Layers of language: An interview with “Tribes” playwright Nina Raine
Tribes, written by Nina Raine, debuted in 2010 at the Royal Court Theatre in London, and recently opened in New York.
Examining the experience of a deaf member of a hearing family, the play is now showing at the Barrow Street Theater through January 6th.
The Eye sat down with Raine to discuss the play, her influences, and the play’s exploration of what constitutes modern-day tribes.
How did you get to understand the deaf community in order to realistically portray it in the play?
I watched a documentary, and that gave me the idea of watching the play. It was a documentary about a deaf couple, and then I was friends with a writer who was going deaf. Genetically inherited condition. And then through her, she helped me when there were parties and things. I met deaf people though a person that was going deaf.
And also, I kind of said, “I’m writing this thing, and I want to talk to people about it.”
And so I talked to loads of people, and what was interesting was that there was such a variety of deafness. So I talked to one guy who has always been deaf– he had no speech, so he had to do it with an interpreter. And then I spoke to a guy who had gone deaf later in life. I went to a deaf school, so I met deaf kids. I talked to the parents of some of the deaf children that were at the school. Combinations of deafness, and everyone is completely different.
How did you take this community of deafness and make it applicable to the general theme of communities that people form?
I was thinking, deafness is just one example of a kind of community, and there are loads of others. When you start looking, you see how they all share the way that deaf people talk about other deaf people– It’s the same as how some Jewish people talk about other Jewish people. About how observant you are. And it’s like intellectuals talking about other intellectuals. Any kind of group, they all share certain qualities.
And then it boils down to the family– It’s like the smallest niche you can get. That’s what the play boils down to for me, the family, a tiny little kingdom with its internal rules and hierarchies and weirdnesses that are unquestioned. And how it difficult it is when you meet someone that you fall in love with, how do you introduce that person into the group that already exists, the family.
Was the play in the round your choice when the play is performed in New York?
No, I was actually quite anxious about that choice of the director’s. Because when I arranged it, I had these surtitles (subtitles), and I worried about it being in the round. Although I love the idea of in the round– it’s always intimate, and it completely calls the audience in– I worried about how the surtitles were going to manage. And they had a lot of ingenious ways of making them visible, like projecting them on the side of the bed.
What were you trying to get at by including the themes of language and communication in the play?
How many ways there are of communicating and not communicating. You can communicate through sign language, and what happens when someone’s words are not the same as your words. Just because we have a word for it doesn’t mean that we agree on the feeling that is behind that word. How words are an attempt. And I suppose that is where the music comes in, and music has no words.
With opera, half the time you don’t know what they’re saying, but we feel Oh, this is sad. And I’m interested in how come you and me can listen to the same piece of music and actually agree on what is sad and what is happy. We’ll agree in a way that we won’t agree about a word. All the levels and layers of language.
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