Deaf Defying Cunning Stunts at the Hamilton Arts Festival

Penni Bousfield aka Penni Feather was a full time singer in Auckland and Queenstown throughout her 20s and 30s. Penni is hearing impaired with about 20-25% hearing – a bit more than that with a hearing aid. We caught up with Penni to hear about her solo show (accompanied by Nicky Keys on piano) coming up at the end of February in Hamilton.

Can you describe your Hamilton Arts Festival Toi Ora Ki Kirikiriroa 2024 show and what people can expect? 

The tagline for the show is “A cabaret performed by a nearly deaf singer – what could possibly go wrong?” which is a bit tongue-in-cheek – although with severe hearing loss there are some challenges to putting on a stage show!

The show is in the classic cabaret/one-woman show format, which is a good excuse to sing a bunch of great songs. There’ll be some contemporary cabaret standards by the likes of Kurt Weill, Leonard Cohen, and David Bowie, along with some perhaps more unexpected jazz and rock songs. In true cabaret style there’ll also be a mix of humour and theatrics as well.

The promo mentions it’s a show about ‘big changes.’ Talk us through what this means and how your music expresses that. 

The show’s a bit autobiographical. I’d had a gradual and moderate hearing loss for many years, then a few years ago on top of that I had sudden total hearing loss in one ear. So now I have about 25% or less of normal hearing overall. It was a big change. 

The songs express various emotions you can have, in response to loss in general I think, and adjusting to a ‘new normal’ – so there will be things there that most people can relate to and if not – they are fabulous songs to just enjoy for their own sake.

Were you a performing singer prior to experiencing hearing loss? How did this affect your ability to perform and your work opportunities? Has it influenced the direction of your art?

I was a fulltime professional singer in bands in Auckland and then Queenstown through my 20s and 30s. Rehearsing and performing is more difficult now, but still doable. Having been a singer most of my adult life means I have muscle memory and technique to call on, plus I have a hearing aid. Another big help is a certain amount of volume – singing on stage is great because you have foldback too.

Prior to the sudden hearing loss I’d been a touring musician, performing arts lecturer and theatre director, so it felt like a catastrophe for me. Having that degree of hearing loss definitely affected work. I can only work part-time now. It also affected my notion of myself, which was very much about being a performer and teacher, and of course hearing loss has a big impact on social situations. Whether it’s work or social life now I have to strategise around where/how I can hear and also make sure I have plenty of downtime between things for my brain to reboot. Mental fatigue and headaches from hearing loss are real – your brain has to work overtime to make sense of what you’re hearing and try to fill in the gaps. 

All that sounds like a fun basis for a show doesn’t it!

You are performing with Nicky Keys. Why does this collaboration work so well?

Nicky is playing piano for me, which frees me up to just sing. I’ve always loved singing with an accompanist for that reason, and now guitar in particular can be something I struggle to hear unless I play plugged in or with my chin on the instrument (like Beethoven and his piano!). Having an accompanist means I can move around and get up to some nonsense on stage and make the whole thing more theatrical. 

Nicky is about as sight-impaired as I am with hearing, so we understand that each of us needs some concessions for a sensory disability. He’s a great musician. Also we hit it off with a shared sense of humour – we’re in fits of laughter a lot at our rehearsals, so I reckon we’re going to have fun on stage.

Deaf-Defying Cunning Stunt

Sat Feb 24 6pm and Sun Feb 25 5.30

Hamilton Arts Festival Toi Ora ki Kirikiriroa

Tickets from Eventfinda

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