A deaf-defying performance: ‘I sing with my hands’
Deaf performer Caroline Parker signs to popular songs in her one-woman show
Caroline Parker: ‘I not only portray the words but the feeling too’
A diva singing in a funeral parlour: now there’s an arresting subject for a play. Signs of a Diva, a one-woman show by Caroline Parker, will be touring various venues around the country later this month. What makes it even more intriguing is that Parker was born deaf.
“I wasn’t diagnosed by the doctor until I was about four years old,” Parker, who grew up in England, tells me via email. “Hearing tests were not so efficient back then, and my mum was told she was paranoid by doctors when she insisted that something was wrong.”
Parker has 99 per cent hearing loss in one ear, and 74 per cent loss in the other. “My cabaret act, which inspired the show, consists of me signing to well-known recorded songs,” she says. “I cannot sing with my voice so I sing with my hands. What audiences hear is the recording and me signing to the song.”
Her biggest audience was when she was chosen to perform at the Paralympics opening ceremony. “I signed the song I Am What I Am by Beverly Knight. It was an amazing experience, as I am accustomed to performing in intimate spaces, not a stadium holding 80,000 people. This will be my biggest gig in my life – nothing will top that.”
Parker has been performing the hour-long Signs of a Diva show on and off since 2005. How does she sense the energy of a live audience when she can’t hear them?
“It’s all about the vibe. Apparently people sing along with the songs, but I’ve never heard them. I only know the audiences join in when they tell me afterwards.”
What kind of audiences come to her shows? “A wide range of people, young and old. Mostly hearing people, but deaf people can enjoy the show, as it has captions, which are quite creative.”
She has worked solo and in collaboration. “The challenges are convincing casting directors that I can portray characters and emotions before they have seen my work. I love working with other people when I am acting, but my sign song is distinctive, with my own style and translations. Although it’s easier to work alone, I do like working with like-minded performers.
“Recently I was working at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, in Dick Whittington. They worked out visual cues for me to work with non-deaf actors, which was fun, but one time a cue was mistakenly given and I entered my cue a couple of lines early. The other actor was very careful after that.”
Her mother trained her in speech therapy, and Parker says that, with hearing aids, she can “hear the vowels but not the consonants”.
She lip-reads. Is lip-reading the same in different English-speaking countries or do accents make it difficult? “Accents do impact on lip-reading, as it affects the lip patterns,” she says. “Because I grew up in the northwest of England, it is easy for me to lip-read those regional accents, but Scottish is difficult, and French too.”
How does she experience music? “With hearing aids, deaf people can still enjoy music. We just perceive music in different ways, via pitch and vibrations. What we hear is probably not what you hear, but we can enjoy it anyway. Just the same as anyone else, we can be affected by vibrations of music and lyrics of songs. I don’t hear the notes as such, but an emotional song like The Rose sung by Bette Midler affects how I sign the song. I not only portray the words but the feeling too.
“People sign more than they think. It’s not an alien language if you stop and open your eyes, I’ve been told by people who don’t sign they understand Queen’s song Bohemian Rhapsody better after they have seen me sign it.”
Apart from the voices of certain family and friends, what are the sounds she would be most curious to hear?
“The everyday sounds that people take for granted: footsteps approaching, fridges humming, food cooking, and breathing. I didn’t know these sounds existed until people told me.”
Signs of a Diva is at the Axis, Ballymun, February 18; An Grianán, Letterkenny (20); Ballina Arts Centre (22); and the Mill, Dundrum (25)