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Deaf actor makes RSC history by becoming first to understudy hearing role

Charlotte Arrowsmith performing as Curtis in The Taming of the Shrew at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Ikin Yum
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A deaf actor has become the first at the Royal Shakespeare Company to understudy a hearing role using British Sign Language.

Charlotte Arrowsmith stepped into play the role of Vincentia in The Taming of the Shrew at the RSC last week, and the theatre believes she may even be the first in any UK theatre to understudy for a hearing principal.

According to the RSC, the role – which is usually English-speaking – was performed in BSL with adjustments from the cast and crew to factor in the change.

Arrowsmith had been appearing in the show the as Curtis when she was called on to play the role of Vincentia, usually performed by Melody Brown.

Arrowsmith said: ”I was so pleased that the rest of the cast embraced my BSL and tried to incorporate minimal signs/gestures into their lines. It shows that nothing is impossible if we try as a team, and with more preparation time it shows how much a mainstream cast can bring together BSL and diversity into the mix as easily as anything else.”

She added: “This understudy moment was undertaken by actors who had never signed before they met me, who worked so hard to include me and the character. I will forever be grateful for them embracing me and my language and it excites me for a future that we will include more BSL and diversity within the cast/production and creative team.”

The RSC has previously committed to representing the nation in its current season.

Gregory Doran, artistic director, said he had assembled a company of actors that represented the UK in terms “gender, ethnicity, regionality, and disability”.

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The Taming of the Shrew producer Zoe Donegan said: “Whenever an understudy performs in this season of plays, they may not be understudying the role like for like. This challenges all involved and it was fantastic to see this work so remarkably on the stage on Friday.”

She added: “Working with this company is very special, and proves that we can work inclusively. Charlotte’s outstanding performance as Vincentia, with the cast moving seamlessly to accommodate the change illustrates that barriers that were once viewed as insurmountable can be overcome.”

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