on Luke Watts who played Deaf character Billy, describing his acting skills as limited. I think this is harsh. Perhaps he has improved since Herbert wrote her review. http://www.heraldsun.com.au/ipad/review-tribes-melbourne-theatre-company-12/story-fn6bfkm6-1226269817409

But this is not a critique of the play, it is really an exploration of the themes that it raised. Anyone who is Deaf, deaf, losing their hearing or an associate like a parent would have found the themes confronting. In this piece I am only going to explore the father, Chris. Surprisingly I had great empathy for him.

Chris in the play was Billy’s father. He was a typical British male. Very much like my own father. He was opinionated and with a view of everything under the son. Northerners were twats, sign language was bunk and limited, his children were lazy and should get a job. He was loud, he swore profusely and made nasty jibes at his family members. And I loved him.

Chris reminded me of so many fathers that I have worked with and would love to work with again.  In a past life I worked with deaf kids and their families.  My work with the families was diverse ranging from assisting them to deal with behavioural issues, communications support and to just being there for them to debrief. Nine times out of ten I dealt with the mothers. The fathers were rarely present. It was almost like it was the mother’s job.

Mothers attend the doctor’s appointments, counselling appointments, teacher’s appointments, audiology appointments and in fact almost anything that is related to the child’s deafness. It is almost like it is a pre-defined role. While the mothers are doing this the fathers are at work earning money while the mother does “the duties”. It is nothing to do with laziness it is just that in the 21st century, like it or not, the roles of mothers and fathers are pretty much as entrenched as they ever were.

The consequence of these predestined roles is that the father gets information second hand from the mother. The mother will come home and de-brief after appointments revealing only the bits that she feels were valid. Sometimes the mother will leave pamphlets lying around the house and the fathers will read bits and pieces. A website maybe left open and the father will catch a glimpse. Fathers absorb this information and make of it what they will. Of course being males they supposedly have an emotional detachment to it and they tend to just get on with it. This is far from the case they often just find it difficult to express what they are really feeling. Emotional detachment is often just the father’s way of hiding their fears.

Meanwhile mothers are out there attending appointments. The mothers ensure the speech therapist appointments are kept and ensure speech practice happens when it should. Fathers look from behind their newspapers or over their shoulder while watching the footy as all of this is going on. Contrary to popular opinion fathers do care but they often just feel at loss as to what they can do. It’s not for nothing when Billy declares he will no longer speak but will sign until his family learn to sign that the mothers cries, “ … but Billy I taught you to SPEAK remember????”  This is so often the way it is mother, therapist and interpreter. Mother’s just seem to take to this role naturally.

But to me it was Billy’s father who was the gem. Talking to friends after the play Chris (the father’s name.) did not endear himself to the audience. He was generally regarded as the opinionated bigot. Far from it say I. For me when Billy brings home his deaf girlfriend for the first time it is the father’s reaction that is most telling. Why? Well he was full of questions, he wanted to KNOW! It was almost like he wanted to make up for lost time.

He gave poor Sylvia the Spanish Inquisition. He wanted to know everything about her. Her views on the world, how she communicated with her deaf parents, her work and most of all he showed a fascination with sign language. Yes his questions were ignorant, insensitive and even coarse BUT HE WANTED TO KNOW. He was interested and far from being the detached father one could see that all through Billy’s life he had WANTED to KNOW. He cared. Like all fathers, he cared. It is just the way he expressed it that was odd.

But for me it was Chris, paradoxically, who had always accepted Billy for who he was. When Billy announces he is leaving the family Chris proclaims, “..if only I had told him that of all my children I had always considered him the most intelligent of all.” It was his way of saying that he never saw Billy as just the deaf person. While others focused on Billy the deaf boy, for Chris he was just Billy his intelligent son.

And at the end when Billy separates from his deaf girlfriend and returns to the home Chris said it all. He squeezes him on the shoulder and says, “…Old chap.”  As if to say I was never worried, I had complete faith in you.  Yes Chris, despite his abrasive front, understood more than most people gave him credit for. Just like my dad.

If you live in Melbourne go see it! As David Stratton would say, Five Stars!!

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3 thoughts on “TRIBES – Why the father ROCKS!!

  1. Captioned theatre – not cinema! Made a typo there.

    I actually disagree about the father – he spoke from fear. He ranted about his children fitting his image of how they should be and for this reason he was so hard on them. Billy was excluded as he did everything his father expected his kids to do – go to uni etc. But when Billy decided to do something independent, to forge his own path, that was when the father’s insecurities and prejudices came out. Yes he asked questions but the questions were asked to prove his points, not to understand. The other family members either pretended to accept or appear sympathetic or worried about how Billy’s decision would affect them, rather than how their decisions and actions affected Billy.

    Again, the family worked harder with Sylvia than with Billy – they assumed he would manage as always. Sylvia was a new person and they had to accommodate her. They didn’t apply this to Billy. Even when he switched off his voice and gave them a taste of his own communication frustration, they used Sylvia to communicate with him, instead of formulating a way to communicate and understand Billy. It was superficial.

    There were many real life experiences that resonated with me. Yes there was a lot happening in the story, many subtexts, it did not always mesh but many good themes. It is what i call a ‘good thinking’ play.

    But about Chris, the father, I disagree.

    • The father asked his questions in a way that he wanted his own decisons in life verified, certainly ignorant and inviting argument but also inviting his view to be challenged. As I said he was ignorant, insensitive even but their was a reason behind his questioning that people are failing to explore. It was a case of his bark being worse than his bite. All the faults you pointed out in the father were equally true for the rest of the family. their fears and insecurities were just expressed differently.

  2. The experience of captioned theatre – this is my third experience. I have seen Shakespeare, Love Never Dies and now Tribes. It becomes easier with time.

    The first experience with Shakespeare there was only one plasma tv screen. This meant I could only view the captions on one side of the stage. This made it difficult when characters were on the other side of the stage.

    The second experience with Love Never Dies was better with two tv screens on either side of the stage. I was able to watch whichever side was most appropriate for the stage action.

    Last night with Tribes, I felt very comfortable, especially as the night wore on.

    Many people have spoken about the best place to sit. Some have said sitting on the side is best so you don’t have to turn your head as much. I prefer sitting in the middle of the theatre, in the front half. I don’t mind moving my head as usually the stage is busy with action anyway.

    A lot depends on the layout of the theatre too. MTC’s theatre was quite steep and the tvs were higher than I expected but that made sense given the steep layout of the seating plan. The Regent Theatre where Love Never Dies was performed, was actually better for placement personally – at a more better eye level for me.

    The one thing I noticed, after having used Captiview at the cinemas, on reflection, is that I had no eye strain. There was no refocusing between short and long distance. So even though I had to move my head to see the captions and then back to the stage, the eyes followed comfortably.

    I will continue to keep using captioned theatre. I am sure it will improve over time but for the most part is a comfortable experience for now.

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