Ben Strout came to Australia from the USA to become artistic director of the Australian Theatre of the Deaf in 1982. The company was originally housed with the Elizabethan Theatre Trust in Newtown. In this interview Ben talks about his early career in theatre with deaf and other communities in the US, the attractions of coming to Australia, and his years with the Theatre of the Deaf. In the excerpt below he discusses the way in which deaf performers in Australia were able to overcome the limitations of his relatively foreign sign language.
Deaf language, sign languages, are quite unique in various countries, they’re each different. There might be a couple of core alphabets, like the British alphabet which is the two-handed alphabet which the Australian sign language uses, and the one-handed alphabet from the French that the Americans use. But deaf people can understand each other so much better than spoken language – people from different spoken languages – in part because it’s a visual or largely a visual representation. So the American sign language I found to be much more visual and so by using American sign language whenever I couldn’t think of the Australian sign for it – which was often – usually I was well understood by the deaf people. It was harder for me to understand the Australian sign language, Auslan, but then the deaf actors were so good they would adopt American signs for me and it became quite an easy level of conversation, though probably less so for me with the deaf community than with the actors who were already so visual and could learn my quirks and my sort of ‘pidgin’ sign.