Scholars have long wondered if the world around us accurately reflects our subjective view of it.
Is our internal experience a flawlessly mapped copy of our environment? Are perception and reality innately connected?
Theatre-maker Jodee Mundy, who brings her revealing solo show Personal to Riverside Theatres, Parramatta in June, knows better than most how complex this question really is.
As the only person in her immediate family who can hear, she has spent a lifetime moving between two perceptive identities. She exists in the external world as someone who can hear, but with the internal psychology of someone who is Deaf.
Mundy’s parents, Gillian and Peter, are Deaf. So are her two older brothers, her Aunt, two sisters-in-law, two nieces and one nephew. As an infant, Mundy could sign before she could speak and even now she considers spoken English to be her second language.
But it wasn’t until she was five-years-old that she first understood what it meant to be Deaf.
“I was in K-Mart with mum, and I was looking up at the Barbies and I asked her if I could have one,” Mundy recalls. “She said no, but I got lost in Barbie, just staring at the box, looking through the wrapping, and when I looked up, mum had gone.
“I searched the aisles and started to get a bit panicked, so I went to the help desk and I told the lady there I’d lost my mum.”
An appeal was made over the store’s public address system.
“I waited. And I waited and waited,” Mundy says. “It was only 10 minutes, but that’s a long time for a little girl. It was so dramatic. I remember thinking, ‘Am I going to have to live with a new family?’
“But eventually my mum found me and she asked, ‘Where have you been? I’ve been so worried.’ I told her that the lady had made an announcement, and she looked at me and said, ‘Jodee. I’m Deaf. You know this.’ And it dawned on me in that moment that I knew mum was Deaf, but I didn’t know it meant she couldn’t hear.”
The incident shifted Mundy’s perception of the world.
Suddenly, she became aware of differences in the way people acknowledged and responded to her parents. She also noticed her parents’ frustrations and anxieties when navigating certain tasks. Naturally, she felt compelled to help, and so became a “broker” of communication, allowing the outside world access to her family and vice versa.
But it was an exchange that could rarely be returned. For example, Mundy recalls an early memory as a toddler. Perplexed by the sounds of a rainy day, she found herself unable to ask if the pattering noises had anything to do with the falling water.
“There were a lot of feelings of inclusion and exclusion, pride and shame,” she says. “There are spectrums that you move across, I think.
“As a kid, I not only had to be confident and proud of who I was, but also for my family, and I’m the youngest. You walk in somewhere with adults and you’re the kid, but you have to be the one who’s eloquent, diplomatic and reflect that your parents are educated, good people. That was my job.”
Growing up as a CODA (“Child Of Deaf Adult”) has played a huge role in Mundy’s detailed understanding of the nuances of perception. And this has become the foundation of her life as an artist.
Following her studies at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, Mundy continued her education in the UK, in physical theatre and – unsurprisingly for someone whose first language is composed of silent gestures, perhaps – mime. She also worked as a sign language interpreter, often in the theatre.
“The first 20 years of my working life was very Deaf-focused, but when I hit about 35 I started to be very interested in the intersectionality of sign language,” Mundy explains.
“Often the community is coined as the Deaf community, but really our community is a sign language community. And that’s a much broader perspective, because it moves away from it being focused on whether the ear works or not. It moves away from the associations with disability.”
Mundy began to explore ways in which performance could directly alter the perception of an audience, both physically and emotionally. In 2016, collaborating with Deafblind performers Heather Lawson and Michelle Stevens, Mundy sought to invite an audience into a realm of experience where sight and sound no longer played a role.
That performance, Imagined Touch, was the culmination of four years of development, a part-installation, part-immersive theatre experiment celebrating the extraordinary adaptability of human communication.
During the evolution of Imagined Touch, Mundy was also concerned with another theatrical undertaking. Having played the role of the interpreter from childhood, bridging the communication gap between the Deaf and the hearing, she decided to share a more personal aspect of her CODA childhood.
“From a very young age I kind of wanted to help my parents, broker conversations for them. But then by the time I got to be a teenager, I’d had enough,” Mundy says. “And if you’re in that role, you’re not allowed to admit that. You have to be a ‘good girl.’ Well, I’ve been a good girl too long. I’m 40 now and I need to shift those roles.”
Personal has been in development for more than eight years and draws on a lifetime of experience. Through a combination of live performance, video, sound design and spoken and signed dialogue, it explores the emotional landscape of Mundy’s upbringing, and the complex tensions between her responsibilities as a CODA, her love for her family, and feelings of resentment and isolation she experienced.
“Personal is really what it says it is – a very personal journey,” Mundy says. “And it’s one of joy, grief, reconciliation and interrogation. And it’s one asking society not to be complicit in the scenarios that I present, because it’s not just about me and my family, but what happens when we step out the door and go into society and then how I broker that.”
There’s a telling synergy between the dizzying multi-tasking many CODAs learn instinctively, as they sign and translate spoken words, and the level of intricacy involved in Mundy’s theatre making.
In addition to consulting with many members of her family in creating Personal, Mundy has also worked with a number of contributing artists, creating a technically sophisticated production that somehow manages to remain touchingly analogue in other aspects. The set, for example, is made up of large cardboard boxes, pushed and stacked about the stage during the show.
The malleability of perception is an underpinning theme. Moments of the show are signed without translation, a nod to the dislocation of communication and understanding confronting many Deaf people.
Other parts of the show play with sound as an object rather than a sensory experience, with directional speakers panning noises around the auditorium.
“I have an amazing team of artists working with me, and they have held this story in the most elegant light,” Mundy says. “I could not make this show without the whole team. We need visuals, we need the films, we need the captioning, we need the creating of virtual interpreters, we need the design, we need the sound, and someone to direct that, obviously.
“And then I have to be in it, because it’s about lived experience. And my family helped make this work with me. They know all about what’s happening because every step of the way I’ve talked them through it. I show them clips. I send them my writing.
There are parts of Personal that are uncomfortable for her family, Mundy admits. “But they also know that our stories are micro compared to the macro. There’s many, many families like ours, but there’s not really that story in the Australian landscape, or even in the international landscape.
“There are many, many families like ours, but our stories are not really out there. We’re a family who sign, that is Deaf and hearing, and we’ve come together to make a piece of theatre about it. I don’t think that’s ever happened before.”
Personal is playing at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, June 7-9.