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Monkey business with a serious side.

Byline: By Sam Wonfor

Three decades of communication between a man and a "talkative" chimpanzee and the endangered future of the human-like species have provided the inspiration behind the latest production at Newcastle Playhouse.

The Chimp That Spoke tells the story of the pioneering work done by psychology student, Roger Fouts, (now one of America's leading primatologists) who in 1967 began to teach American sign launguage to a young chimpanzee called Washoe.

And given yesterday's news that new analysis of genetic similarities between chimps and humans now suggests that they are more alike than previously thought (and should be classified in the same taxonomic group) - the production couldn't be more topical.

During the last 30 years, the dialogue between Washoe, Robert and other researchers has continued - with Washoe even passing on her knowledge to her adopted son - and their journey, along with an exploration of the meaning of language is the subject of the production, which opens tomorrow for a three-day run as part of Northern Stage's summer season.

And for David Glass - the man behind the production - almost three years of work have resulted in a moving piece of theatre, addressing a subject which is clearly close to his heart.

"The subject matter is very relevant and the work grew out of a sense of urgency because of the imminent threat of extinction for chimps," he says, "If things don't change, then they will disappear in 10 years. It's frightening."

Established in 1989, the David Glass Ensemble has built up a reputation for producing innovative, popular and provocative physical theatre.

A long-standing relationship with Northern Stage has seen some of its productions premier on Tyneside, including the acclaimed Lost Child Trilogy which was based on David's own experiences with hundreds of children from disadvantaged places all over the world.

And just as that project required admirable dedication and passion, David says his latest subject matter held a lifelong interest.

"It's a fascinating mirror you begin to explore when you explore human and chimp movement and I think this startling relationship is reflected in the production.

"In a way it is different to the kind of thing we normally do, but it's still very much a visual, physical and very lively show. There is a fair amount of humour, but it's also quite emotional.

"Although it tells the story of Roger and Washoe, it is kind of a meditation on where we are with nature. The transition between human characters and chimp characters is done purely through stance and movement - we didn't want to use any costumes.

"We really try to explore the link between ourselves and these incredibly complex creatures who are so similar to us. The piece explores language in itself - what language is for and what it means to us. People seem to have been very moved by it."

As part of his research, David says he was delighted to have an encounter with Washoe, who is now 37 and living at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, in Ellensburg, Washington DC.

"It was fascinating to meet her. She is living with five other chimps, who can all speak in sign language. It's nice because now the studies are not forced on them and they can choose to engage with the researchers or not. It was a great experience.

"Roger is still extremely active in his research and in his work to save the species. He hasn't had a chance to see the production as yet, but we hope he will see it soon."

* Information about the future of the chimpanzee will be available in the Newcastle Playhouse Foyer before and after this week's performances. David says: "We are working with one of the campaigning groups and people will be able to sign up to help protect chimps and help set up sanctuaries."
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Title Annotation:Entertainment
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 21, 2003
Words:636
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