Frequently asked questions to Asphyxia include ...

 

Have you always been deaf?

I became deaf when I was three, due to recessive genes which I inherited from my parents. Two of my five brothers are also deaf. The only sound I remember from before I became deaf is the lawn mower - not very romantic, I know!

Can you lipread?

Yes, though I often refuse to admit that, because it's such hard work. When I'm lipreading I often catch every third or fourth word (if I'm lucky), and then my brain gets to work, trying to figure out what the sentence could be. I use context, the information I know about that person, the conversation we've had so far, the shape of the lip patterns, the tiny bit I can hear if I'm wearing my hearing aids, and many other factors such as body language and facial expression, to try and work out what the sentence was.

Social customs require me to give a response pretty quickly, while in reality I might not have finalised the sentence in my mind until several seconds or even minutes after it was uttered. Sometimes I'm not sure about a key word, such as not knowing whether someone said "I have" or "I haven't", and I often hold these in my mind as we talk, until it becomes clear.

Because of this process, lipreading is absolutely exhausting for me, and after an hour of conversation, I'm done. I am also less good at lipreading at night, or after a show when I'm tired from performing. I don't want to be rude by refusing to talk to people, but if I'm having a breather in a social situation, this is why! It always helps when people bring out a pen and paper and I am not obliged to try and understand them.

I'd like to learn some sign language - where do I go?

Try contacting the Deaf society in your state: ie. The Victorian Deaf Society, Deaf Services Queensland. The CAE in Melbourne also offers Auslan classes so see what's on offer in your area.

Is the sign language in the show a way of catering for deaf and hearing audiences? Do you also offer lessons?

Absolutely. I like to offer audiences an insight into deaf culture and lifestyle - for hearing audiences this is often quite educational, for deaf audiences it validates their lifestyle, and for young deaf audiences it provides a positive role model. It also makes the show fully accessible to both deaf and hearing audiences.We have a sign singing workshop which we offer along with the show - audiences can come and learn how to sign a song - it's a great way to make a start because it's easier to remember when you do it to music. Auslan is also amazingly poetic and beautiful when set to music. It's a very popular workshop and we've had a great response to it so far.

Is Asphyxia your real name?

Yes. It started as a nickname that was given to me by my brother as a joke. I used to call him Ataxia (lack of muscular co-ordination) in return. Asphyxia stuck. Ataxia didn't. In our group of friends everyone called me Asphyxia, and when I went to university several of them came with me, and I was known by everyone there as Asphyxia. There was so much confusion about my 'other' name that was on the roll that eventually I changed it legally to streamline everything. Yes, Asphyxia is on my driver's licence, my passport, and even my birth certificate. For me the name represents my identity as it blossomed with a group of friends with whom I felt valued and special.

What was your name before?

Not telling!

Have you worked in creative jobs all your life or did you ever experience the joys of a 'desk job'?

I actually studied computer science when I finished school, so that I would have a way of supporting myself in the arts. I did have a computer job for a year after I completed my degree, but since then it's been creativity all the way and I'm so glad I've never needed to support myself financially - my art pays for itself.

How did you get into performing?

As I child my main interest in life was ballet. My goal, of course, was to get into the Australian Ballet School. Although my dancing skills were high enough for me to be seriously considered for this, I failed the medical tests when they realised I was deaf. After VCE ballet I felt disheartened and directionless, so gave it up.

When I was taken to a Circus Oz workshop three years later, I was hooked. I was hungry for a physical discipline which gave me the freedom to be Deaf, to be different, and to use it as an advantage rather than try to cover it up. I was also able to apply a lot of the grace and physical control that I had learnt with ballet to my acrobatics.

From there I went on to join The Women's Circus where Anni Davey taught me trapeze, and I studied with Swinburne's National Institute of Circus Arts full time during their National Training Project in 1999.

Melbourne Fringe Festival funded the development of my Deaf clown character, Dr Decibel, a 'professional audiologist'. Dr Decibel roves on the street, wearing a white lab coat and pushing a pram full of bizarre equipment for testing the hearing of audience participants. Eventually she forgets herself entirely and ends up performing for the crowd a hula hoop routine, signing the words along with Madonna. It is mostly through Dr Decibel that I earn my living, performing at festivals and events throughout Victoria.

I have also created a trapeze act called The Caged Girl which I have performed at Southgate - 13 metres high, to my horror!

I also have a theatre show called Blood Makes Noise, a love story told with circus and sign language. It's about a Deaf woman called Phoebe who meets and falls in love with a hearing guy called Sam. He learns sign language to be able to communicate with her and the show explores their relationship. The show toured twice to the USA where we experienced sell-out houses, to Sydney, and had two home seasons in Melbourne due to popular demand.

What are some of the challenges with being a Deaf performer?

