Words and music with Caroline Parker

There is an overused phrase: The elephant in the room”.

It is hauled in when there is an enormous issue that people are aware of but avoid talking about. In the case of disability, it shouldn’t happen but too often it does and it is those who do not have a disability who tend to skirt the subject.

Caroline Parker is deaf and she has no problem with that. In our conversation, conducted via email, mention of deafness seems rather stark and I find myself dancing round the word, trying to work it into the questions so it doesn’t stand out as if written in giant capitals.

Silly? Yes, but, I think, probably a common reaction. I needn’t have worried - I knew that really. The elephant in the room vanishes.

Caroline, who is warm, witty and intelligent with a delightful turn of phrase, is instantly friendly.

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She has been wowing audiences in her one-woman play Signs of a Star Shaped Diva which is at the New Wolsey Theatre on April 23 and 24.

In the dual role of mousy Sue Graves, who runs a funeral parlour, and Tammy Frascati, the famous chanteuse who signs the songs of the stars in venues from the UK to Sydney to Las Vegas, Caroline “carries the show with her talent and passion for her art” according to one review.

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Sue may appear timid but in her heart she is a diva. One day, she is offered a cabaret spot at Harry’s Place and Tammy Frascati is born. Sue finds herself hurtling to stardom and Las Vegas, signing the songs of her favourite divas, Billie Holiday, Dusty Springfield, Ella Fitzgerald and Gloria Gaynor.

But while she lives the dream, she falls for a handsome stranger - will she have to choose between love and spangled frocks? Caroline’s virtuoso performance as the love-torn diva has been enthusiastically received.

In 2005 the BBC reported that sign-song interpretation was rapidly growing in popularity and that some of the music channels were having videos signed by a small group of specialists - Caroline Parker among them.

She said at the time: “I make music accessible to deaf people and signing accessible to hearing people - you don’t have to hear music, you can feel it and you can see it,” said Parker.

“You have to look at the song, what it’s saying, the emotions, what the singer is trying to convey,” she said.

“If you get inside the character of the performer it makes the whole thing so much more interesting.” She said the difference between a pub karaoke performer and one of the great stars is what they put into the song, how they present it and what they wear.

“You have to add the pzazz,” she said.

And she certainly does that. She gives “ a funny, touching, eye-opening and creative performance...” according to one reviewer and another, in The Stage, said: “The real fun is in watching Parker adding her hysterical touches to well-worn tunes... (her performance) has the potential to attract a huge following.”

The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner says: “Every hit is woven seamlessly into a story that reaches a punchy climax,” and says the show “could be a genuinely guilty pleasure”.

So how did Caroline gravitate towards musical performances and how did music inspire her?

“As a child I always enjoyed listening to pop songs, and my parents enjoyed dancing (they were very good at the jive in particular) so it seemed natural to combine the two,” says Caroline.

“During my time of learning to sign I came across a deaf cabaret performer, Colin Thompson, who signed songs and was inspired to use my dance and mime training to perform the songs alongside with sign language.

“Having attended dancing classes for several years I learnt how to count the bars of music. I have a good sense of rhythm which is very useful. With hearing aids I can hear higher pitches of anything in general. For example, I can hear vowels of voices, piano, flute, saxophone. I cannot hear double bass, bass guitar, eg the opening bars of Lou Reed’s Walk on The Wild Side but can feel when it begins so am counting like mad!

“Although I am aware of voices singing I cannot decipher the words so need the lyrics written down and then I follow the words whilst listening to the songs.

Born deaf, Caroline relies as much on the rhythms as the notes. “With hearing aids I can perceive most sounds.”?

She was always destined to be a performer and cannot recall ever actively deciding it was what she wanted to do. “It was something I did naturally (‘showing off’ as my Nana would say). I have vague memories of being a toddler and going to see my bigger sister in the Nativity play. On seeing my sister on stage I squealed and ran on stage to hold my sister’s hand and beamed at the people looking at me. That could have been a deciding moment possibly.”

Did Caroline anticipate obstacles in the way of achieving her artistic goals?

“Because my speech is so clear, I don’t think many people realised I am deaf! If people had preconceptions of me being stupid, illiterate, whatever, they soon changed their minds upon meeting me,” she says with feeling and adds: “But in this business prejudice is everywhere, too tall, too fat, too black, too camp etc. I think any actor/performer would have anticipated obstacles, it’s how you deal with those that gets you through.”

One would imagine that her sense of humour would save her when people do the classic “does she take sugar” thing.

Caroline confirms it and reveals: “That ‘does she take sugar’ thing has happened literally!

