Under the spotlight: Deaf Talent – Genevieve Barr

genevieve barr

The actress caused a sensation at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in her role as Alice in The Solid Life of Sugar Water. Praised by audiences and critics, it has garnered stellar reviews. Here, the BAFTA award winner and International EMMY nominated actress talks to BDN about why we need more Deaf talent.

BDN: How did you get bitten by the acting bug? 

In a way, I always grew up with acting – I used to attend LAMDA classes because it was a way for me to improve my speech in a fun and productive way.

I won a poetry recital when I was 10 years old and it was a defining moment for my mum because she knew I was starting to break through the barriers that come with being deaf.

I loved acting at school – you could travel to a whole new world, see life through a different pair of eyes. But academic life always took first place and it wasn’t until I was 22 years old that an opportunity came about to make a career out of acting.

I was the first child in a hearing family with no hereditary deafness. I started learning BSL through my acting career.

BDN: What has your career been like?

A whirlwind. I went from playing a deaf nurse alongside Rhys Darby in a Channel 4 comedy pilot to playing the lead role – a deaf teenager in 4 part BBC series The Silence.

That got me a BAFTA and International EMMY nomination for Best Actress and then life went very quiet.

It’s been a stream of fairly steady roles in Shameless, Call the Midwife, The Fades, amongst others and most recently a plunge into theatre with The Solid Life of Sugar Water – definitely not for the faint-hearted.

BDN: What has it been like playing the role of Alice in The Solid Life of Sugar Water?

Challenging. Jack Thorne’s beautifully written script (he’s writing Harry Potter for the stage next year) is difficult to do justice. The rhythms and the pace, the pathos in the story – Alice and Phil are recovering from a stillbirth. It has comedy, tragedy, love, frustration, trips to the past and to the present. It is an endless, unforgiving cycle which has, with the help of our phenomenal director Amit Sharma, pushed the parameters of performance beyond anything I have done before. I have loved and hated it all in one – which is, actually, what every actor wants.

scene from The Solid Life of Sugar Water

BDN: What was the audition process like?

Weirdly enough, it took place over Skype whilst I was travelling around Cambodia. I had just come back from a 30km bike ride around Angkor Wat and I had to speak to the director about sex and miscarriages in a public cafe. I then sent some tapes over of different parts of the play. It was thrilling to hear that I had received the role.

BDN: Who was the first person you told when you got the part?

Alex, my fiancé, who I was travelling with at the time.

BDN: What was it like reading the reviews?

Every actor I have spoken to has told me never to read reviews. But being at the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s unavoidable! We have all been thrilled with the reviews. But the most touching part of it has been speaking to audience members after the show who have been through or know someone who has been through something similar. Miscarriage is such an unspoken topic for both men and women and I think the play has done something significant in bringing that to light.

BDN: What has been the response from audiences? 

Laughs and tears mainly. The support from the audience has been incredible.

I have engaged with a few deaf audience members – there’s been a few hands in the air!

BDN: The play contains some adult scenes – what was it like performing in those scenes?

Uncomfortable at first. But that’s a natural reaction. You know, my co-star Arthur and I have only known each other since the start of the rehearsal process (six weeks) so it takes time to get used to one another physically and emotionally. But the support and rapport that we have with each other has really helped. One of the main responses we’ve had from the audience is that we really seem like a married couple – which implies we have pulled it off!

BDN: Did you have to warn family and friends? 

Of course! I would never be so unkind! My friend Emma threatened to bring a pillow with her and she did have to put her hands over her face at one point but she said she enjoyed it.

BDN: Did you have access to BSL interpreters during rehearsals?

I did during the technical week. It was really helpful – so much chaos going on with lighting, sound and set, having one person to look at really helped.

BDN: Are there particular Deaf performers that you admire? 

I don’t think there are enough deaf performers – let me put that out there first. Marlee Matlin was the first who really paved the way, in my eyes, and she’s a superb actress. I met her in
Los Angeles last year and I was stuttering over my words as much as my meagre ASL.

BDN: What’s your advice to aspiring Deaf actors?

Don’t give up. I never had any big roles in the school plays or someone who said “Genevieve, you were born to act”.

It takes confidence, resilience and passion to be an actor – whether you’re young, old, deaf or hearing. But some of us are here already – a growing circle of deaf actors who all know one another and you can reach out to us too.

BDN: What’s your view on Deaf representation in the arts?

This is a complicated issue that is currently being discussed a lot in the arts. I can tell you this – in the five years I’ve acted, there have been less than a handful of parts that have been “hearing”.

Typecasting is understandable to a degree, but limiting a disabled performer to their disability is just wrong.

Being deaf is character-building, it brings another dimension to the richness of life around us, but does it sum up who we are? No, it just adds to it.

BDN: What are you working on next?

I have my first lead role in a feature film coming up in Berlin and so I am going to be focusing on that. There’s some talk about a television drama.

The Solid Life of Sugar Water will also be going on tour early next year and so I am very excited about that! Did I say I’m getting married? I kind of need to start planning that too!

The Solid Life of Sugar Water goes on tour next year. It tells the story of Phil and Alice, who are in love in that familiar, flawed, ordinary love way. Candid, uninhibited and visceral, this world-premiere from award winning playwright Jack Thorne is an intimate, tender play about loss, hurt and rediscovery. Thorne’s credits include Let the Right One, which played to sell-out audiences in London’s West End and Glue, Skins, Shameless and This is England.

Read more about Deaf Talent here: Paula Garfield and Ruth Montgomery