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Leicestershire Centre for Integrated Living

Staging theatre for deaf and hearing audiences

Date: 13/5/2015
Summary: The Deaf and Hearing Ensemble is a group of D/deaf and hearing artists whose work includes British Sign Language (BSL), spoken English, projection, movement, mime, music and soundscapes. All of our work is accessible for D/deaf, hard of hearing and hearing audiences.

Here, we discuss our latest project, People of the Eye, written by Erin Siobhan Hutching and based on her experience of growing up with a deaf sister, learning sign language and being introduced to Deaf culture.

Erin Siobhan Hutching, writer and performer

This project is based on the experiences of my family and friends who are affected by deafness (directly or indirectly). It celebrates the performative beauty of sign language and Deaf culture without shying away from the complex idea of culture versus disability. I used a mix of theatrical conventions including audience participation, physical theatre and video projections, striving to make accessibility part of the aesthetic instead of a tag-on. I wanted sound to be conveyed visually for the D/deaf audience, while allowing the hearing audience an insight into what the D/deaf experience of the world may be.

I organised the script visually, with each section (physical action, sound, film, subtitles) colour-coded to explain how it would happen simultaneously. A few scenes were changed significantly in rehearsal as sometimes visual elements that were right in my head didn’t translate in practice. As the project develops we plan to have a D/deaf and hearing creative working together in each aspect of production, to present a balanced viewpoint.

Everyone involved in the process brought their own experiences to the table, even the sign language interpreters, who were generous enough to share their own insights as hearing professionals in a D/deaf world. As well as assisting in the performers in terms of access, watching them also helped improve my own sign language skills. I use New Zealand sign language, which is similar to BSL but not exactly the same; the difference is a bit like someone speaking in a very strong accent.

Sophie Stone, performer and company co-founder

I feel a responsibility as an artist to represent things authentically within the realms of imagination. There’s so much more to play with when there’s a richness of diverse experience (which the ensemble and story certainly has).

As a D/deaf performer, working in the room with two artists who can sign, Jen and Erin, helped my own personal access. Working with the sound and visual teams also meant we could align digital manifestations to sound so D/deaf audience members could experience changes in sound visually. It meant that, for example, both D/deaf and hearing audiences could experience a hearing test and the projected internal breakdown as equally as possible.

This project and being part of a collaborative team has taught me that my perspective is my voice, which can be “heard” within every aspect of the creative process as much as everyone else’s.

Oliver Savidge, technical manager

As Erin’s story is so personal, it was always important for the piece to be respectful and inclusive. One of the key things I noticed early on in the process of devising the show was the communication. As the show has a D/deaf actor – Sophie – I always imagined that communication could be tricky, but on this project that wasn’t the case at all. As Jen and Erin can both sign, I felt like a minority at times as I’m not able to.

The rehearsal room was the same as any other project, only this time with language not just from the mouth but also the body. As sign language uses the body so much, this means the language itself is very open. BSL immediately includes every member of that conversation and welcomes you the moment you enter the room, which was a great asset to our devising process.

Another interesting discovery was how to cue somebody onstage who is D/deaf as theatre traditionally uses audio cues. We instead flashed the lights as a cue. Regardless of hearing ability, both actors found this method of cueing practical and we ended up using the lights flashing throughout the whole scene as it looked so good. This show was full of so many little challenges and we had great fun stretching our creative minds to find solutions.

Jennifer K Bates, director and company co-founder

Audiences are not given much time to relax at the beginning of our latest production as it involves quite a bit of participation. This exploration in communication is what we found most interesting, particularly within a company of people who communicate in very different ways. I imagine it’s much the same in any theatre company that is bilingual or uses interpreters to help aid communication in the rehearsal room. In fact, I’ve found that some of the most exciting and fullest moments are when the communication breaks down and mistakes are made, much like in real life.

A primary aim of our work is that it is not only accessible but also a shared experience for D/deaf, hard of hearing and hearing audiences. To do this we must always question what each audience member is able to receive from the performance, so our general rule is: whatever is seen is heard and whatever is heard is seen.

A typical rehearsal will consist of me harassing the video designer with notes such as: “I can hear action, but I can’t see it … I need to see it.” This can be tiny, but if the hearing audience knows something that the D/deaf audience doesn’t, we need to find a way to change it. I can also be found having chats with the performers, saying things like: “If this character is using BSL, do we need a voiceover or projected text for the non-BSL users?” The most important thing when it comes to both these points is that we need to solve it in the most appropriate way in relation to the world of the play and the story that we’re telling.

We experiment with different technologies to make sound visual: sometimes we use beautiful subtitles; other times we write on paper. There are also times we don’t use language at all as the meaning is clear through the intention and performance. We give our audiences the credit they deserve. We want them to take from the piece what they want – maybe it makes them think, maybe they can relate and maybe they laugh along the way too.

Source The Guardian

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