Until recently, signed performances have been the main means of making mainstream shows accessible to D/deaf audiences, but Charlotte Keatley argues that integrating BSL into existing works can open them up to all
My Mother Said I Never Should, my play that was first staged in 1987, has been translated or produced in 31 countries. Now, for the first time, it has been translated into a language used everywhere in the UK, but rarely given its due on stage: British Sign Language.
This is for a co-production by Fingersmiths and Sheffield Theatres that tours England this February and March, having opened at Sheffield Crucible last November.
Jeni Draper, artistic director of Fingersmiths, is making radical theatre: D/deaf and hearing actors performing a play entirely in BSL, with some spoken English or projected text for the hearing audience – reversing convention.
Jenny Sealey, pioneering director of Graeae, has integrated D/deaf and disabled actors into productions for decades; now Fingersmiths is, as Jeni puts it, “taking a modern classic with universal themes and seeing what happens when we transpose it into D/deaf culture and language”. She has already directed plays by Bryony Lavery and John Godber for her groundbreaking company.
My Mother Said I Never Should shows, through one family, the immense changes in women’s lives over the past century, and the vastly different opportunities for each generation. Jeni’s production adds another layer of tension to the play – by casting actors who use a range of signing and speaking across the four generations, she shows how the pressures of our predominantly hearing culture have profoundly affected these women’s lives.
I was horribly ignorant of the fact that, from the 1880s, our education system forced D/deaf children to speak, only recognising BSL as a language in its own right in 2003. So home life across the decades of this play shows the four mothers and daughters change from using lip-reading, to finger-spelling, and then BSL, isolating some generations more than others. The actors sometimes speak as well, adding this layer of power to the character. Secrets and lies in the play are made visual – a daughter only has to turn away and a mother can’t communicate with her; two women can literally talk behind another’s back. It makes some moments of the play more funny or more heartbreaking.
We can all understand body language, even if we don’t know BSL, and these actors – Ali Briggs, Jude Mahon, EJ Raymond and Lisa Kelly – are playful and fearless. The body doesn’t lie, though words often do; this is what I love to exploit as a playwright.
Although I cherish the respect for the text in British theatre, productions can get too head-bound, relying too much on the words. As Jeni says: “We are so used to giving and receiving information aurally that we don’t use our eyes as much. D/deaf artists are supremely talented at communicating with their whole bodies and we as hearing creatives have a lot to learn from them.”
Jeni is hearing but is bilingual in BSL and English. She told me: “I like the challenge of working in both languages. They have different rhythms. A D/deaf BSL linguist in the room works with the actors to translate the script, then my job is to balance meaning with intention and storytelling in both languages. It’s a juggling act and I love it.”
The rehearsal process was also the translation process. With so many means of communicating available, the choice of whether the lines of this play in English are signed, spoken or enacted physically was made as part of each character development. Jeni has also meticulously plotted where text is projected or given in voice-over, for a hearing audience. There are key lines in every scene which we agreed need to be clearly given to the audience for the play to work. Others were re-invented for this production – as happens in any translation. I wonder how the Japanese production translated: “I never used bicarb for my scones, just elbow grease.”
BSL uses composite gestures, conveying subject and action more quickly and vividly than English. It’s naturally theatrical – for example the past is literally behind you, the present in front. How the actor uses her hands, face, angle of body and speed of signing bring in subtext, irony and humour.
There were moments when Jeni and I agreed to cut the text completely, because the D/deaf actors can communicate what I’ve written through their body language. These are, for me, some of the most powerful moments of the production – the whole audience goes silent too, focused on a woman communicating with her daughter in the way D/deaf families do, but which I’ve never seen on stage. At an audience discussion one night, one man said he had never experienced silence at the theatre in this way: silence that’s packed with communication.
Also in the rehearsal room were Luanna Priestman, movement director, and designer Sophia Lovell-Smith. I’ve rarely been in a rehearsal so truly collaborative, in the way I love to work, which is to use all the languages of theatre: passing the baton of the play as it were, through words, movement, eye contact, colour, object, gesture, silence – all the media I am thinking in as I write, even though what is printed as the script is only the dialogue.
When the red ramp of the set design arrived in rehearsal, the first impulse of the actors (and mine) was to climb up and roll down it one after another, landing in a big noisy heap. The fearless physicality of the D/deaf actors means that the crucial scenes of the play where I show the adult characters as children are acted with the full-on commitment with which children ‘play’. Jeni understood how my writing exposes adult taboos through children’s games.
On the first day of rehearsals, a huge circle of theatre staff welcomed us in the foyer, introducing themselves one by one with their name and job title, using sign language. It summed up the enthusiasm and commitment of everyone in the building. Sheffield Theatres is already part of the Ramps on the Moon consortium of theatres striving to create a step change in the inclusion and integration of D/deaf and disabled individuals, and this season all main-house shows will have an integrated BSL performance.
Artistic director Robert Hastie was on hand for support and feedback when the technicalities of this bilingual production seemed overwhelming. “It’s a real experiment,” he said, “an honour to be staging it – and we’re so proud of the result.” Making this production at Sheffield Crucible establishes BSL production as mainstream theatre. And the audiences confirmed this: the run was packed.
Producer John Tomlinson says: “I don’t think I’ve learned so much from a production for some time. Working on this fascinating and important play in this way has shifted how I think about our whole programme of work, who and how it reaches.”
It’s been a brilliant experience, journeying into D/deaf culture. Now I want to see plays created by D/deaf theatremakers. Both Graeae and Deafinitely Theatre offer workshops to develop skills. And this Fingersmiths incarnation of my work demonstrates that any play can be performed by an entirely D/deaf cast. This opens up the repertoire for D/deaf actors and audiences going right back to Greek drama, as well as bringing new creative skills into mainstream theatremaking. Jeni Draper has ambitious ideas ahead.