Arts House: Imagined Touch

Imagined Touch is “a deafblind live art experience” at Arts House in North Melbourne. Deafblind artists Heather Lawson and Michelle Stevens have been developing this remarkable piece for four years with director Jodee Mundy – everyone in Mundy’s family is Deaf, except for her, so Auslan is her first language.

Imagined Touch. Photo by Bryony Jackson
Imagined Touch. Photo by Bryony Jackson

In 2013, Lawson (who was born Deaf and lost her sight) and Stevens (who was born Blind and lost her hearing) said, “We need to make a theatre show that tells the truth about being Deafblind. We want to share our humour, grief and our profound isolation, to highlight the importance of human touch and tactile communication for Deafblind people”.

The work begins with the two talking with each other and telling the audience, sometimes through interpreters, how they met. As an audience – who can mostly see and hear, or see or hear – it’s easy to imagine that they can “feel” our presence and support. And our curiosity. And perhaps a touch of condescending sympathy.

If you have a ticket for the show, maybe read the rest later because it is live art, which means that it doesn’t exist without the audience’s willing active participation.

We have an impression of the Deafblind, so it’s time to feel it. We’re given goggles that let us see light, some colour and shadow (and, in my case, the outline of the glasses that I kept on!) and headphones that play music and sound (by Tim Humphrey and Madeleine Flynn) that blocks out how hearing helps us move and position ourselves.

Once they were on, I reached for the hand of the friend I was next to – who was reaching for mine. We’ve been in countless blacked-out theatres, but this was immediately a new sensation. It was unexpectedly scary, especially as we were not sure what was happening around us. Then she squeezed my hand and could feel her being led away. I was no longer a “we”.

Then a stranger’s hand took mine.

I had immediate and complete trust in that hand. I still don’t know who it was. Or who any of the hands and arms and bodies I felt were, but one woman drew a smiley face on my hand and I’m sure we both laughed loudly because it was finally something we could understand.

In the third and final part of the show, Heather and Michelle perform. We still may not have any idea of their felt experience – our deafblind experience was a game where it was easy to trust every hand and touch – but we want to know more.

And both artists ensure that our expectations and assumptions are, challenged, dismissed and laughed at.

Imagined Touch – what a heartbreaking title – is shaped it into a piece that defies expectations and genuinely tests, disarms and surprises its audience. It shares the lived experience of artists who don’t understand how their audiences experience their work, as their audiences don’t understand how they experience an audience. And, for a while, none of this mattered.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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