It’s been a week since Birds of Paradise threw open the rehearsal room doors and welcomed theatre-makers and members of the public into Role Shift rehearsals.
I have never been part of a rehearsal process like this. For me, moving to Scotland from London, I was very interested to see how much signing is incorporated into the world of theatre here and I was under the impression that it was a welcoming environment for a deaf audience. I have learnt so much more about it and BSL since working with Birds of Paradise.
Role Shift deliberately challenges the impression that it’s enough to place a signer at the side of the stage and believe that this will encourage a deaf audience to attend a show and make it accessible and, above all, enjoyable. The languages are so different that, without an interpreter attending rehearsals, I don’t know how there can be a hope that they accurately show the emotional heights that the actors represent with their voices. It’s completely possible for BSL to show everything speech can, but it takes time and care.
Working with Natalie, who plays Carrie, the interpreter who realises she can step onstage and control the direction the play takes, has been an incredible learning experience for me, coming with no experience of integrated theatre at all.
Last Friday, there was a Q&A with those who attended the open rehearsal. One of the questions was about what barriers theatre-makers feel there are in creating theatre which incorporates signers within the performance and what challenges they face. Cost is an obvious one – to pay an interpreter throughout a rehearsal process for the work they do, which is almost double what an actor would have to do to play the same part. Natalie, for example, has had to transcribe the entire script into BSL. Some parts are easier than others but there isn’t a word for ‘fate’ in BSL, so it becomes something else, something imaginative and interesting but nonetheless a series of signs she has had to create to represent ‘fate.’
Another issue raised was fear. There is always a caution around embracing something new, daring and a little different. That it will change theatre and how we approach making it and rehearsing. Whether it can work for every show. What would happen for a production which required two interpreters over the course of a performance. Would they stay the same character? Swap? How will it work?
The concerns around the creative impact on a production using access tools in this way are ones Birds of Paradise constantly challenge. Creatively addressing how accessibility can be woven throughout the fabric of the show, rather than tacked on as an addition, is part of our ethos as a company. And it is possible. From Wendy Hoose, set in a bedroom and concerning two people about to have sex, where incorporating a third person would not have made so much sense. In this case, the director (the very same Rob who plays Ally), had a TV as part of the set and the interpreter was there, signing, incorporated into the world of the play. In Role Shift, Carrie involves herself in the action and the questions the play addresses are about the very nature of interpreters within theatre. It’s moving as three people’s worlds collide and they find a language they can adopt. It’s also rude, filthy and very, very funny!
These aren’t questions with easy answers, or necessarily even answers that are going to work for everyone, all the time, but I think that’s ok. What’s important is that the questions are even being asked and we, as theatre-makers and practitioners, are challenging ourselves to make art that’s accessible so our stories can be heard, or seen, or signed, can be shared by as many people as possible.