“That was laughed off as, most of the time, people don’t realise they are doing it. It’s surprising how people are nervous about being around deaf or disabled people but that is not their fault, it’s how society is put together or segregated - how can people feel as ease with something they haven’t been prepared for.

“We deaf/disabled people are often regarded as ‘something special’ or ‘very brave’. People are not conditioned to see us as equal beings in the community. This does provide us with plenty of amusing stories which I have put into my stand up comedy act.”

Caroline says people can get confused about what deafness is and has been asked if she reads Braille!

Her potted biography goes like this. “I was born in the hilly hills of rural Cheshire to down-to-earth parents and one older sister. 1962 was a very fine year when I graced the world with my presence. During her pregnancy with me Mum had Rubella so was wary when I was born that there may have been some damage during my growth in her womb. But I appeared as human as could possibly be until certain little incidents like me not reacting to sounds convinced my Mum ‘something was wrong’ but the doctors labelled her as ‘paranoid’ and so my diagnosis did not happen until much later.”

As soon as Caroline was identified as deaf her parents got in touch with the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) who informed them of an experimental programme of hearing therapy. This involved training her mum to give Caroline speech therapy and she “as the guinea pig” received training on how to hear and identify sounds.

“I started off at a local school at the village hall. In the 1970 Partially Hearing Units (PHU) were introduced into mainstream schools so although I was offered a place at The Royal School for the Deaf my parents declined and insisted I grew up and gained my education with society. So I ended up at a primary school in Hazel Grove then went onto a comprehensive school also with a PHU. In my teens I joined the Manchester Youth Theatre. Then off to college to study Foundation Drama and Theatre.

“After that I came to London to attend a couple of mime schools and while I was finishing mime training I got my first professional acting job with Interim Theatre playing Clarice in A Servant of Two Masters making my professional debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Theatre Festival in 1983.

“The next fifteen years was spent working in Theatre in Education (TIE) in which I learnt my trade touring around the country. I have spent the last decade or more working in mostly disability arts, theatre and some television work too.

“Alongside my stage and screen career I have also developed my cabaret act from which Signs of a Diva was inspired, also some outdoor festival theatre such as The Alexandras a performance described as an “outlandish sign song extravaganza”. It emerged and grew from the sequinned egg of the outrageously camp Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Caroline explains: “This was an inspiration of a commission by Bradley Hemmings of Greenwich and Docklands International Festival and Liberty Festival at Trafalgar Square. I had been performing my sign songs act at the Liberty Festival for several years when Bradley came to me to develop a sign song show. Bradley came up with the concepts of having amazing costumes and such, like the drag act in the film Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Hence Jenny Sealey was brought in to direct a show in which two deaf men and myself made a trio, signing camp melodies wearing outrageous costumes, we called ourselves The Alexandras because we are deaf queens and Queen Alexandra (wife of Edward VII) was deaf!

“The stand up comedy, under the name of Caro Sparks, is a recent development. I also run workshops and have done some directing too mainly for Krazy Kat theatre. You may have also seen me popping up in the corner of the screen signing pop videos or CBeebies programmes.”

Caroline has had a long tour with Diva and it must be hard to keep the energy level up, I suggest.?

“The preparation for the tour was well considered by Jenny Sealey at Graeae, I was given pilates training and had a voice coach. But the songs give me the energy to perform my way through the shows and tour.”

The production, in association with Theatre Royal Stratford East is presented by Graeae, a company that develops and promotes disabled led theatre. The shows it puts on are first and foremost great theatre with a raft of stars who are quite brilliant in any arena.

“Rehearsing Diva has reminded me how much I love my job,” says Caroline’s director, Jenny Sealey. “As a deaf director I have discovered for the very first time the words and music of these extraordinary divas. The signing of these songs has opened up a whole new world for me. Caroline Parker and I have worked together for twenty years in various guises and I have always wanted a vehicle to demonstrate her expertise of signing songs. Nona (Sheppard) has written a play that embraces those songs within the world of Sue Graves and introduces deaf and hearing audiences to the drama, emotion and sheer fun of signed song.”

Caroline is looking forward to coming to Suffolk with Signs of Star Shaped Diva. “I have toured and worked around this lovely area. Coming from the hills of Cheshire it struck me how far you can see without landscape obstructing the view! I am aware of space and entranced by windmills.”

n Signs Of A Star Shaped Diva (Formerly Signs Of A Diva) is at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, on Friday April 23 and Saturday April 24. Tickets are �8.50 to �13.50. Tel: 01473 295900 e: tickets@wolseytheatre.co.uk

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