My main difficulty lies with making phone calls. Being Deaf, I can't simply pick up the phone and call theatres and festivals in an attempt to interest them in my work - I can't dial businesses to ask them to quote various items that I need. Although the existence of the Australian Relay Service has meant I can now make personal calls to hearing people through my computer, it is impractical for business use. As it is very slow, a call that might take a hearing person a maximum of a minute, could take me up to twenty minutes. Although email is commonly used these days, people often don't respond to my queries, making phone calls a necessity. Interpreters cost between thirty to sixty dollars an hour, too expensive for me to afford to hire on a regular basis.

Another obstacle for me is in accessing training. Much of the theatre, circus and other training that would really help me to advance in my field is aural-based, and even with an interpreter can be very difficult for me to participate in. I often get around this by hiring private trainers who can work one-to-one with me but again this is very expensive.

How did you go from circus to puppetry?

I was on tour with my circus/theatre show Blood Makes Noise, and after a chance encounter with an amazing marionette show on the streets of Guatemala, I was fortunate to have a few master classes in puppetry with the performer, Sergio Barrios. He also drew instructions for me as to how to make my own puppets. When I got back to Australia I got to work turning my new knowledge into a puppet show, The Paint Factory. The Grimstones is my second puppet show.

You built your own solar powered mudbrick home ... can you tell us a little about that experience?

This was the most empowering thing I have ever done. I started out with no building skills, very little money, and a dream that I would acquire the knowledge I needed on the job. It was the steepest learning curve I've ever undergone, and also the most satisfying. I spent months talking to owner builders and researching environmentally friendly building techniques and housing features. Some things I feel I mastered completely, such as an understanding of solar electricity and how to wire a house, and composting toilets and greywater recycling systems. Other things I never quite got the hang of, such as plumbing details and how to saw straight. My carpentry skills are still pretty dodgy but I managed to lay my own timber floor, and luckily discovered I have a knack for bricklaying, even if the walls do curve slightly. I love living in a place that encourages me to be environmentally friendly, due to the solar electricity, composting toilet, recycled greywater and food garden that surrounds the house. I still lie in bed at night though, staring up at the papier mache ceiling, and think it's amazing that I really built this place with my own hands.

Where did you get the idea for The Grimstones?

After I created my first marionette show, The Paint Factory, I felt inspired to create a bigger show, something that would fill the larger stages I perform on, and at the time I was watching a lot of movies with gothic themes, which drew me back to my years as a goth when I was a teenager. The whole aesthetic has always appealed to me, despite lying dormant for several years. I also love making things - nothing gives me more pleasure than being creative, and for me making The Grimstones meant hours and hours in my tiny loft studio, fiddling around with fabrics, stitching, painting, sculpting and building.

What is the format of the show?

The Grimstones is essentially a puppet show, but it's no traditional piece with the puppeteers hidden behind a velvet curtain. The performers walk through the set and interact with the puppets, creating an amazing juxtaposition of scale: the miniature world meets our world. The story is told partly through narration in sign language (with voice translation), and partly through the lifelike expressive movements of the puppets themselves. It is sprinkled with humour and delightful magical surprises.

Is it aimed at children, adults or both?

The Grimstones is for anyone who likes a gothic fairytale or a world in miniature - children, teens, adults and seniors all love the show.

Tell me about the story and the characters.

The show has five puppet characters, though on of them is dead and doesn't actually make an appearance in Hatched - he debuted in the second show, Mortimer Revealed!

The main character is a girl called Martha who longs to work magic, like her grandfather, but he refuses to allow her, saying she lacks the gift of magic … she sneaks into his lab anyway to work a spell, and creates an egg, from which hatches her baby brother Crumpet.

The story is about love and acceptance of people who are different, and Crumpet certainly is different, thanks to an error in Martha's spell. Martha herself is a canny child, intelligent and sharp and also a bit lost. She lives with her mother who is busy grieving for Martha's father, who died some years ago … and with her grandfather who is likewise distracted, also due to Mortimer's death ... Martha struggles to find her own place in her family and to capture the attention of her mother and grandfather. Velvetta, Martha's mother, is loving but so tormented by grief she is vague and forgetful and finds it difficult to tend to Martha's needs. Elcho, her grandfather, is an upstanding man in the community, a medical healer and meteorologist. He is very kindly but quite stern and strict.

Each character goes through a journey, when Crumpet enters their lives ... and by the end of the show, Crumpet has transformed them all and helped them move on from the grief caused by Mortimer's death.

Is there a message behind the performance?

The show explores themes of family love, and acceptance. The central message is about the importance of accepting those who we consider to be different. The show also represents my love of books, the awe I feel about a simple pile of paper pages which, when read, take us to amazing and places and allow us to be immersed in another world. I wanted to capture that feeling with The Grimstones, and books/stories is a central theme. We have giant books which open to become the home for The Grimstones, we have miniature books which the puppets read, we have a giant spellbook, and we have the ultimate story, which is narrated by the performers of the show.

What sort of reactions have you been getting to the show in places you have done it so far?

