Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Deaf students find natural comedy outlet through mime instruction

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He may be a born ham, but Christopher DeGuzman had no performing experience and no script to fall back on when he found himself onstage last month doing sketch comedy for an audience of hundreds of people.

What the 25-year-old Winnipegger did have was a well-honed knack for delivering punchlines without words.

"Using facial expressions and body language was easy. I think there's something innate about that for deaf people," DeGuzman says through a sign-language interpreter during a recent interview at the Manitoba School for the Deaf.

The Filipino immigrant, who moved here in 2010, was at the school to do a little impromptu performance with three fellow members of a new mime troupe, the founders of which hope will open the door to the performing arts for Winnipeg's deaf community.

"We're starting with its future members," says Judith Bennett, who teaches English (in American Sign Language) at the Society for Manitobans With Disabilities (SMD). DeGuzman is one of her students.

The troupe came about after Bennett, who has been working with deaf immigrants and refugees for 25 years, noticed the young man seemed to have an "unbelievably natural comedic talent." At home, she lamented to her partner, veteran singer-songwriter Heather Bishop, about the lack of opportunities for people like DeGuzman to express themselves creatively.

Long story short, Bishop obtained a $10,000 Manitoba Arts Council grant for instruction in mime to be offered to the deaf community from January through to the end of June, culminating with a big show at Deaf Centre Manitoba -- DeGuzman and Co.'s stage debut.

"I was a little nervous at first. I'm not used to having a big group of people watching me," signs Frank Nausigimana, a 19-year-old refugee from Burundi and a student at the School for the Deaf, which ended up sharing the grant with the SMD.

The money was used to hire Winnipeg actor and mime artist Shannon Guile, a member of the local comedy troupe Hot Thespian Action, to teach bi-weekly classes at the school.

"We thought maybe three or four people would be interested, but we ended up having to turn away 14 students," says social work consultant Marion Bremner.

There ended up being 20 in two classes, and DeGuzman and Nausigimana -- along with Dustin Thompson, 18; Cody Remillard, 16; and Donnelle Chartrand, 14 -- were handpicked by Guile to form a performing troupe.

"They were the ones who in class would ask all the questions," says Guile. "Or else they'd be three steps ahead of what I'm teaching."

The actor says she was amazed at their skill level and moved by how quickly some of the students who were initially very shy came out of their shells.

"A lot of these students need that -- just to be heard," says Guile, who adds she was inspired to start learning ASL. "They don't have the words, but they were able to express themselves beautifully."

Thompson, for one, says taking the classes and performing onstage has boosted his self-esteem and he hopes the troupe will carry on. "I just feel better about myself, more comfortable," the resident of Peguis First Nation said through an interpreter.

The future of the mime classes and the troupe -- which the founders hope will grow and eventually even get professional gigs -- of course, depends on further funding. Grant applications have already been filed, Bennett says, and potential new students have already expressed their interest.

"We're opening the door to the arts for the deaf community of Winnipeg for the first time," she says.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 24, 2012 C1

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