After thinking about how we could work more inclusively at Art with Heart to make sure every person who sees our work can experience it equally, I joined Graeae Theatre Company (www.graeae.org) for the day…
I’m currently completing my A-level equivalent in British Sign Language (BSL). I am learning more and more about how hearing and deaf cultures differ and how difficult it is to access the arts as a non-hearing person. For most, those who use BSL, English is not their first language and reading captions is tiresome and lacking in expression. I have come across some fantastic interpreters, but also some who I feel, don’t really capture what is happening on stage, meaning that even though a BSL user has access they end up having a lesser experience to their hearing peers.
I have always been fascinated by how spoken words, multiple meanings, chemistry, inflections and nuances can take us on a journey. Just a look, movement or rhythm of a performers speech can change everything. In our rehearsals we are always trying something now, we say that if you’ve done something once, don’t do it again. Don’t act, just be. Be in the moment – enact. Respond to the space, moment and other performers. Sometimes the movement of one object in an opening scene can set off a ripple which means something is different by the end scene. The core is always there, what we call ‘The Centre’, and we all work from it, but performers need to be in the moment, just as we all are as humans. So how does this practice translate to an interpreter, who is usually isolated on one side of the stage, not watching the performers but in turn becoming them, performing themselves, creating each person and speaking for them. How can they enact without being in the action?
Whenever possible I go and watch performances with a BSL interpreter. It is usually only one night and large scale pieces in main spaces or musicals. This is not where my regular theatre ticket money goes, I am much more a studio, intimate space kind of audience member which means if I wasn’t hearing, I could hardly ever access this work. When booking venues for Secret Diaries tour, one of the highlights of conversations with programmers was about our BSL interpreter as part of our team. Venues welcomed it being part of a studio tour, and highlighted how rare it is.
We want to make sure our BSL using audience have an equal experience to our hearing ones, something Graeae Theatre Company have been doing for a long time; they don’t just have an interpreter but BSL is fully incorporated and woven into their work.
Graeae’s work is very different to ours but I wanted to spend a day in rehearsals with them to see, how working with deaf, hard of hearing and hearing actors together worked. I had seen it look effortless in their performances, but what was it like in rehearsals? I was about to find out.
On the 7am train to London I felt nervous and excited and like the day would start to inform a new way of looking at our future work. As soon as I arrived I felt welcome. Stephen answered hundreds of my questions openly and within a few minutes I’d been made a coffee and had a seat. As they worked though Iron Man, it was an intense start to the day ensuring that every movement was so precise, especially when movement is joined by music. It became more and more clear how much easier and efficient it was for other members of the company to sign, even just a little, especially the director. At one point one of the deaf actors touched the speaker to feel the vibrations for timing her cue. It suddenly dawned on me how useful music is for both the hearing and deaf actors.
The Iron Man has puppeteering, moving set, music, musicians, interpreters all working together. There is so much to think about, including sound and visual cues yet they all seem to work so well in sync and supportive of each other.
Lunch time allowed me to think about us, how we could work in this way and start to think about new work. It is so refreshing to be in a rehearsal room where everybody signs, at least a little bit. I started to think about the way we work and how you never really know where someone will be on stage because we are feeling our way through the moment, but this would not accommodate lip-reading and visual cues at all.
Seeing how it works with hearing and deaf performers in a rehearsal room was so refreshing and by the afternoon I had forgotten that this isn’t like every other rehearsal room. Seeing it in action would benefit anyone, reminding us all that we’re all human and moving towards the same goal in rehearsals; to make something great. We will always find a way to communicate, whether you sign, lip-read, gesture, once you realise that, it starts to become irrelevant if someone is hearing, non-hearing, able bodied or not. As long as we’re all on the same page then we’re winning.
- Sarah Evans