Performance Beyond Form – Pan Pan and a ‘Deaf Friendly Stage’

When Aedin Cosgrove and Gavin Quinn founded Pan Pan in 1993 they intended to create a company which would include both deaf and hearing actors. This unique integration of a marginalised group in both their casts and audiences led to Pan Pan establishing a new vision for Irish theatre and for theatre in Ireland early on in the company’s career. Additionally, this unique approach aided in cementing Pan Pan’s standout visual theatre style, with a larger emphasis on movement and expression rather than dialogue. A 1996 Sunday Times article describes Pan Pan as having “carved out a distinct space for themselves […]. They have pioneered a theatre of the deaf, integrating sign language into the broader, more impressionistic language of mime.” As a result, the majority of Pan Pan’s early work throughout the early and late nineties paved the way for a new, deaf-friendly stage. 

Pan Pan’s first two productions, The Crystal Spider and The Man With Two Kisses (1993), ran simultaneously and opened to favourable reviews. Described in the Sunday Press as ‘experiments with sign language’, the two plays served well to showcase to the Dublin public how Pan Pan would stand apart from other theatre companies at the time. 

These two productions were quickly followed by Martin Assassin of his Wife in 1994, a play marketed as ‘a deaf opera’ centring around the lack of communication between a husband and wife. This piece was once again well-received, and was even covered in a news bulletin from Gallaudet, America’s leading university for the deaf. 

1995’s A Bronze Twist of Your Serpent Muscles won Pan Pan its first prize at the Dublin Fringe Festival. A Bronze Twist, with costumes designed by Hélène Kufferath, toured France and underlined Pan Pan’s potential to be one Ireland’s leading experimental theatre companies.  In 1996, Pan Pan premiered Tailors Requiem. Described as “an almost silent play” it depicted the world of a master tailor seeking to impart the perfect knowledge of his craft to his apprentices. The play toured Ireland extensively while also travelling to Sweden, Scotland, Austria and England, as well as in France during l’Imaginaire Irlandais festival.

In 1997, Peepshow hit the international stage, with performances in England, the Netherlands, Poland and Germany. Pan Pan also performed Peepshow at the 2nd Dublin International Theatre Symposium in 1998. Cartoon marked the fifth time Pan Pan would co-operate with deaf actor Charles Kelly, who had been featured in A Bronze Twist of Your Serpent Muscles, Tailors Requiem, Peepshow, and City (1995). In one-man-show Cartoon, Kelly depicted Mussolini Frog, who, alone in his bedroom, dreams of world domination. This production, highlighting man’s chilling obsession of power, control, and politics, toured Ireland as well as international productions in Poland and at the Suwon Hwasong Fortress International Theatre Festival, South Korea, and the 9th Malta International Theatre Festival.

Towards the beginning of the new millennium, Pan Pan had developed and produced a significant number of deaf-friendly shows, which also enjoyed great international success. Over time, Pan Pan’s focus shifted towards a way of practicing theatre which was still experimental, impressionist and deeply visual, but which focused less on deaf integration. Nevertheless, these ‘deaf-friendly’ roots were pivotal in Pan Pan’s journey towards solidifying the standout aesthetic and style for which they are still known today. 

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