Isolation and social stigma are feelings that Leah Kalaitzi often experiences as a Deaf person, but when on stage, her comedic use of British Sign Language (BSL) allows her to connect with audiences, in a stand-up performance seeking to introduce viewers to Deaf culture.
Having done stand-up comedy since 2014 in Edinburgh, Kalaitzi plays on the animated and expressive qualities of BSL, breaking down common misconceptions about the language and the Deaf community in general, with collaboration from an interpreter.
She's now the star of a recent short documentary, Silent Laughs, made possible by the Scottish Documentary Institute and Bridging the Gap. The Creators Project caught up with Kalaitzi and filmmaker Natalia Kouneli to talk about raising awareness of Deaf people through comedy and screen.
The Creators Project: Hi Leah, so what’s it like being a Deaf comedian? What sort of reaction do you get?
Leah Kalaitzi (LK): In general, it's been very positive. Usually I pick the interpreter, partly because we are all volunteering our time, but also because I want to make sure it is someone who really knows me and my humor and that I have a good connection with. The audiences can be very mixed—Deaf, Hearing, gay, straight or maybe those just learning to sign. This makes a difference with how I get individual audience members involved as I can use this in my act. Some Hearing people don't know anything about Sign Language or Deaf Culture, and sometimes it takes them a minute or two to work out what is happening. People haven’t seen anything like it before and are really surprised by a Deaf perspective on the world. I think people are also naturally drawn to Sign Language and that it is a bit of an advantage, if anything. A lot of the jokes are very visual and we hardly need the interpreter.
Tell me about some of the jokes.
My jokes cover a wide range of things and are usually drawn from my own experiences growing up Deaf in a Hearing world. I'm a Greek lesbian living in Scotland with a Hearing partner, so sometimes funny things happen because of those multiple cultural clashes. The humor is very visual and it simply doesn't translate to a written page. In one of my more successful scenes, for example, I imagine a sex scene where people haven't planned ahead and the Deaf person ends up handcuffed and can't talk to their partner.
Natalia, you knew Leah previously, but then you two met again and Silent Laughs was born. How did that come about?
Natalia Kouneli (NK): I knew within minutes that Leah was a stand-up comedian in sign language. I was really surprised and my first thought was that what she was doing was incredibly interesting. I had been involved in documentary productions before, so I immediately thought there was no way her story was not turning into a documentary. Weeks later, I went to see one of Leah’s shows to a hearing audience with a BSL interpreter. I was impressed by how effective and funny the sign/spoken language duo was and I admired the show’s unique nature and Leah’s determination to bring Deaf culture to mainstream audiences. After the show, I was certain I had the perfect subject for a documentary
What did you learn from doing the documentary?
Although I am hard of hearing, I don't sign at all. Before meeting Leah, I was never familiar with Deaf culture, so my knowledge of this world was very limited. During the brief experience of filming this documentary however, I got the impression that Deaf culture remains generally unexplored. While I was glad to see that in Scotland—and the UK in general—there are quite a few events organized by and for Deaf people, I also realize that there is still a very long way to go. Accessibility is still limited and there are still huge misconceptions about Deaf people out there. I believe that one of the ways to eradicate them is to bring Deaf culture to mainstream audiences through the arts, just like Leah is doing through her comedy.
What are some of the misconceptions of Deaf culture?
LK: Mainstream society perceives Deafness as a disability. They assume that we can't work, we can't do our own shopping, can't drive, can't, can't, can't... Hah! That's all wrong. We have a massive contribution to make to society and the mainstream misses out by not seeing this and accepting our contributions. People are stuck on the medical model of deafness, which says that the ‘problem’ lies with the individual who is different and that we should all be ‘fixed’ to fit into the mainstream. I think our society is better for including diverse perspectives and experiences, such as those of Deaf people. My act really breaks down barriers because it's got a lot of elements of a Deaf Awareness class, but presented in a funny way. It really makes people comfortable with the topic when we are sharing a laugh together.
What’s next for Silent Laughs?
NK: Silent Laughs is currently being submitted to a long list of festivals around the world by the Scottish Documentary Institute and we are all holding our breaths and impatiently waiting to see how many will accept the film. The film is already attracting quite a lot of interest from niche festivals—queer, functional diversity, women—which I’m really happy about, but I’m hoping it is going to make it into some mainstream ones too so that it can be seen by the general audience and continue Leah’s work of bringing Deaf Culture to the world through the screen.
LK: The film is more Natalia's project—I'm just the subject of the film. Generally speaking, there will be other events in the future. I've been invited to go back any time to the Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh, which is the best mainstream comedy club in town. I will be taking advantage of that.