Conversations About a Play

Editor’s note: The images in the slideshow document a conversation on paper between the writer and artist Louise Stern and theatre director Omar Elerian, although they contain other voices. Louise has edited the conversation by tearing it into fragments and recomposing it as a collage, the method she employs in much of her artistic practice. She also contributes the below text:


Observations on communication and language have long bitten at my heels, demanding that I find some form or other to convey their urgency. I have tried to obey them in different ways: through art, performance, literature. When, a few years ago, it occurred to me that theatre might bring together the strands that I had been working along, a series of generous coincidences led me to the theatre director Omar Elerian.


Omar split his childhood between Italy and Palestine, where his father was born. The rich presence of his Palestinian grandmother, with whom he shared no common language, stood large in his childhood. Because they had no words for one another, they turned to eye contact, to food, to touch, gesture, and the potency of sharing the same space.The mystery and magic of the other’s life was allowed to collect between them without compression into words and ideas.


This is something that I feel deeply through my deafness, which pushes me up against visceral experience, and this is one of the reasons that the collaboration with Omar has become so meaningful for me. The play we have developed together is about how words so often mask physical, sensual reality. In The Ugly Birds, each of the three characters struggles in their different ways with life in a world that is saturated with language. For each of them, a point arrives where their physical reality can no longer be reconciled with that world. It incorporates choreographed physical gesture and projected written conversations as well as spoken dialogue.


In my native sign language, there is the potential for distilled physical expression. The closest thing that I have to compare this to is painting or dance – mediums that allow for boundless sensation. While people don’t usually think of washing their hands as an act of artistic expression, sign language users step in and out of this emotive realm in the course of their ordinary lives.  Yet it is not accurate or helpful to say that sign is an art, a dance, for that is to reduce it. I feel that by its very nature art should be indulgent for the viewer – a step out of the structures of our day-to-day lives – all of which language helps us to negotiate. Sign language is a pragmatic tool belonging to the deaf community and culture that happens to have a built-in capacity for hypnotic movement.


I want to present sign language, and movement drawn from sign language, in the context of specific human lives, so that its origins are honoured. It’s a task I have a tough time rising up to. Among other things, I have difficulty finding the balance between the universal and the specific, trying to find the right narratives to provide faithful contexts for these moments of freedom and intrinsic physicality.    


In the course of developing the play, I couldn’t have asked for a more patient and perceptive collaborator than Omar. Hours of discussions with my longtime collaborator, Oliver Pouliot, and others veered from the wildly philosophical to the strictly practical. On our hands and knees, we tried to put together bits of paper with images and words that we felt were somehow relevant to what we were trying to do. Always Omar instinctively knew how to take things forward – both with coaxing and with the acutely placed comment. Finally, we have a draft to take into the rehearsal room.


Here is a conversation from one night at Omar’s place, after we ate heaps of pasta, potatoes and cheesecake with my husband (also called Omar, but hailing from Mexico), Omar’s girlfriend Laura, their cat Ninja, and Helsa, Liam and Jackie, some of my faithful interpreters. They needed a well-deserved rest and to fully savour Omar’s cooking and the wine, so Omar and I talked about the play via pen and paper.


OMAR ELERIAN is a director, dramaturge, and performer. He studied physical theatre at Lecoq in Paris, a school that focuses on the poetry of the body and on play. His work includes Jericho House’s The Tempest, which premiered in Palestine and Israel before coming to the Barbican, London; You’re Not Like The Other Girls Chrissy, nominated for an Olivier and winner of The Stage’s Best Solo Performance; The Mill – City of Dreams in Bradford, Yorkshire; Testadi Rame at the Teatro Fortezza Vecchia, Italy; and Les P’tites Grandes Choses at the Maison de Arts du Cirque et du Clown, France. He is currently Associate Director at the Bush Theatre, London, where he has worked on numerous productions including Chalet Lines, Perseverance Drive and The Islands.

LOUISE STERN is an American writer and artist who works around ideas of language, communication and isolation. She grew up in an exclusively deaf community. Her first collection of short stories, Chattering, was published by Granta in 2011. She has written works for theatre including The Ugly Birds and The Interpreter, performed at the Bush Theatre, and was commissioned to write stories for BBC Radio 4 in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Her artwork has been exhibited in galleries in Geneva, Barcelona, Madrid, London and Port Eliot among other places, and she is the founder and publisher of Maurice, a contemporary art magazine for children. Her debut novel, Ismael and His Sisters, will be published by Granta in February 2015.