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‘My mum would sign me to sleep every night, and they’d be these huge, intricate stories she painted with her hands’

Dublin Fringe Festival 2023: In Resonance, Chloe Commins fuses aerial arts with her experience of growing up as a child of deaf adults

Chloe Commins remembers wandering around the Body & Soul Festival in 2015 with a group of friends when she got talking to a stranger. “It was really funny,” she says. “I really enjoy dressing up and that kind of thing, and they probably saw that creative streak in me. I was amongst a group of artists and actors, and this person said, ‘What art do you make?’ I said, ‘Um, I work in finance.’” She guffaws. “Then I asked her what she did, and she said, ‘I’m an aerial artist.’ I said ‘What’s that?’”

Her interest piqued, Commins soon began taking an aerial class, which is to say in the circus-related arts of aerial dance and acrobatics, each week. “Very quickly it became three classes a week, and then I was teaching, and it was every day.”

It’s somewhat apt that we’re in a bustling cafe on Dublin’s north quays, with loud music and the chatter and bustle of tourists creating a din that you have to make an effort to be heard over. For her new show, Resonance, a “journey into the unspoken” that debuts at Dublin Fringe Festival next week, Commins is fusing her aerial arts – her main discipline is the hoop, although she also teaches silks, ropes, flying trapeze and cocoon – with her experience of growing up as a child of deaf adults, or Coda. The show uses physical theatre, lighting and Irish Sign Language, or ISL, to both illustrate and process her experience.

When people hear that her parents are deaf, says Commins, who worked in investment banking right up until 2019, they usually ask two questions. “They’re either, ‘How can you speak?’ or, ‘How can you sign?’ But you adapt to your environment, and that was my environment. It wasn’t a question of ‘How can I do this?’; I just did. There was never a point where I needed to take [sign language] classes or anything; it was just me communicating with my parents.”


Her father once hoped to be a fine artist, she says, but completed an engineering degree at a time when there was no interpreting service; her equally creative mother was a dressmaker before leaving for London to work as a secretarial assistant. “She would really make an effort, especially with sign language,” Commins says. “My mum would sign me to sleep every night, and they’d be these huge, intricate stories she painted with her hands. So I suppose, growing up, my experience was probably very different to the average Joe Soap’s – I would have to take all the phone calls, or answer the door, or whatever.”

Resonance, she says, delves into the difficult circumstances of being a Coda who is thrust into the adult world, although she never felt under pressure to assist her parents. ISL became Ireland’s official third language in 2017, but until then there “wasn’t a lot of resources pumped into it, or awareness being raised for the deaf community,” Commins explains.

“Up until my parents’ time, their families were told that they shouldn’t learn sign language, because it’d hold [deaf people] back from learning to speak. So from the point that I learned to speak myself, I was put at the adults’ table, as a translator between extended family and my own. And that’s a strange position to be in as a child, when the topics aren’t for children, or they’re a bit heavy. The show is basically about how I’m the only person in the room who understands what both parties are saying, and I don’t necessarily want to be there – but it’s no one’s fault.”

Developing Resonance has been revelatory. “I didn’t actually speak about [my experience] a lot until this show,” she says. “I think it was more about me coming to terms with where I fit into society, because I always felt like I was caught between the hearing community and the deaf community. Growing up, I had my friends and their families, and they’d talk about things, but I never really fully related, and I don’t think they related to my situation, either. So, yeah, it was kind of like a light-bulb moment,” she says, smiling, “which is funny, because there are literally light bulbs in the show.”

Lighting does play an important part in Resonance, although Commins is reluctant to say too much about what it signifies, instead leaving it up to the audience to interpret. “We were thinking, ‘How do we get around the lack of audio input?’ because obviously we’ll have the deaf community coming to see the show,” she says. “So we thought, ‘Why don’t we make use of the light?’ It’s also very representative of alarms that the deaf community use, which are lights that flash – sometimes you’d have a flashing light in place of a doorbell, that sort of thing. I had this image of the light bulbs, and me in the air with them, and I thought, ‘Visually, this looks so important.’ Then I was thinking about how I could visually incorporate ISL into the performance so that it’s immersive and almost like choreography.”

The production’s director, Micheál Fleming, has experience as a writer and is a trained actor, but he admits he has never worked on a show quite like Resonance. “The stuff I would have done theatrewise in the past would have been very traditional: scripts, standard lights, etc,” he says. “This piece is definitely more abstract, which makes it more interesting. It’s been a challenge but also really rewarding to look at it with that lens, rather than a traditional narrative. You have to get more creative and expand your thought process into something that isn’t so regimented and structured.”

Fleming also happens to be Commins’s partner of nine years, which means he has a deeper understanding of what she wants to accomplish with the show. He completed an Irish Sign Language course several years ago so he could communicate with her parents and other deaf people, and he’s aware of how underrepresented the community is in the arts.

“In an ideal world, Resonance would make people more curious about the deaf community in Ireland and the deaf world in general,” he says. “At times they can definitely feel a bit excluded from society. It is coming into the public domain, I guess, with certain films and other theatre pieces as well. There is a big community of deaf people in Ireland – hilarious people who’ve led colourful, interesting lives. I don’t know if sympathy is the right word, but I’d love if there was an interest, an understanding, a desire to learn more about the deaf community.”

Commins feels similarly about what she wants to achieve with Resonance. Her mum, she says, came to see a work-in-progress of the show earlier in the year – the first time she’d seen her daughter perform – and she liked it, Commins says, smiling. “I think if people are interested in seeing something that is a visual spectacle, and are very open-minded, and are maybe interested in learning something or feeling something new…” She pauses. “I think if they came away from the show in any way curious about the deaf community and its history – and also about circus arts – that would be my aim,” she says. “There’s just not a lot of knowledge out there in the general public, so having the curiosity to even learn a little bit of ISL – ‘Hello, how are you?’, that kind of thing – would be amazing.”

Resonance is at the Lir Academy, as part of Dublin Fringe Festival, from Monday, September 11th, until Friday, September 15th