Paul Miller is a director of Surface Area Dance Theatre and the founder and director of Rory’s Studio, an award-winning arts organisation working across illustration, animation and live theatre. As a Deaf British Sign Language user, Paul’s work is designed to illuminate and educate on Deaf culture within mainstream spaces, especially focusing on his home in the North East of England. Below he tells the story of how he became the artist he is today.

I grew up in a small village, and from a young age could always be found drawing anything around me. From still life to people’s pets, I’d draw whatever I came across! I also grew up inspired by amazing visuals. As a child I loved cartoons like Tom and Jerry, The Mysterious Cities of Gold, He-Man and She-Ra, while also devouring comics like the Scottish publications Oor Wullie and The Broons. The adventures and mischief of these characters, combined with vibrant visuals, still influence me to this day. At age 16 I also joined Newcastle Deaf Drama; we did a lot of shows including comedies, classics and a show called Deaf not Daft. We entered the BDA theatre shows in Blackpool with our show Deaf Life, winning the award for best theatre show.

Despite my passion for these art forms, school was often a cruel environment for me. While I loved subjects like drama, I also spent a lot of time in audiology classes and sign language wasn’t allowed, to the extent that when my friends would try and sign to me teachers would hit us, throw things at us, and make us sit on our hands to force us to use our voices. I constantly faced communication barriers and bullying in a place that should have supported me. I didn’t go out much, because if I needed to communicate it involved writing or trying to speak to people, which I didn’t feel comfortable with. I used this time to draw instead, and wanted to become an artist from a young age.

Unfortunately, when I told a teacher about my love of art they told me they didn’t think I was suited to it, and recommended I become a bricklayer instead. I let go of this dream for a while, and went to work in professional kitchens. While I loved cooking (and still do!), these working environments are extremely busy and stressful, with constant rushing around and a wash of communication. Colleagues mistakenly thought I was slow or couldn’t keep up, when the challenge was actually down to communication barriers.

Fortunately, I was able to find the right support when I decided that professional cooking wasn’t for me, and looked into returning to college. During my interview I showed a portfolio of old drawings. They weren’t fantastic, but the teachers saw my potential. They immediately talked about all the different routes I could pursue, whether it was an artist, painter or graphic designer. After being told for so long that art wasn’t something I was good enough to do, having someone say that not only was it possible, but I had multiple options I could pursue, had a huge impact on me. I just needed the right support and training, and went on to study both graphic design and illustration and animation.

After studying I began to create children’s books, travelling back and forth to London for book festivals and to make contact with publishers. During this time I met Nicole Vivien Watson, and our collaborative work began. I told Nicole about my idea for Gothrella, a tale inspired by the

Cinderella story and my own experiences as a deaf person. We worked together to develop the story into a full production, culminating in both a sharing at the Camden People’s Theatre in London, with a group of adults from the Royal Association for Deaf people, and collaborating internationally to run workshops for Greek Deaf Theatre, experimenting with the script and incorporating Greek sign language and culture.

I also started regularly visiting France for the Deaf Festival that takes place there. It’s an incredible event, with a huge variety of theatre, comedy, dance, filmmaking and more. I connected with Japan Deaf Theatre after being blown away by their work at the festival, and was later able to get funding to go to Japan and lead workshops with them. Their space in Tokyo is incredible; one of their patrons is a member of the Japanese Imperial Family, and that support has enabled them to create a community centre that has become a central location to the deaf community in Japan, many of whom live with restricted means. Surrounded by huge conglomerates and skyscrapers, their co-op is a wonderful creative hub with a welcoming spirit in the middle of the city, and they also embrace other community initiatives such as growing their own vegetables.

It was such an inspiring place to be able to work. We met deaf participants, led creative workshops and worked on my project, The Gingerbread Witch, with a variety of local people. Lots of deaf people attended who couldn’t access other work themselves, beyond making small items to sell for a small income. It was a wonderful time of collaboration and exchange, we were able to share knowledge, culture and language, sharing signs in a local sign language class. We’re still in contact today, and when The Gingerbread Witch was selected for the Deaf Film Festival in Tokyo I was able to see them again. That collaboration remains strong, and every time I return to Japan I’ll visit, as that experience has influenced my artistic approach ever since.

These different opportunities for international work have made me love collaboration. Being able to bring together deaf artists with diverse groups of hearing and non-hearing people really emphasises what the deaf community is capable of, and how we aren’t different to hearing people. The projects we’ve run, for example bringing choreographer Antoine Hunter over from America for a project at the Baltic, brought together people in a way that facilitated better understanding of each other. I’ve seen hearing people be unsure how to behave around deaf people before, and I’ve gotten the sense that people didn’t want to be around me or were too scared to try and get to know me. But with these projects I’ve seen barriers and stereotypes be broken down: everyone embraces coming together as a team to create art, everyone works together happily in the same space, and people become comfortable with each other.

I also really enjoy telling these stories across different mediums. I love animation and illustration, but primarily work alone on those projects. When we get funding for theatre work it enables us to tell these stories in a communal way. It’s like there’s two creative sides of me: animation and illustration focuses on the story, while working in theatre allows me to bring it to life while also connecting with creatives, audiences and a range of people in the same space. Since the pandemic began I’ve been very focused on my individual art, and I’m definitely looking forward to getting back into a theatre again soon. I also haven’t able to get out and talk to a lot of

people, so my signing feels a little rusty! There’s nothing like connecting with others in the same physical place.

I love what I do, and generally work long hours as I’m so passionate about my projects. I start each day by walking for an hour; getting fresh air but also giving myself space to think about whatever I’m working on. As I walk things start to pop into my head and by the time I get home I’m ready to start working. I’m inspired by all kinds of things. From classic horror, to Tim Burton classics like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, to artists like Van Gogh and Salvador Dali. I always enjoy striking visuals with a hint of darkness behind them.

I also read a lot, and when I’m reading I find myself constantly questioning where the deaf characters could be and if they’d be in the same situation. A lot of my projects have elements taken from my own life, but reworked into creative fantasy. The stepmother in Gothrella is based on a particularly cruel teacher I had at school, as she constantly tries to stop Gothrella from signing and being who she really is, while the sibling relationship in The Gingerbread Witch is based on my relationship with my sister. My sister would always jump in and let people know I was deaf if they started trying to talk to me, relaying conversations back and forth for us. Sometimes people would try and bully me, but she’d be quick to stand up for me.

No matter the medium, I always find myself wanting to develop deaf characters in these stories and get them out into the world. I want my work to help and inspire all people to understand deaf people and culture more, regardless of how much they already know, and for everyone to feel comfortable around sign language and deaf creative work, especially in the North East. Forms like animation and theatre are already so visual, so they’re ideal to take that next step and normalise deaf culture even further.

While the pandemic has been a challenging time for artists, I also have a lot of projects coming up. I’m currently working on three new books, as well as planning for future theatre productions of The Gingerbread Witch, and the return of Newcastle Deaf Theatre at the Northern Stage. In London there are more deaf creatives and projects, but the North is still a little behind in that area, especially for young people who may want to become artists. My main goal for the future is doing anything I can to help and inspire them, showing them it’s possible to be an artist. In our community I know a handful of deaf people working in the arts, and I know there must be more out there, so I always hope that my work will open up more opportunities for us and help us find each other.