Raphaella Julien: the Deaf actor and dancer from Manchester starring in major show at The Lowry

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Deaf actor and dancer from Manchester Raphaella Julien speaks about appearing in a major new show at The Lowry and her career so far.

A ground-breaking theatre show which brings Deaf, disabled and non-disabled creators and artists together has arrived in Greater Manchester as part of its national tour - and a talented young dancer and actor from Manchester has a starring role in it.

Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror opens at The Lowry at Salford Quays this week and the cast includes Mancunian Raphaella Julien. Raphaella has begun to make a name for herself on both stage and screen, winning the Deaffest Best Actress award for her role in the short film Lost, Taken, Murdered in 2022.

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Raphaella spoke to ManchesterWorld about such a high-profile theatre show which is inclusive of both disabled and non-disabled talent visiting her home city, her rise through the creative arts and the importance of Deaf people being given prominent roles and national exposure through television and film.

Who is Raphaella Julien?

Raphaella, 31, was born and brought up in Manchester and said she became interested in the performing arts at a very young age. inspired by Michael Jackson both for his visual style and the fact he started training aged 11. Dance was Raphaella’s first interest and she then got into acting as her professional career in culture started to take shape. She is now a professional Deaf actor, dancer and director who also uses British Sign Language (BSL) in her work and has skills in mime, physical theatre and choreography.

Raphaella JulienRaphaella Julien
Raphaella Julien | Raphaella Julien

She has quickly put together an impressive resume, with TV credits for Channel 5 show Clink, Jerk, Hunch and Trinity, while her theatre appearances have included Follow the Signs at Soho Theatre, The Emperor’s New Clothes at Derby Theatre and Polka Theatre and Treasure Island, which was also in Derby. Her dance shows have included The Michael Jackson Show in Crete and she also co-choreographed a show called Bossy. She was also in the short film Lost, Taken, Murdered, which secured her an award as the Deaffest Best Actress in 2022.

Raphaella says being Deaf has not been a hindrance to her as she has embarked on a career in the arts and it has also been extremely helpful for her own personal development.

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She said: “Being Deaf hasn’t affected me, instead, it empowered me. My career has helped me find my Deaf identity and also through creativity. If anything it’s probably impacted those around me. I’ve had to navigate my way through life to find the right people in order for me to work with those that willing to adapt to me and my needs. I’m also in a world where I can be me and use my BSL through performances.”

What is Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror?

Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror, which is at The Lowry from Thursday (20 April) to Saturday (22 April), is a large-scale collaboration between Deaf, disabled, non-disabled and deaf artists and creators which is touring around the country this year.

Based on an idea by Hattie Naylor who co-wrote it with Jamie Beddard, and with a musical score by conductor and Paraorchestra founder Charles Hazlewood, the show is set in 1930s Germany when the Nazis are burning books and removing civil rights.

In a world becoming darker and more dangerous, Waldo and his eclectic troupe of acrobats and clowns dedicate themselves to their craft as stories of love, courage and resistance are revealed within the big top. By putting this story on stage the company behind it, Extraordinary Bodies, is acknowledging the victims of the Holocaust and disabled people who were targeted and persecuted by the Nazis.

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Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror. Photo: Steve TannerWaldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror. Photo: Steve Tanner
Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror. Photo: Steve Tanner | Steve Tanner

Raphaella plays the clown Mish and also has a second role in the show as Otto, one of the Brownshirts. As part of the performance Raphaella also takes centre stage to do a solo song in BSL, which reviewers and critics who have seen it have called a particularly moving moment.

Raphaella says Waldo’s Circus has brought new challenges for her but she was delighted to be involved in such a ground-breaking piece of theatre shedding light on a comparatively little known aspect of 20th century history.

She said: “The difference between this show Waldo’s Circus to anything else I’ve done in the past is the circus and clowning part of it. I’ve never done any clowning, and it’s been a great experience to have an opportunity to learn some of the skills.

“Also, the storyline and the heaviness of it was a challenge because there are moments where it can affect you mentally once you become the character you do things that are not natural to you, and have to remember that once you come off stage you have to separate that from yourself.

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A scene from Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror. Photo: Steve TannerA scene from Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror. Photo: Steve Tanner
A scene from Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror. Photo: Steve Tanner | Steve Tanner

“This show has a cast of those with diverse disabilities and non-disabled actors, and I would like audiences to see us for our talent and not for our disabilities but also that we can work together regardless of who we are. Also, it shows a version of the true stories of what real people went through during those horrific times, and it was little talked about or shown.”

Raphaella was also thrilled to have the opportunity to show some of her fellow cast members around her home city and to be performing at The Lowry, something she says brings her career to date full circle.

She said: “This show means so much to me. My first-ever performance on stage was here at the Lowry aged 10. The show was called Ziggurat. And that was the moment when I realised that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, to become a performer.

“Fast forward to here, I am doing my first-ever professional performance! I feel lucky and humbled to be here again.”

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A time of increasing representation for Deaf and disabled people in culture

In recent years the visibility of Deaf and disabled people on TV screens and in popular culture in general has notably increased, with one example being Rose Ayling-Ellis winning the reality programme Strictly Come Dancing. One of her most memorable moments on the show was when she helped bring a primetime BBC audience into her world a little by dancing with her professional partner Giovanni Pernice without music being heard. Raphaella says this is a development that is long overdue.

She said: “I think finally it’s about time we had somebody like ourselves to be seen on the mainstream TV showing that we can achieve anything despite our disabilities.”

Raphaella (right) with Brooklyn Melvin, who is also in the show Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror. Photo: Paul Blakemore/Extraordinary BodiesRaphaella (right) with Brooklyn Melvin, who is also in the show Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror. Photo: Paul Blakemore/Extraordinary Bodies
Raphaella (right) with Brooklyn Melvin, who is also in the show Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror. Photo: Paul Blakemore/Extraordinary Bodies | Paul Blakemore/Extraordinary Bodies

Despite that, Raphaella said she still grew up without obvious examples of people for her to look up to in her chosen career, leaving her with the task of having to be a trailblazer for Deaf creatives and being someone for future generations to emulate.

She said: “As a child, I had no role model to look up to, didn’t see a deaf mixed-race person like me that performed on TV or in theatre. Somehow I had this fire in me to break that barrier and become a performer, for the next generation.

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“It’s so important to see deaf professional actors now that are on tv /film/theatre. The industry needs this as it shows more authentic stories and an opportunity to see actual real-life BSL language being used.”

Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror is on at The Lowry between Thursday 20 April and Saturday 22 April. To find out more, visit the Extraordinary Bodies website.

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