I believe theatre often lacks challenge. Sure, it often grapples with difficult topics or makes us think in a new way. But not often does it make the physical experience of sitting and witnessing something “other” than sitting in any space at any time. It can often fall into the trap of being entertainment in that way. Not by Bread Alone was an experience unlike anything I’d been to before or will go to ever again. It was a piece of theatre that unrelentingly opened my eyes to a story, world, and characters with which I was unfamiliar. I was so grateful for this experience and left feeling changed.
Nott by Bread Alone is a touring production from the Nalaga’at Theater of Isreal. The ensemble was made up entirely of deaf-blind actors. There were at least 20 interpreters on stage with them and only one cast member could actually speak out loud. They communicated with each other by signing into each other’s palms. If at any point, they all needed to exit the stage, they would put their hands on each other’s shoulders and exit together. They would take turns addressing the audience and always notify the next person to talk by touching their shoulder. There were subtitles in English above the stage. The show consisted mostly of storytelling, spoken in Hebrew by Itshak Hanina, the only speaking member of the ensemble. Halfway through the performance, they sang a song. It was sung in Hebrew by one of the interpreters, and signed by everyone in the ensemble. The whole show, though simple, was incredibly moving. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the stage and happily felt myself shrinking on comparison to them. Their spirits were gigantic.
First of all, attending this show was a solo mission. It was a Sunday evening, I had a seat on the balcony all by myself and couldn’t have felt more content. As I perused the program, I was beyond thrilled. The bios of the cast members were some of the most graceful and humble bios I’d ever seen. Most of the cast had either made their way to this production from the former Soviet Union, Romania, Russia, or had grown up in Israel. They all spoke so graciously of their opportunity to perform. Rafael Akoa, one of the actors, claims that “Nalaga’at for me is the greatest gift I have ever received in life.” The entire ensemble had quotes similar to this in their bios, expressing how grateful they were to be able to perform. It was so refreshing to experience a performance that was undoubtedly a gift. I think all performance could benefit from this level of generosity.
The performance was conceived around the process of baking bread. When the audience enters, the entire group is onstage, prepping the bread to be baked. They all seemed to just be playing with the dough, too excited by the energy of people entering the room. I have attended Deaf events before but those were very visually stimulating. Since the ensemble could not rely on their sense of sight, they were very keen to the movement of the room. The theme of the bread was repeated throughout the show: they kept repeated the phrase “not by bread alone” in order to express that they survive on more than just food; they have desires and goals too. As an even greater gesture of sharing, the bread was baked during the performance and then available to the audience to eat after the performance. The bread was delicious, warm, and I got to shake the hands of some of the ensemble members, thanking them for sharing this with us.
It was clear that it was very important for this group to express what their daily experiences are like. They wanted to convey their darkness and silence. The program explained that they also spent time giving the interpreters of the group that experience. The impulse to tell accurate narratives was coursing through the entire piece, coloring their every move.
The program also gave insight on how they communicate with each other. The whole group has evolved a way to accurately speak to one another. Some speak different sign languages and others can hear if you speak loudly into their hearing aid. This patience is wildly collaborative. It seems that even when a group of collaborators I’m with shares a language, we still struggle to communicate. This was an incredible lesson, as a theater maker. The simplicity is really in the story telling, not the agreeing and disagreeing.
The whole performance revolved around the marriage of two of the ensemble members. This seemed to be just about the sweetest and most tragic thing that could’ve happened. The program explains that they wanted to express their “dreams and memories.” Given the age and life experience of most of the ensemble, a marriage, which promises happiness and companionship for the rest of life, seemed beautifully fitting.
I was extremely humbled to be in the company of these people. This experience was so different than my everyday experience and it taught me so much not only about another group but also about how I can be more grateful in my own life. If every piece of theatre could shift people like this one did, we’d have a lot more peace and understanding in this world.