Stage, Theatre & TV4th June 2014

Sign or Text for Theatre?

Deafinitely Theatre's signed production of Shakespeare's - A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Globe Theatre

by Sarah Playforth

I am profoundly deaf since before speaking (from antibiotics given to save my life when I had encephalitis & was in a coma for two days) and until I was 17, used a combination of hearing aids, lip reading and copious book reading to (apparently) get by in the hearing world. I went to mainstream schools - not at all the happiest days of my life. Having met other deaf people at 17, my journey to learn BSL began then and, although I never progressed officially beyond level 2, I sign reasonably well and mostly feel fortunate to "have a foot in both camps" although I must be honest and say there are times when I feel like an alien in both deaf and hearing worlds. 

In the process of learning about both BSL and Deaf culture, I gained fantastic life-long deaf friends with no communication barriers and with whom I can be completely and honestly me. I've used interpreters for both paid & unpaid work since 1999. I should have done it much much sooner, but was far too busy adapting & "fitting in" to the hearing world to consider it.  What a huge relief it was from the years of eye strain, headaches, stiff neck, tension, stress & exhaustion, quite apart from the facade I had to work so hard to maintain. 

But all that's another story.  

This is about theatre & how I prefer to get access to it. Given that English is my first language and reading it is my favourite activity, it won't surprise anyone that since Stagetext started, that has been my preferred way of accessing English language theatre. And what theatre! Stagetext opened up War Horse, The Lion King, Phantom, Les Miserables, Far from the Madding Crowd, Tartuffe & the Misanthrope, Mother Courage, Romeo & Juliet and many many other dramatic treats to my wondering eyes. Yes those eyes have to wander a bit too - but only briefly - to those stageside boxes that transmit the magic words enacted on stage. Being able to speed read is a bonus. I've recently tried a new system using individual tablets to display the captions - I am not too sure about this for theatre use, but do think it works well for museum and gallery tours & lectures, where seeing the person speaking is not essential. 

But what about sign in theatre. Here we have a paradox. 

I am not keen on interpreted spoken language performances because I find it distracts from the stage action to have to follow (in my second language) another person on stage. That distraction for me is much more intrusive than Stagetext and I would rather watch the actors performing than the interpreter. But I have been an avid follower of signed Deaf theatre, where all performers use sign and interpreters are unnecessary, since the days of Pat Keysell, Interim and now Deafinitely Theatre and for me there is really nothing to compare with signed performances for conveying all the drama and emotion that non signing actors have to work so hard at conveying in sound, expression and gesture. Theatrical signing is not the same as that used in daily communication, it is exaggerated, enhanced and embroidered to great dramatic effect. I would love more deaf and hearing people who enjoy theatre, whatever their background or usual communication method to cast aside the idea of BSL as only an everyday language and go to Deaf theatre productions for a truly unique experience. 

Yesterday, I went to see Deafinitely Theatre's production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Globe. Having seen the same company perform Love's Labours Lost last year, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. I was not disappointed. I was enchanted, enthralled, amused and entertained by this production. 

With regular text synopses, fantastically creative signing and making full use of the stage set up, I enjoyed this performance of the Dream more than any other I have seen. The cast threw themselves into the interpretation of one of Shakespeare's classic comedies and whether your first language is BSL or English, there was no mistaking exactly what was going on in this timeless tale of magic, love and confusion. 

There was music and song, there was much running around - Hermia dragging her wheely bag & carrier bag around, up and down steps was hilarious. Bottom was brash, bumptious and bemused by turn and the rest of the "Rude Mechanicals" (in this production a group of middle managers) all played their parts equally well. Flute as the reluctant Thisbe was beautifully camp and wore his long blonde wig with huge panache. Titania was a really sexy siren, seducing poor Bottom in his ass's garb with energy and determination and her consort, Oberon was wonderfully majestic. Helena's confusion and distress at Demetrius' waywardness was dramatically laid bare. Whoever was responsible for casting picked exactly the right people for the roles, their physical appearances matching just how Shakespeare described his characters. 

Not a single weak link, not a single attempt at "upstaging", this was a production that showed dedication, teamwork and excellent direction. More like this, please, Deafinitely Theatre. 

Sarah Playforth

Sarah Playforth
Chair, East Sussex Disability Association (ESDA) 
Director, Deaf Cultural Outreach Group (DeafCOG) 

Twitter: Sarah Ann @minervabythesea
Facebook: Sarah Playforth

Article by Sarah Playforth

posted in Entertainment / Stage, Theatre & TV

4th June 2014