The importance of not just listening to her instructors and fellow students but really hearing what they had to say were two valuable lessons Jess Amy Shead learned during three years of intensive studies at the Canadian College of Performing Arts before she graduated in 2010.
Nine years later, those skills have become an unexpectedly significant aspect of the South Africa-born artist’s work as a “hearing ally” to Deaf persons in the performing arts world.
“It refers to someone who hears but is well-versed in Deaf culture and the community and who understands that being Deaf comes with a culture and language that is very unique,” she says.
It was while Shead was working as Artist Services Coordinator from 2014-2018 at the Vancouver Fringe Festival that she became passionate about Deaf theatre, described as theatre created by Deaf individuals, with Deaf decision-makers in areas from direction to financing. It was after she met Landon Krentz, the Deaf theatre consultant and Artistic Sign Language Company founder who pointed out what the festival was lacking in terms of inclusion for Deaf people.
“He passed his learning onto us and through that I came to understand how little access Deaf people have to theatre,” Shead recalled. “Hiring a few interpreters to do interpretation that’s off to the side, so that Deaf patrons had to ping-pong back and forth between the stage and the interpreter is access, but it’s really not that great, and it definitely is not inclusion.”
The interpreters hired are usually “hearing” individuals, so employment opportunities were not being provided to Deaf people, said Shead, who began working with Deaf artists to try and break down those barriers and foster collaboration between hearing and Deaf artists.
When Shead attended The Awakening Deaf Theatre in Canada Conference in Montreal last year as a hearing ally, she said her feelings of isolation while being immersed in a Deaf-led environment gave her a taste of what it’s like to be a Deaf person in a hearing-led environment. It fuelled her passion for creatively making artistic spaces that she works in more inclusive.
The Vancouver-based artist learned more at last month’s Sound Off Festival of Deaf theatre in Edmonton, where she discovered amazing ways to integrate ASL (American Sign Language) into a production.
She cites as one example Why Not Theatre’s production of Prince Hamlet, an inclusive spin on the Shakespeare classic free of gender, race and other restrictions, with Horatio played by a Deaf actor whose use of sign language as an onstage character exemplifies creative integration.
“The Deaf audience would get a different experience from the hearing audience but everybody could just come and watch the show,” Shead recalled.
When she graduated from CCPA, her immediate goal was to be cast in musicals, balanced with work in stage management after learning those skills with the College’s Theatre Operations and Outreach Manager Jackie Adamthwaite as her mentor.
Her Company C shows included Lord of the Flies, The Comedy of Errors and Blood Brothers.
“I’ve had an interesting relationship with musical theatre,” says the friendly actor, singer and dancer who since graduating has appeared in musicals including Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, Spring Awakening, Theatre Inconnu’s Kafka: The Musical, a workshop presentation of Rip Van Winkle: The Musical and two Belfry Theatre workshops for This Little Light, the Erin Macklem/Brad L’Ecuyer musical adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Match Girl.
“It’s what I’m trained in so that’s what I tend to be flat-out cast in. It’s something that is still in my life because I enjoy doing it.”
Shead’s noteworthy creative endeavors include co-creating a short film Catatonic; Portability, a short augmented reality film she collaborated on; and painting murals and doing character illustrations for the poster for Kindergarten, a Crazy 8s film. She has also worked with The Little Onion Puppet Company, first as a creative collaborator on Freddie and the Neighborhood, garnering a 2017 Jessie Richardson Award for Outstanding Performance and Production in the Theatre for Young Audiences category; and Otosan, a new production in development featuring puppets, wildlife footage and physical storytelling inspired by co-creator Shizuka Kai’s experience trying to connect in the Arctic with her father, a wildlife documentary videographer.
“I really think puppetry is growing,” says Shead. “More and more people are saying they want puppets in their shows. It’s a great medium to create your own work in.”
Other highlights include turning a bike trailer into a replica of the original Galloping Goose train for Theatre SKAM’s Bike Ride; improvising a portrayal of Ariel from The Tempest during the 24 Hr. Shakespeare Festival; and participating in Intrepid Theatre’s Theatre Under the Gun Festival, which she calls “an insane 48 hours of show-making mayhem”, by collaborating on the development and performance of an Impulse Theatre piece within that time period.
She credits the College with giving her “a great foundation” for the development of her natural performing style most suited to musical theatre. It’s where most of her paid acting work has come from, giving her the freedom to explore other choices like site-specific theatre, Deaf theatre and arts administration.
“There wasn’t one moment of any day that I did not like being at CCPA,” she recalled.
“I by no means have everything figured out but I’m fine with that,” she adds with a laugh.
“This is what I’ve chosen. It’s my reality. I’ve made my life around that. It’s totally manageable.”