Ana Maria Belo, who is losing her hearing, is in a new play called Tribes. Photo: Steven Siewert
Actor Ana Maria Belo is talking, talking, talking. She talks with her hands. She talks with her eyes, her shoulders, her expressive face, and, of course, with her voice. Conversation is a full-body experience for her. Listening to her speak, there is no way you would know she is deaf.
“My deafness is something I’ve always worked really hard to disguise,” Belo says. “I lost hearing in my right ear when I was 14. My left gradually went down from around that time, but I was always performing. Always singing. I went through NIDA and performed lead roles in huge musicals, TV and film, all on my deaf ears and no one really knew. I got by on lip reading and feeling vibration.”
Belo has 20 years experience in stage acting, screen work and drama teaching. Her stage credits include Fame the Musical, Hair, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and Steel Magnolias. She hasn’t been seen on stage for several years, however, due to significant hearing loss. Two years ago, she hit rock bottom, believing she’d never work in theatre again.
Now she is on the eve of her return to the stage in Nina Raine’s London hit Tribes, playing Sylvia, a woman whose experience mirrors her own.
“When I first read Tribes I was left sobbing for hours. I have never seen my own thoughts written out so precisely for a character before. Sylvia isn’t a character I was born to play; Sylvia is a character that I have to play.”
The Erskineville-based actor was born into what she calls a “loud Portuguese family”. “Everyone shouted all the time,” she says.She first noticed her hearing loss aged 14, lying in bed, listening to a musical Christmas card. “When you opened it, it played a Christmas carol,” she says. “I was lying on one side and when I opened it there was no sound. I thought the battery was dead. But when I sat up and listened with the other ear, I could hear it. Then I checked my Mickey Mouse watch, which also played a tune. One ear, fine. The other, nothing.”
Belo had a condition called cholesteatoma, an abnormal skin growth in the middle ear behind the eardrum. “Because there is very little oxygen in there it eats away at the ear drum and the bone,” Belo explains. “Two years later, at 16, I had a mastoidectomy, where they removed the skin ball and took all the bones out. But I kept performing. No one knew.”
Her hearing in her “good ear” began to decline, too, hastened by two major losses. One came after a two-hour ride on the back of her boyfriend’s motorbike. When the bike stopped and she took her helmet off, “it was like every sound was coming at me at once,” Belo recalls. “Every sound was distorted; it didn’t feel of this world. That lasted two days and then it disappeared.”
The second significant loss came after attending a Greek-Serbian wedding. “The reception was so loud, it was like a rock concert,” Belo says. “I was having a great time, but the next day my head swelled up and I had the distortion again, but this time with pain. Any sound, even my breathing, was incredibly loud. It was like a roaring, like a washing machine in your head.”
That episode lasted for nine weeks. “With that, I lost another load of hearing,” says Belo.
Her doctor urged her to wear hearing aids.
“That was the lowest of the low,” Belo says. “I felt like I failed in some way. I had been doing so well reading lips and I knew how to filter sound and zero in on someone’s voice by looking at them. I couldn’t hear, but I could listen. I was using my eyes, my body, my hands and my feet to listen.”
Beyond her inner circle of family and friends, few knew of Belo’s condition.
But with hearing aids, everyone would know and, Belo believed, the acting work would stop. “When was the last time you saw a character on TV or film with hearing aids?” she says.
After wrestling with the decision, Belo got fitted for hearing aids and she was reintroduced to the full spectrum of sound. She could hear birds chirping, the ticking of the indicator in her car, the wind in the trees. “Air makes a sound, who knew?” she laughs. “I could hear my kitten meow. I thought she was mute!”
But her hearing came at a cost. Belo felt she was unemployable as a musical theatre performer. Contracts regularly require actors to declare any hearing loss. “I felt like I was a liability,” she says. “So I stopped singing. It made me miserable. I was ready to give up.”
A friend persuaded her to take a masterclass with American acting guru Larry Moss. “Larry helped me to see that my disability was now my accountability,” Belo says. “He told me to read Tribes and to find a way to play Sylvia. Who better than me to play a woman losing her hearing?”
Working on Tribes has been a healing process, Belo says. “I’m actually discovering who I am through this. I’ve been introduced into a community I never knew, it’s more than just another gig for me. It feels like the start of a new life.”
Belo hopes Tribes can open up a door to a wider conversation about diversity in theatre and in life. “It’s about awareness and knowing that just because you’re deaf, it doesn’t mean you can’t be a part of something bigger. I think we can all be more open to diversity. I’m looking forward to the day when I get to play a character wearing my hearing aids and it’s not part of a storyline. Just a woman wearing hearing aids. Anything is possible.”
Tribes opens at the Ensemble Theatre on June 1.
Deaf actor finds Tribes the healing she needed