Deaf Life8th June 2014

Rachel Shenton - Hollyoaks, Acting and Deafness

Hollyoaks Star Rachel Shenton on her work acting and promoting deaf awareness

by Sarah Lawrence

Gracing our screens for years in Waterloo Road and Hollyoaks amongst others, the beautiful and vivacious Rachel Shenton has already achieved a great deal in her acting career. Currently in Los Angeles filming for the successful deaf focused American sit-com Switched at Birth with famous US Deaf actress Marlee Matlin, Rachel is a National Deaf Children’s Society Ambassador. Agreeing to an exclusive interview with SLFirst, I wanted to find out the story behind Rachel’s interest and involvement in the issue of deafness.

Born and brought up in Caverswall, a small village outside Stoke-on-Trent, Rachel is an only child. Enjoying what Rachel describes as an “absolutely amazing” childhood, she considers she was very lucky as a youngster. As a child we tend to think of our parents as being invincible, but aged 12, Rachel’s father was diagnosed with throat cancer. A strong and determined man, his treatment involved high doses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but that did enable him to make a full recovery. However, shortly afterwards, he became Deaf almost overnight.

Brought up to have a philosophical outlook on life, Rachel recalls feeling thankful that her dad was fit and well again, the onset of deafness not then treated as an ‘illness’ but rather something that required some adjustments to family life, albeit those adjustments were significant. Determined not to let being deaf affect his life, Rachel considers that her father has been largely successful in that, although changes were made to family activities such as no longer going to the theatre or cinema and changing TV viewing habits. Her father learned to lip-read quickly and if that didn’t work, they just used to write notes back and fore to get by. With attitudes to communication being the most essential criteria, Rachel’s family are an example of what can be achieved.

With no knowledge about what help was available to them and offered very little in the way of information and advice, the NHS provided Rachel’s father with hearing aids and a light to attach to the phone so that it flashed when ringing. When the hearing aids didn't help very much, the family realised how unaware of deafness they were.

Before passing away, Rachel’s father learned little sign language because he was excellent at lip-reading, but after his death, Rachel reflected on things and decided that learning British Sign Language was something she wanted to do. Aged 16, and with her lifelong dream of being an actress still very much uppermost in her mind, Rachel enrolled in an evening class at her local college in Stoke-on-Trent to learn BSL properly as it was something she really wanted to do. Like many people who start to learn BSL, Rachel fell in love with the language, a love affair that remains today.

An accomplished actress, Rachel has played many roles and finds it difficult to identify which would be her best role up to now. “I love them all for different reasons”, Rachel said. “I did a play at Edinburgh fringe festival when I was 18 and I played a princess – I really loved that. My character in Waterloo Road was fun but I will always love Mitzeee in Hollyoaks, she was so much fun to play.” Describing her two and a half years on Hollyoaks, Rachel told me, “I had a blast. It’s such an incredible show to be part of. There is a definite sense of family and the comraderie on set is second to none.”

Sitting on her balcony in LA doing the interview, Rachel comes across as the girl next door, maintaining a warm and friendly down to earth approach to life. Discussing her time in LA, Rachel is excited to be there filming the Switched at Birth series. “I came over to LA at the end of last year to have a working holiday. I wanted to see some of LA and have a few meetings. I met with a lovely casting director, Deedee Bradley who casts Switched at Birth. She pout me on tape and sent it to the producers of the show and I was invited in for an audition the next day. It all happened pretty quickly.”

Now in LA filming for the series, Rachel plays a student teacher called Lilly Summers. Unlike Mitzeee, Lilly is very straight laced and a bit of a tough girl. Playing alongside established American household names, Rachel’s on-screen boyfriend Toby is played by High School Musical star Lucas Gabrielle. “I am a fan of High School Musical so playing alongside Lucas was pretty cool and working with people who are so well established is always a great feeling,” Rachel told me.

Describing the whole experience of filming in LA, Rachel said, “I am having a blast! Driving to work in Hollywood is a dream come true.” About LA itself Rachel said, “LA is great, I'd only been here once before for my initial auditions, so living out here I'm obviously getting a lot of time to explore and it's amazing. Besides the weather, there is just so much to see, all the famous spots that you see on TV, like the Hollywood sign, Rhodeo Drive etc. I've been here a couple of months now & still feel like a tourist, I don't think that will ever stop.”

Rachel’s first episode in Switched at Birth will air on ABC Family in America on the 16th June and is available through Netflix. I will be watching! The show normalises deafness and by not making an 'issue' of the subject, it enables people to see what they need to, which is normal young people doing normal things that just so happen to be deaf.

Thoughtful about her acting roles, but still ambitious, Rachel’s ambitions are to work in projects that she cares about. She hopes to get the opportunity to play diverse characters and not become type-set. We wish Rachel well for the future and will follow her progress with interest.

With close links to two deaf charities, Rachel has done a great deal to support Deaflinks and the National Deaf Children’s Society, including some impressive fundraising activities. “I have been an advocate for raising deaf awareness for many years now and I’ve completed a number of fund raising challenges including sky diving, abseiling and climbing Kilimanjaro, which was by far the toughest”, Rachel explained.

“Deaflinks is very close to my heart,” she told me, “Not only are the members and staff wonderful, but they provide an invaluable service for the deaf community in and around Staffordshire. The sense of ‘community’ is very much alive in Deaflinks. I always visit when I’m home, I love the place.” Rachel has been an ambassador for the NDCS since 2010, contacting them to offer her help and support to what they do for deaf children.

Initially stemming from her personal experience of living with deafness, I am pleased to learn of Rachel’s ambitions for deaf people and their role in life. “My main goal would be to eradicate isolation in connection to deafness. To do this, I feel we need to educate people. An excellent start would be right at grass roots level, so in primary schools and pre-school clubs. For everyone to grow up with a basic understanding of deafness and sign language would be the vital ingredient to achieving that goal.”

Looking so sleek and beautiful, I was not surprised to learn that Rachel enjoys exercise, but she is also an avid reader and likes to take her dog for a walk, something she is missing whilst in LA. Always looking so great, I was keen to take advantage of the interview by asking Rachel for her number one make-up tip. “I take my make up off with Vitamin E oil and it always leaves my skin soft.” I had better get started with that then, although I fear it may be a little too late!

A simply delightful lady, I cannot tell you how pleased I am that Rachel is fighting for greater deaf awareness. With high profile people like her supporting deaf people and deaf focused organisations, it is still possible that society may embrace deafness and value us for who we are and what we can do.

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Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Community / Deaf Life

8th June 2014