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Kinny Gardner: 5 tips for creating signed theatre

Kinny Gardner performing in Oliver in the Overworld. Photo: Matt Cawrey
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Kinny Gardner, 58, who is hard of hearing, studied classical ballet at the Martha Graham School. He has featured in London’s West End, in rep, tours throughout the UK, and is a principal performer internationally with the Lindsay Kemp Company. He co-founded The Krazy Kat Theatre Company (Sign Language Arts) in 1982 and remains artistic director. In 2016 he was included in the Queen’s birthday honours list, receiving the British Empire Medal for services to theatre and disability.

1. Create work with deaf directors and advisers

The visual aspect of storytelling is greatly enhanced by the embedding of sign language, and this has to be the beginning of the journey, not a ‘bolt on’. I work extensively with deaf directors Caroline Parker and John Wilson (also a translator), both of whom have a deep love of, and great experience of, presenting the visual vernacular. Be aware that most sign languages were invented by the deaf and thus bear little real resemblance to spoken language in form. Signing is a three-dimensional language.

2. Keep speech to a minimum

Ask yourself, your dramaturg, your writer: “Do we need to say this, or can we show it?”

3. Embrace deaf cultural values

There are many critical differences between deaf and hearing cultures. Under no circumstances should the characteristic visuality of sign language be ignored. Prosodic (the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech) elements in the telling of the story need the linguistic sensitivity of a first-language translator, otherwise they will be lost. Value the diversity and dignity of our young deaf audiences and embrace deaf culture in the great gift of those storytelling techniques handed down to us by deaf artists.

4. Explore eye breaks

Deaf children need a rest from receiving information by hand and face. So in my work I use and develop ‘eye breaks’: moments of storytelling when information is presented as dance, shadow-play, mime, storyboard pictures and so on, which serves both to move the story along and let the child rest. It’s a form of ‘dynamic teaching’ – using theatrical effects rather than whiteboards or PowerPoint.

5. Accept the need for repetition

As soon as a deaf person ‘looks away’ from the actor, they have missed the line. He or she has only visual reception to rely on and not aural. So in my work, as in deaf sign conversation, I use reiteration and repetition. This successfully reflects the hearing oral storytelling tradition of repeating phrases and rhythms. It is also vital that only one person ‘speaks’ at a time, to allow the child to focus on the signer and receive the information.

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