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Israeli deaf and blind troupe hits U.S.

Actors in Nalaga´at, Israel´s troupe of deaf and blind thespians, perform in "Light Is Heard in Zig Zag." (Dudi Ardon)

Actors in Nalaga´at, Israel´s troupe of deaf and blind thespians, perform in "Light Is Heard in Zig Zag." (Dudi Ardon)

NEW YORK, June 20 (JTA) — Adina Tal’s troupe of deaf and blind actors can’t hear her — but that doesn’t stop the Israeli director from yelling. “I shout,” Tal says. “I’ve been shouting for about four years, and I still think everyone will hear me.” Luckily, Tal relies on translators who speak a combination of Israeli and Russian touch sign language — where letters are spelled onto a person’s palm — to communicate with the 12 members of the troupe, known as Nalaga’at. During weekly rehearsals over the past few years, she had the actors sculpt each other’s faces to learn expressions of joy, sorrow and fear, she says with a sigh. She worked the troupe as hard as any other actors she has directed. Already, the troupe has performed 40 shows in Israel for more than 15,000 people, and has earned popular and critical acclaim. Now the 51-year-old director and her actors are embarking on a North American tour. Nalaga’at is currently performing its show, “Light Is Heard in Zig Zag,” in Toronto, Montreal, Boston, New York and New Jersey. With music as their background, the actors use exaggerated facial expressions and graceful swoops of their hands to communicate in sign language and mime. The actors’ grace and rhythm — learned by feeling the amplifications of the music — engages audience members, even if they don’t immediately understand the message. But Tal explains that the movements and stories are not random: The actors are acting out their life dreams, which include being a bus driver or a general in the army, or having a birthday party. For these performers, their handicap is profound. “Sometimes I try to close my eyes and ears, but it’s ridiculous, because it’s impossible to imagine,” Tal says. Tal herself wasn’t sure the actors would last more than one performance. “Theater is about communication, and working with deaf-blind people, most of whom are non-verbal, whose biggest problem is communication,” was a daunting task, she says. Tal admits she initially thought the idea was crazy, and that she was crazy to take on the project. But “you need someone crazy to think it’s possible,” she says. Nalaga’at, meaning ‘Do touch,’ is the group’s plea for normalcy. “It means don’t be afraid to get close to a group that is usually very isolated,” Tal says. The deaf-blind troupe was conceived of and initiated some five years ago at the Center for Deaf-Blind Persons of Israel’s Beth David Institute. Under the leadership of Tal and manager Eran Gur, the group became an independent non-profit production two years ago. The center, which recruited Tal to direct the troupe, no longer funds the project. There are an estimated 1,000 deaf-blind people within a population of some 10,000 deaf people in Israel, says Elias Kabakov, the center’s professional director. About 5 percent to 6 percent of deaf people in Israel suffer from variations of genetic conditions called Usher syndromes. Usher patients are born deaf or hearing impaired, and slowly go blind over the course of their life. Most of Nalaga’at’s troupe, which includes both men and women, suffer from the condition. At the Perkins School for the Blind, which is hosting Nalaga’at for one Boston show, administrators see troupe members as role models. “I think most people haven’t had the opportunity to actually meet and get to know a deaf-blind person and there really are a lot of misconceptions about what deaf-blind people are like,” says Barbara Castleman, a Perkins spokeswoman. The school’s history of helping people who are deaf-blind exceed expectations, and of changing public perception about what deaf-blind people can achieve, was motivation for hosting Nalaga’at. “When we bring a whole troupe of actors who are deaf-blind, who are talented and have presence on stage and can put on a memorable experience for people, that will stay with them,” Castleman says. “They will actually get to see that people who are deaf-blind can really achieve their dreams.” The show not only gives the audience a window into the deaf-blind existence, it empowers the actors. “Being deaf-blind actually means you always need to ask for favors,” Tal says. “You put out your hands and say, ‘Please give me.’ In this show, they give the audience a very big gift.” Their ability to do that has bolstered the group’s courage and strengthened their resolve to be part of society, Tal says. The father of one member of the troupe died soon after the group was formed. When Tal asked troupe members to write a condolence card, they shied away from the task. Now they want to perform for wounded soldiers because they think they can give them strength to heal, she says. Tal thinks it’s no coincidence that the unusual troupe is Israeli. “Sometimes in a reality that is so hard, like the reality we live in, at some point you just want to say that you are not afraid and you can make things happen,” she says. “And if I choose today to stay in Israel to raise my children, I feel that I have to try to give them a better world.”More information about the troupe’s shows is available at www.nalagaat.org.il.

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