Photo: Kenneth Siren
Noora Karjalainen signs the word "art" in Finnish Sign Language.

"Here, I am just Noora!"

Noora Karjalainen, from Turku, is the third ever deaf student to study in the Theatre Academy. The first, dancer Juho Saarinen graduated in 1992. The first deaf actor, Silva Belghiti, graduated from the master’s degree programme of acting last spring.

“I’m happy to be here”, mentions Noora, who studies in the Master’s Degree Programme in Theatre Pedagogy and has a previous degree as a drama instructor. “At 'Peda' we have a very receptive and open atmosphere.”

“In my studies, it’s been interesting to note how my language and cultural background affect how I, for example, look at things a bit differently than others”, Noora ponders. “My aesthetic and expression are a bit more visual, when embodied action is the focus instead of spoken words.”

Theatre teacher students and dance teacher students share a lot of their studies. According to Noora, the aesthetic arising from her background in sign language goes well together with the conventions of dance: “Sometimes dancers have a very easy time understanding something I’m trying to grasp when signing.”

In her studies, Noora has drawn from the traditions of sign-language performing arts, for example by using the Visual Vernacular art form, which combines signing, perspectives, and bodily representation. “It’s been productive to try to use traditionally signed forms of theatre when the target audience is hearing.”

Studying has brought along its challenges, too. Both Finnish and English are used at the Master’s Degree Programmes in Theatre Pedagogy and Dance Pedagogy. Sign language is not universal: instead, Noora and her sign language interpreters use the Finnish Sign Language even when the teaching and discussions are conducted in English. In the autumn, problems arose with Kela’s interpreter service, but now a resolution has been reached.

Experiences with the arts and learning are often quite personal. Yet Noora has to convey her experiences through the use of interpreters. “There’s a lot of interpretion going on: the interpreter’s interpretation of the tone that I’m using or what the others are saying, and it can always change a little bit. I, myself, have to be very alert about that and keep an eye on how the other people react.” 

Noora has noticed that at the university she signs differently than with her deaf friends. “I sign more clearly and in a way that fits more in the culture of the hearing.”

Crush categorical boundaries and preconceptions

Noora is doing her teaching practice at Teatteri Ilmi Ö — with hearing participants. “Studying here, you get the desire to try new things! It’s an exciting and unnerving thing for me, to go to a fully hearing environment”, she signs. “My attitude is that the different boundaries and categories where people are put need to be crushed — to be more with everybody, more together. The field of the arts is not equal yet, in Finland. Not only for us, the deaf, but minority-language groups, people with disabilities, sexual minorities, all should be more visible in the arts. But we’re moving toward a broader interest in this area, and that all types of people are allowed to participate in the arts.”

Last year a situation between Noora and Turku City Theatre was featured in the press. Noora had planned to see the adaptation of The Lord of the Rings but learned that her interpreters had been moved away from the direction of the stage to the side, not even properly visible due to darkness. Afterwards the theatre asked Noora’s help in updating their operating models. “It was an example of an institution realising that their arrangements are faulty and springing into action; asking questions, communicating with those affected. I give them a big thumbs up for that. All theatres should be ready and open to have this dialogue with different audience groups.”

On a general note, with what words should be used about deafness? Noora mentions that the Finnish word kuulovammainen [translates somewhat to “hearing-impaired”] is an outdated term, and encourages to use words such as “sign-language user” or “deaf”. “‘Deaf’ is an altogether positive word! It is part of our cultural identity and our history. I am deaf and proud of that.”

She thinks for a minute: “I’m interested in crushing some long-held preconceptions. For example, that a deaf person cannot sing or dance. I’d like to challenge this a little bit: it simply is not like that. And it may be that the deaf have wrong believes about the hearing — we could teach each other reciprocally!”

“I want to praise the Uniarts Helsinki. If you’re a sign-language user, it is not emphasised”, Noora concludes. “That was a big relief for me: here, I am just Noora! As an artist and a pedagogue I don’t want to be identified first and foremost by my deafness or using sign language, but by own name and face, who I am.”


Noora Karjalainen studies in the Master’s Degree Programme in Theatre Pedagogy. She is the artistic director of the Ursa Minor theatre group.



Text: Kenneth Siren The interview was conducted in Finnish and Finnish Sign Language.