Speaking in Silence

I want to tell you a story about a young woman, in her mid-twenties, named Jacynthe. Jacynthe is autistic and is a chosen mute. This means that she is very unresponsive physically and verbally. She has been home schooled and has studied literature and sciences among other subjects.

In 2005 she arrived at our Theatre Terrific Summer Fringe Program. Her mother said she wanted to perform. This would seem a strange request from an unresponsive mute woman. She came to classes. We teach theatre skill exercises that involve music, voice, movement, improv, visual art and mask work. She never missed a class. She would stand silent in the circle, watching with intent eyes. Her movements, if any, were minute. I would ponder, how can this young woman perform? Her body is silent, but her eyes watched so intently.

At the end of one long session I put out a huge roll of paper and paints. I told the class that we were going to paint what we had explored in that class. I put the brush in Jacynthe’s hands, and then I put music on. The students began to paint what they had felt and discovered in our work that day. Jacynthe stood still and I thought that this too was not an action that she could do; but then she stiffly dipped the brush into the bright colors and made a tentative brushstroke on the paper. Her body did not move, but her eyes flashed and she began to paint. She painted and painted and painted, beautifully proportioned flowers of all colors that spilled all over the paper in a precise, brilliant bouquet. I was stunned; we were all stunned. Here her voice spoke with absolute assurance, with refined definition and such intelligent phrasing! What was this?! We all gaped and fell over ourselves with shock and elation. The voice here was as clear and pure as a solo libretto. Jacynthe had told us what she had felt and discovered in that day’s work.

The question now was how could this be translated into a theatre production. With much thought and further exploration, I developed a role for Jacynthe in the production. She played a character called ‘The Watcher’, draped in a long cloak, who sat on a stool watching the action. Every time she turned to watch, the stool squeaked and the audience took the cue to follow her eyes to something new on stage. At the appropriate cue she doffed her cloak, rose and went to where a large painting surface had been set; took her paints and began to paint. We never knew what she was going to paint. She had been told to just fill the huge surface with whatever she felt. Perfectly proportioned figures appeared: a woman sitting, then the next night a young person laying with his head on her lap, and the next night a man standing in the distance and on it went. ‘The Watcher’ would paint for approximately three minutes before the cast chorus rose to begin a choral song. During this time the audience would sit in stone, rapt silence. It was mesmerizing. Each night she added to the painting. Audience members would approach her afterwards and reverently ask questions. She would nod and shake her head in response. Some audience members came again, just to see what she would add to the picture.

So……what is this?

This is a highly artistic voice that speaks clearly and profoundly in silence. This is an example of the diverse richness found in those artists who overcome the obstacles of disability in order to be heard.

Theatre Terrific is a theatre company that is all inclusive in its development of theatre skills and productions. We encourage ensemble theatre study and performance that includes all challenges, from physical, to mental health, to developmental. We believe that there are huge treasures to be discovered and embraced in those challenged artists who seek to risk the difficult journey. Theatre Terrific provides the vessel for that journey, and the artist provides the unique ingredients.

One may ask, why theatre? Here I quote Vaclav Havel, former president of Czecheslovakia and Nobel Prize Playwright:
“Theatre is a point at which the intellectual and spiritual life of the human community crystallizes. It is a space in which the community can exercise its freedom and come to understanding.”

Jacynthe spoke in silence and we heard.

As told by Theatre terrific’s Artisitc Director Susanna Uchatius.


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