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Deaf Southend Student Playwright Wins National Theatre Prize

July 13, 2022

A deaf student playwright has seen her play performed at the National Theatre after winning a national competition.

Eloise Pennycott, a 17-year-old Southend High School for Girls’ pupil, beat more than 400 entries from around 100 schools to claim the prize.

Her play Barrier(s) tells the story of two women who fall in love, one of whom uses sign language.

Ms Pennycott said after seeing the performances: “I still can’t believe it to be honest.”

The play won New Views, the National Theatre’s nationwide playwriting programme and competition for 14-19-year-olds.

It was performed at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre in a full production with professional actors earlier this month.

As well as the communication barriers the two women in the play face, the work also explores a hostility facing those using sign language.

Ms Pennycott said: “I went deafened at 11 and when I was 13 I became profoundly deaf.

“Thank God I did because it has been the best thing that’s happened to me.

“The doctors don’t know why or how but I feel lucky that I’m deaf because it’s amazing and I love being deaf.”

She said she was inspired after seeing refugees coming to the UK who speak another language “and there is a lot of negativity around that”.

“It can be strange to imagine a world where people are hostile to sign language as well, that’s why I wanted to explore it in the play,” she said.

Ms Pennycott said she identifies herself as queer, which “just means I’m not heterosexual”.

She said: “I think it’s really important to me to see a lesbian love story on stage because you don’t see that very much in theatres.”

The 17-year-old said she had written plays before but Barrier(s) “was different, it was about my culture, deaf culture, queer culture”.

Deaf actress Lara Steward took one of the roles in the play and said it “resonated” with her.

She added: “What’s really beautiful about this play is it is bilingual, it uses English and British Sign Language.”

Nadya Bettioui, from the National Theatre, said the play was “absolutely outstanding”.

She said: “The judging panel were so impressed by the maturity and quality of [Eloise Pennycott’s] writing and just the bravery and courage of her play and how important it is to highlight issues facing the deaf community.

“This play has so much potential, Eloise has so much potential to go on do so many amazing things, I think the sky’s the limit for Eloise she’s so talented.”

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