When Silence: Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell opens at the NAC, it will mark a significant occasion for director Peter Hinton. Although Hinton directed the revisionist opera Louis Riel in Southam Hall last year, Silence is the first time he’s been back with NAC English Theatre since 2012, when he completed his seven-year tenure as its artistic director.
Trina Davies’ play about Mabel Hubbard Bell, the deaf wife of Alexander Graham Bell explores the story of a strong and remarkable woman who had a major influence on her famous husband but whose life is little known to most of us. Notably the production also features a blend of deaf, hard of hearing and hearing performers.
Coincidentally, Mabel was honoured this summer when the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada unveiled plaques commemorating both her and Beinn Bhreagh Hall, the Bells’ summer home in Cape Breton.
Hinton is delighted to bring the show about Mabel to his old stomping ground.
“It’s one of the best stages in the country. I love directing there,” said Hinton, who directed numerous plays at the NAC during his sometimes controversial run as artistic director.
Since leaving the NAC, Hinton has been busy. He’s directed regularly at the Shaw Festival (he now lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake) and, in 2017, brought Erin Shields’ The Millennial Malcontent to Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre. In addition to rehearsing the remount of Silence, which premiered under his direction at London, Ontario’s Grand Theatre earlier this year, when Hinton spoke with ARTSFILE he was rehearsing Rufus Wainwright’s opera Hadrian for its world premiere at the Canadian Opera Company.
With all this going on, does he miss his job in Ottawa?
“No, not really. I was very happy as artistic director for seven years, but it’s a huge job and has its own creative demands,” says Hinton. “Directing plays and writing is where my true passion lies. … For me, it had a shelf life and when I was done, I was done.”
He says the job’s administrative workload in particular impinged on the time he could spend with artists in the rehearsal hall, a place where, if you’ve ever seen him at work, Hinton thrives.
“I jokingly say (being artistic director at the NAC) was my military service. I did it for my country. It did feel like that in a lot of ways. People think of artistic direction as this great opportunity of artistic power and freedom of voice. And you are entrusted with that. But with that comes great responsibility and the notion of service because you’re serving an audience, artists, a nation and all its conflicts as well as its harmonious achievements.”
Hinton says that while there were shows he wishes had been more popular or that he had directed better, looking back he has no regrets about his time at the helm of NAC English Theatre.
He also points to the advent of a full-fledged Indigenous theatre at the NAC, which has its first season in 2019 and which he helped move forward by bringing Indigenous productions to the stage in Ottawa. “If I played any role in the seven years, that’s the one I feel most honoured to be a part of. It’s like the theatre catching up to how the world changes.”
Mainstream theatre is also catching up with changes to the place and perception of differently abled people in the world. In 2017, the NAC season included Brad Fraser’s Kill Me Now, a wrenching play about a teenager with a severe disability and his father. Now, it’s Silence.
The NAC production includes an American Sign Language (A.S.L.) presentation on Oct. 28.
Davies’ play is a particularly intriguing blend of storytelling and innovation, according to Hinton.
“Trina explores the world of Mabel Hubbard through Mabel’s perception of it. In many plays, many good plays like The Miracle Worker, deaf characters are considered outside the norm; the hearing world is the standardized world and the deaf person is outside. In Trina’s play, the deaf world is the real world.
“There are immersive theatre techniques where the hearing audience is immersed into the experience Mabel had. There are entire scenes that you don’t hear; the actors speak them, but they mouth the words because Mabel read lips.”
So adept was she at lip reading, in fact, that she learned to speak five languages and other people often didn’t realize she was deaf. As an older person, says Hinton, Mabel – who had been deaf since contracting scarlet fever at the age of five — revealed that she’d spent her whole life trying to hide the very person she was.
That concealment was inevitable during much of Mabel’s lifetime (1857-1923) because, says Hinton, at that time deaf people were either assimilated or institutionalized.
Davies’ play also puts Alexander Graham Bell under the spotlight, Hinton explains. For some, he’s a hero for his invention. For others, Bell is an enemy of deaf culture because he favoured assimilation. By re-examining him, and especially his relationship with Mabel, Davies exposes many of Bell’s flaws as well as his genius.
“Trina doesn’t vilify or deify him. She’s trying to tell a story of a relationship that was full of fight and conflict and love.”
Mabel’s own story deserves telling, says Hinton.
“It’s important to remind everyone that history is made up of a lot of stories we know and a lot of stories that now need to be told. That’s what, to me, truth and reconciliation is about on all levels: Before you can reconcile anything, you have to start telling the truth about what our history was. And this play is one way of doing that.”
Silence: Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell is in the Babs Asper Theatre Oct. 17-28 (previews, Oct. 17 & 18; opening night, Oct. 19). American Sign Language (A.S.L.) presentation Oct. 28 at 2 p.m. For tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca.