Hearing Loss takes the Stage in Edinburgh

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the largest in the world, with around 2,500 different performances taking place each day.  It attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors over the course of three weeks, sells almost three million tickets and showcases some of the best performances from around the world.  It also seems to attract the world’s worst sound technicians, who think that volume is the only thing that matters.  So it was refreshing to find a couple of shows this year which highlighted the issues of hearing loss.  Around a quarter of us will experience hearing loss during our lives, so it is important that people become more aware of how to protect their hearing, as well as understanding the consequences of hearing loss and for society to remove the stigma of wearing hearing aids. 

The first show I saw was “Louder is not always clearer” at Summerhall, which tells Jonny’s story.  Jonny is deaf.  He was born with severe hearing loss, which his parents tried to dismiss as a minor issue, not wanting him to be separated from other children.  Jonny loves music, more by feeling it than hearing it, but is aware of his isolation.  He’s determined not to be left out, showing us the painstaking way in which, as a deaf child, he learns to talk.  (That was chillingly similar to the way animals have been taught to speak, which is explored in another Summerhall show – Like Animals).  Later in life, Jonny learned to sign, and when he starts to have conversations with members of the audience who can also sign, it’s the most powerful experience I have come across of the effect of isolation.  None of the earplugs or other physical devices which are commonly used to try to simulate the effect of hearing loss have anything like the impact of being in a theatre and realising that you have absolutely no understanding of the dialogue which is going on.  If you’re involved in any aspect of hearing and get the chance to see this show, go and see it.

Towards the end, Jonny demonstrates how society still fails to appreciate the issues, from the classic approach of speaking slowly and loudly, to the programme footnotes of “if any of these issues affect you, please call 0121 496 0378”.  As he turned around, the fire alarm went off, which felt like the ultimate statement of how society marginalises hearing loss.  As we sat applauding, the ushers came in to tell us it was a real fire alarm and to vacate the building, but it was a beautiful irony.  Sadly, I missed the show’s finale because of that.

Tackling the subject from a different perspective was “Tom GK’s Hearing Loss: The Musical”, playing at the Underbelly.  It’s more understated, but tells’ Tom’s story from a childhood where he was writing songs at the age of five, to becoming a music critic on a national newspaper in his early twenties, only to lose that job when he started to lose his hearing a few years later.  Tom’s was the too common story of not going to the doctor until too late.  He relates how he went to concerts with his mates, and while their ears stopped ringing soon after they’d left, his kept on ringing for hours.  Even when he got an appointment, he felt little urgency in following his treatment until the loss became severe.  By then it seemed too late and he learnt that he would lose all of his hearing as well as his career.  Tom was unlucky; his loss was caused by Neurofibromatosis 2 – a genetic condition which causes tumours to develop along the nerves responsible for hearing and balance.  Fortunately, a trial of a new drug has halted its progress, and Tom looks as if he will retain his current level of hearing until his fifties.

Both Tom and Jonny have been dealt a bad hand by fate, with their hearing loss the result of serious medical conditions.  Both tell a story of the social consequences; Tom, in particular, painting the fear of a future living within a silent movie.  He shares the statistics of the consequential damage that hearing loss causes, as the inability to converse leads to isolation at work and at home. If you have hearing loss you are six times more likely to develop dementia.

More and more of us will have to deal with this.  The WHO believe that a billion people under the age of 35 are at risk of hearing loss before they reach the age of 35.  Around 5% of the world’s population have disabling hearing loss today.  That figure is predicted to double by 2050.  Much of it is self-inflicted.  Whilst damage in the workplace has been addressed, the next epidemic seems to be coming from exposure to loud music.  That message has not got across to Edinburgh venues, where the modus operandi of sound technicians in most of them is to turn the volume up to 11 and wonder why there isn’t a 12.  If you’re lucky, the venue might offer ear plugs.  If you’re really lucky they might know where they are.

Both Tom and Jonny love their hearing aids, but there’s still far too much of a stigma associated with wearing them, which means that most people put off having their hearing tested.  It’s generally reckoned that most wearers would have benefitted from using them at least ten years before they are eventually prescribed.  Shows like these two really help to change attitudes.  It’s refreshing to see that Louder is not always Clearer has been nominated for a Total Theatre Award, which it fully deserves.  More people need to be aware of the issue and Jonny does a brilliant job of telling the story.