With every year, a new class enters and leaves the St Andrews Theatre community, and as this year ends, the last productions of this year’s graduating class are beginning to come through. In this bittersweet moment, Louis Catliff, one of the most prolific actors, directors, and photographers in town is bringing Nina Raine’s Tribes to the StAge, a touching, funny piece about a dysfunctional family, and their Deaf Son. Owl Eyes sat down with Catliff and the play’s lead, Benjamin Osugo, for a quick chat.
OE: What made you pick Tribes?
LC: I read Tribes two years ago and was struck by just how good every part of it is. Line to line it’s brilliant. Nina Raine has written something that is hilarious, heartbreaking and genuinely fascinating. We’ve broken each scene down to the point of excess now but in every rehearsal we keep finding something new.
OE: This is a play fundamentally about a deaf relationship. How does it feel telling a story that’s this unique for your show?
LC: It’s a challenge and a privilege. Deaf stories are woefully underrepresented onstage and Courtney Aitken, who volunteers with Action on Hearing Loss and has been consulting on the production, is so supportive in terms of what we’re doing and of the script itself. We’ve all learnt so much about the deaf and hard of hearing community and there’s a been a real drive to accurately depict the experiences of Billy and Sylvia. The subtlety and quality of the relationship is really down to the script and the actors, who are phenomenal. It is also one of the few plays with the potential to show something to an audience they’ve never seen before, and hopefully for anyone who is deaf or hard of hearing to reflect their own experiences.
OE: What’s it like playing a deaf character? What are the major differences between that and playing someone who’s hearing?
BO: When I first got this role, I was ecstatic. Yet at the same time, I was also apprehensive. How could I possibly responsibly and accurately portray someone with an experience so different to mine? The answer to this is obvious I can’t. My life has been so different to someone who is deaf or hard of hearing. Of course, it is completely impossible to truly relate to anyone who isn’t you. However, what I can do is apply the proper research and sensitivity in order to do the character justice. Courtney and members from Deaf Action have been a huge help in this sense. For the deaf and hard of hearing world, Tribes is a story that needs to be told over and over again, yet at the same time, it is just the start of a message that is so important: portraying the deaf and hard of hearing as people, not caricatures. This is a very meandering answer, however, I think it has hopefully gotten my point across – at the core of it there is no real difference. I hope this will be clearer when people come to see the play!
OE: How has it been teaching Sign Language to the cast?
LC: It’s been awesome. We have an amazing sign instructor in Sofia (Garcia Agudo) who taught our actors not only the sign but also the super expressive facial expressions and body language that accompany it. Benji (who plays Billy) and Isabella (who plays Sylvia) have worked so hard and their scenes together are astonishing. Apparently, they also speak sign with a strong ‘Fife’ accent, which is hilarious.
OE: Your plays are known for having complex tech and projections. Are we gonna see more of that in Tribes?
LC: Oh yes! The script specifies A LOT of projection in the show and we’re trying to do pretty much all of it. On top of that we want to make the show accessible to those who are deaf and hard of hearing so full script will be projected onto one side of the stage, following the action throughout. There’s also a lot of music and a really talented animator (Alexandrina Fleming) is producing videos between scenes for us. The script has so much potential for adding stuff and we’ve tried to embrace that. Something that our tech (Grace Cowie) is overjoyed about.
OE: Working in the StAge can often be really hard for intimate shows because of how large the design of the stage has to be – how does Tribes deal with this?
LC: We’re bringing the play down onto the union floor and the audience with it. We want them to feel like they’re in the family’s living/dining room. You should be close enough to smell the wine and see Jonathan’s (playing Christopher) forehead vein popping mid-rant. Lucy (the set designer) is also constructing a huge tent to function as the back wall and screen for projections which should help with the intimacy of the performance and in making people forget they’re sitting in the debris of last night’s BOP.
OE: So the family in Tribes is notably nameless, but you came up with the name Kintszmann. Was there any reason as to why you went with that one or was it just for the sake of the goof?
BO: Yes. The name is completely fictional and yet has become an institution within the Tribes cast as well. A name befitting such outrageousness was required, and so ‘Kintszmann’ was born.
OE: Which of the Kintszmann boys would you most like to have a long chat with?
LC: Oh man. The Kintszmann boys are all really obnoxious. The conversation would mostly be them ranting at me about juice or academia. I think I’d probably rather have a nice chat with Beth (the mum played by Tiffany Black), discuss her unconventional food choices and how her crime novel’s coming along.
OE: Who’s your favorite character in the play?
BO: My favourite character is, of course, my own! Billy has been in the backseat for almost all of his life. He is an extremely kind boy, but one who is dreadfully misunderstood by his own family. Then something changes. He meets a girl. His life turns completely inside out. He wants the people closest to him to understand, but these are people with an extremely concrete worldview. He is forced to reconcile his new identity with the people that love him the most. This is the central conflict of Tribes.
OE: What’s been the best moment with the cast?
LC: We’ve had many a laff! Jen (who plays Ruth, the middle child) has some one-liners that never fail to tickle me. Bailey gets an excuse to do his unnervingly good monkey impression, which entirely overshadows the rest of the play and we’ve come up with our own warm-up called ‘Paint the Raisin’. A more profound moment was when Courtney came to our first full cast rehearsal and said that Benji’s signing was so compelling she couldn’t take her eyes off him. That was great and a real encouragement that we’re doing justice to Billy’s story not to mention a boost to Benji who is EXCELLENT.
OE: This is going to be your last St Andrews show, what’s going to be your favorite moment from all these years?
LC: I’m not sure if a particular moment stands out. But there’s always a point in rehearsals where you’re tired and stressed, have been surviving off of Tesco ‘Just Ham’ sandwiches for the last week and a scene that feels impossible finally clicks. It’s a moment of real exhilaration and relief, mostly relief, and is always down to the actors being brilliant and working it out themselves. Or the final night of The Effect when the tech worked and Val took the pill in sync with the video when she COULDN’T EVEN SEE IT! That was pretty cool.
OE: What’s it like working with Louis as a director?
BO: It’s been really fun! I’ve always wanted to be in one of his shows. I think the measure of a director is their ability to surround themselves with people who are fantastic at what they do. I think Louis is a great example of this. He has put an immense amount of work into this show and I really hope that we do him proud.
Elevator Pitch me this show: Go!
Tribes explores the limitations of language both spoken and unspoken. It is utterly hilarious and deeply moving, sometimes within the same sentence, and features some of the best culinary putdowns ever delivered on stage. It has been consistently described by deaf theatregoers as the most accurate depiction of their experience and is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Tribes is going up the 29th and 30th of April in the StAge. You can reserve tickets by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.