"When your past is omitted in the history books, it’s invisible“: The Deaf Time Machine

By Michaela Caspar
Translated by Ylva Söderfeldt

If we look for the history of the Deaf in archives and libraries, we tend to find mostly hearing people. Hearing doctors, teachers, clergy, philosophers, linguists, or politicians and their perspective on deafness and signed languages. The hearing have documented the history of the Deaf. But what do the Deaf have to say?

Five people on stage wearing white T-shirts and black pants holding signs with slogans in the air: “I’M DEAF. I DON’T UNDERSTAND A SPEAKING TEACHER”; “I’M NOT ALLOWED TO SIGN AT HOME EITHER”; “LEARNING SPEECH DOESN’T MAKE ME HEARING”; “1880-1981”; “PATERNALISM”; “ADAPTION”). Behind them picture a photograph is projected showing two young boys – hands folded on their back and wearing headphones – from behind.
Five actors on stage.
Photo: Lisa Wischmann
The Deaf Time Machine is a play about the history of the Deaf, performed by Deaf and hearing actors for hearing and Deaf audiences, in German Sign Language (DGS), Signed German (LBG), and spoken and written German. It uses historical sources, interviews with survivors, and improvisation based on the personal experience of the performers, and presents these through live acting, film, live cam, discussion, and music.
In order to connect current controversies on the cochlear implant (CI) with their historical background, the audience is invited to join the eight Deaf and four hearing actors on a journey through the history of the Deaf. This is the story of a largely unknown, but vital community with its own language and culture, but it is also a history of persecution and oppression.

An inclusive process

One actor is mimicking dripping fluid into his mouth while fingerspelling the letter E. In the background, another actor is seen with his mouth wide open, appearing to speak loudly.
Heinicke's oral method.
Photo: Lisa Wischmann
The Deaf Time Machine is the third Possible World production. It falls in the category documentary theatre or lecture-performance. As we worked on the piece, we found that the need to present the contents clearly and the conditions given by the bilingual presentation pointed towards epic theatre (Bertolt Brecht), while the post-dramatic form was an outcome of the confrontation between opposite positions on stage and the use of historical sources in contextualizing the respective stances.
In order not to reproduce paternalistic structures in the artistic process, we agreed on three rules:
  1. We will not start with a written manuscript.
  2. We will avoid material written by hearing authors when we do research.
  3. The development of the piece is a group process.
We found it useful to film the rehearsals and transcribe the recordings. This enabled us to access the original, improvised material when developing the script. Cochlear implants presented itself as a central topic in our discussions and we found that the group was divided on the issue.
Throughout the piece, we connected improvisations on current, personal experience to previous controversies within the Deaf community. The opposition to CIs within parts of the Deaf community resembles the resistance to oral education of previous generations, but just like many Deaf in the 19th century welcomed oral education, there are also contemporary Deaf people in favor of  CI. This is reflected in the closing statements by Eyk Kauly and Wille Felix Zantes:
"Who gives you, hearing people, the right to interfere with Deaf bodies?... Deafness is not just a hearing impairment. Deafness shapes our identity!"
-Eyk Kauly
"Should this four month old baby get a CI? Yes! It’s the future! Through technical progress we’re able to optimize the entire human race. We should take this opportunity… Let’s see the big picture here, beyond language, let’s create a real superhuman!"
- Wille Felix Zantes

Putting a script together using group exercises and improvisation

On the left of the stage, one actor is lying on a mattress, signing. A live cam projection shows his face and hands to the audience. On the right, an actress sits in a scenery representing a bathroom. She faces the audience and speaks into a microphone. The stage is dark except for spotlights on the actor and actress.
Total view of the stage.
Photo: Jan-Peter E.R. Sonntag
H., a young girl, presented the ensemble with a situation she experienced with her father, who refused to accept her Deaf identity and pushed her to get a CI. She was strongly opposed to this and felt it put her in a position where she was identified as "sick". Many of the ensemble members recognized this sentiment and also felt that the CI-debate tended to be paternalistic. Some called it a genocide. We decided to include this, indeed radical, position of some members of the Deaf community in our piece and to put it in a historical context, using Jean-Marie Gaspard Itard1 as an example. The resulting scene was played with four actors who used German Sign Language combined with speech, acting as a choir. At this point in the play, we introduce the audience to the grammatical structure of signed languages by speaking German translation word-by-word.The text connects the personal experience of having parents push for a CI with Itard’s biography, especially his human subject research at the Paris Deaf Institute, making the statement "THE HEARING (3x PERSON) THINK WE SICK ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS THINK WE SICK […] BUT WE NOT SICK. THEY WANT WE CURE. WE NOT SICK. WE HEALTHY."2

Interviews with survivors

Parallel to or work with improvisations we contacted a group of Deaf seniors. After we’d spent some time together, eight of them agreed to be interviewed. We prepared for the interviews by studying the literature of Deaf communities under the Nazis and in the 1950s-1970s. The interviews were filmed and excerpts integrated in the piece, relating to the topics oral education and National Socialism.
The Deaf Time Machine contains many of the personal views and experiences of the actors. However, one of the most personal and intense experiences we had during repetitions was the encounter between generations. We were honored that the seniors told us about their lives, especially since what they had been through was often very painful. Two of them passed away last year, but we take comfort in that they live on in the play and keep bearing testimony to us all about the history of the Deaf.

Interview with Ms Schubert, Berlin 2014:
(Please download translated transcript here)

Direct Link to video.

Making of-Video:

Direct Link to video.

Pictures copyright by Possible World e. V.
Videos: Jens Kupsch
Recommended Citation
Michaela Caspar (2016): "When your past is omitted in the history books, it’s invisible“: The Deaf Time Machine. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 1.

1 1774-1838, French physician and teacher oft he Deaf, (in)famous for his oralist attitude and attempts to cure deafness with experimental methods.
2 Translator’s note: this is an English translation of a German transcript of DGS.

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