Everywhere we've gone people have loved the show. Children and adults are both drawn into the old gothic world of the marionettes and seem to be delighted by the humour and the story and the puppets themselves. We've had seniors in their eighties come up to us after the show, blinking back tears, telling us what an amazing experience it was for them, and we've had young children come to meet the puppets and give them a hug: they believe in them absolutely. Artists marvel at the detail in the miniature world that is The Grimstones, asking question after question about how everything was made. My very favourite moment was when a young boy came up to me after the show and handed me a button. He asked me to give it to Velvetta, the mother in the family, to add to her collection of fine antique buttons. The button is now featured on the sewing table where Velvetta works.

Have you performed internationally with this show?

We've performed at an international Deaf festival in Reims called Clin d'oeil. It was an amazing experience and we were so lucky to perform in Europe. While we were there we made the most of it by exploring marionette festivals in Italy and France ... lucky us!

During our visit to Italy, we met Sergio Barrios again for the first time since that first encounter in Guatemala and I was blown away - he really is a genius. I got to see where he works, and a whole array of amazing puppets he's been working on since then. I got loads of ideas and inspiration for how to improve my puppets.

I've definitely come home with more knowledge about marionettes. Because of the dearth of marionettes in Australia it's very hard for us to learn from those more experienced than us. I'll be making some alterations to my marionettes when I get the chance - to make them more expressive, based on the techniques I learnt while we were in Europe.

What do you think draws audiences to see The Grimstones?

It's a very special show, and it's more than just a puppet show. It's an experience - get immersed in a world full of sign language, be inspired to become creative after having a close look at our set: The Grimstones presents a world in miniature where almost everything was made from discarded objects and junk. We have an amazing foyer exhibition showing how The Grimstones was made, and many people go home brimming with inspiration for their own creative life. We offer a Q&A after the show so interested audiences can find out anything they want - we get some pretty amazing questions and the audiences are always drawn in by this process.

Marionettes are very rare in Australia. Did you want to introduce this style of puppetry to Australians?

We have only been able to find out about three other professional marionette performers in Australia and they are very hard to nail down! What I wanted to do was take this old form of theatre and present it in a new and innovative way. We break all the rules of traditional marionette theatre in that we are not concealed behind a velvet curtain. We walk through the set and the stage, and even interact with the puppets ourselves.

Your puppets are so beautiful - who makes them?

I actually made the puppets myself. It took me 18 months to make everything - the puppets and the set. I designed everything and most of the pieces are made from recycled materials or bits of junk I found lying around.

What inspired them?

After I created my first marionette show, The Paint Factory, I felt inspired to create a bigger show, something that would fill the larger stages I perform on, and at the time I was watching a lot of movies with gothic themes, which drew me back to my years as a goth when I was a teenager. The whole aesthetic has always appealed to me, despite lying dormant for several years. I also love making things - nothing gives me more pleasure than being creative, and for me making The Grimstones meant hours and hours in my tiny loft studio, fiddling around with fabrics, stitching, painting, sculpting and building.

I did not realise you were on stage also, I presumed you were maintaining the traditional approach of loading the puppets in from the top and directing them from there?

Oh no, not at all. Both I and co-performer Paula have a very strong role to play. We enter the stage carrying suitcases which are revealed to be giant books. I tell the audience "These books belonged to my great great great great great grandparents. They were the Grimstones. This is their story." Then we open one of the books and inside is a pop-up style room, which becomes the set for the story, and the puppets enter and play out parts of the story. Intermittently through the show, Paula and I narrate—me in Australian sign language and Paula provides a voice translation. I tell my 'family history', and Paula is like the hired help. We both argue with each other about how to best tell the story to our audiences, and at times the puppets ask us for help, and that these times we interact with them and become a part of their story. It's very surreal, with the two worlds merging.

The story you tell, is this an old fairytale or is it an original story?

Yes the stories are entirely original. The fairytale we tell in The Grimstones was developed with Kelly Parry, who took my initial ideas and helped me to turn them into something wonderful. She co-directed the show to help me realise my dream.

How do you have the patience to create things with the kind of detail you used in The Grimstones?

The secret is to have plenty of time, and to avoid quick fixes by planning well. I've spent most of my creative life taking shortcuts, whipping up garments fast and roughly while my friends carefully measured and cut from tailored patterns. I've made a lot of mistakes due to my fast and somewhat slipshod attitude but I also really appreciate the skills I've learnt that enable me to be very efficient with my time. The Grimstones was a real departure for me from my usual style, and I didn't start making anything until I'd worked out exactly how I was going to do it. When I made something that didn't work, if I couldn't face starting over, I set it aside and worked on something else while I mulled over it in the back of my mind and talked with others about the problems I was having. Eventually I usually found the inspiration to go back and re-do the piece. Sometimes the inspiration didn't come and I just had to force it. That said, I'm lucky that naturally I am a pretty patient person, and the real thing that fires me on and gives me the patience I need is my inspiration and passion for the project.

How did you make the puppets?

They are made with a mix of materials: papier mache, rope, wood, fabric, lead weights and more. I outline the construction of my puppets in detail in my book, The Grimstones: An Artist's Journal. There's also photos in there of the puppets half-made, my failed efforts, and my preliminary sketches.