Wales’ first youth deaf theatre opens in Cardiff

Innovative theatre group for hearing impaired children aims to build confidence and increase diversity in the arts.

Taking Flight theatre was founded 12 years ago by Beth House and Elise Davison (Photographer: Natasha Hirst Twitter: HirstPhotos)

The ground floor of the Wales Millennium Centre was crowded. The setting sun made the Centre brighter and warmer. Children in bright blue shirts were running around, laughing and playing together. But it seems quieter than one would expect at a launch party.

At a closer look, some people are using sign language to communicate with one another. This is not an ordinary youth theatre launch.

On the stage stood Beth House, one of the founders of Taking Flight theatre. She thanked everyone for coming and gladly announced the launch of the first Deaf Youth Theatre in Wales.

“The aim of the youth theater is to increase the confidence of young people and give them a taste of what it’s like to work in the arts,” Beth said.

Beth House is one of the founders of Taking Flight.
(Photographer: Natasha Hirst)

According to the National Deaf Children’s Society, feeling different and isolated will crucially lead to a lack of confidence and low self-esteem that can have a detrimental impact as life goes on.

“Initially, everyone’s screaming and shouting and lots of lacking in confidence. We need lots of things to slowly build that.” Beth said.

She continues, “there was one boy who …wouldn’t come into the room. He was too nervous. He stood outside the room and he just watched everything for an hour and a half through the glass. But one of our volunteers was outside with him and she was talking to him. And then they started to play games. But together, just the two of them, they were doing the same things but outside the room.”

When he came the following week, he walked straight into the classroom and joined in everything.

Steph Back is leading all three sessions for the youth theatre.
(photographer: Natasha Hirst)

Small steps are starting to change how these children behave in school. And the changes are noticeable.

“One of the mums was just saying that the school is feeding back about the change in behavior and change confidence in the person. That’s just five weeks.” Beth said with glee.

Although February 13 was the launch date, the youth theatre sessions have been going on for five weeks. There are three different sessions for three different age groups. And they do a back-to-back session on Saturdays. And deaf or hard of hearing children can email or text (+44 7856 700733) to book a place for free.

BBC Children in Need is funding the Youth theatre. It gives grants to projects in the UK which focus on children and young people who are disadvantaged. The funding will continue for three years before Taking Flight theatre needs to reapply.

At this stage, children are playing games, but as the sessions go on, children will learn more about theatre. (Photo from Taking Flight Facebook page)

“That will be my personal mission to make sure that the funding doesn’t stop after three years,” Beth said, eyes and voice full of determination.

In three years’ time, some children might still be here because they want to be performers, lighting designers, photographers or filmmakers.

Beth continues on, “I want to give them more skills but also for them to be proud of being deaf so that they have this deaf culture. That is not something that is negative. It’s not something that’s wrong. It’s something that just different.”

According to the head of communications at disability equality charity Scope, Warren Kirwan, more than one in five people has a disability, yet they are under-represented on television. Only a shocking 7.4% of the characters on TV are portrayed by disabled people.

“It’s all very well to say we should employ more deaf and disabled actors to theatre companies. What if there aren’t any that are good enough because they haven’t had access to the training?” Beth said.

Currently, there is only one drama course for the deaf in the UK and it is only open for admissions every three years.

Beth said, “why does a deaf young person not think they can be an actor? They haven’t been told that there’s this course that you can go on. Or… go to this drama school. Those pathways aren’t there.

Deaf performers performed You’ve Got Dragons at Salisbury Playhouse on Halloween, 2019. (Photo from Taking Flight Facebook page)

She goes on, “the reason that we exist is that deaf and disabled people still in 2020 are not represented enough in the art world. And that’s what we’re challenging and creating these pathways for young people.”

 “The young people can participate in English or British sign language or a mixture of both. However they feel comfortable, they can communicate.”

At the moment, the sessions are getting children to know more about one another, playing games. But gradually, they will move on to learning more about theatre.

Steph Back, a deaf woman who lost her hearing at the age of 15, leads the sessions in British sign language.

Taking Flight theatre is well known for having inclusive casts in their productions. (Photographer: Natasha Hirst)

She went through a phase where she could not communicate with anyone and had low self-esteem. Now she is a proud, brave deaf woman. Steph is now a role model for many of the children.

As the sessions go on, they will go on trips to see deaf people who are quite well known in the kind of disability arts community, on stage in professional productions. And Taking Flight will be bringing deaf professionals to Cardiff to work with children.

Facebook: Taking Flight Theatre Company

Taking Flight Theatre Website