Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2016 – how accessible was it to Deaf people?

by Michael Richardson

This blog-post is based on an article to be published in the October 2016 edition of the British Deaf News, and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

 

As I write, the final day of the 2016 Edinburgh Festival Fringe is drawing to a close.  During a three-and-a-half week period there will have been over 50,000 performances of more than 3,000 different shows:  it is easy to accept the claim that this is the largest arts festival in the world.  But how many of these performances are accessible to Deaf people?  The Fringe is committed to improving the accessibility of Edinburgh venues and its own box office, but as it takes no role in choosing any of the shows, it is left to each visiting company whether or not to make their performances accessible to Deaf spectators.

Deaf people’s involvement in theatre, whether watching or performing, is my own particular interest.  For almost ten years I have been exploring the use of BSL on stage, in both youth theatre and musical theatre.  A show I produced for Edinburgh Music Theatre which used integrated sign language interpreting was featured on the BBC’s See Hear as one of only a handful of performances providing accessibility for Deaf spectators in the 2011 Fringe.

I am now doing a PhD at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, researching Deaf people’s participation in theatre, so the 2016 Fringe seemed an excellent opportunity to review progress towards better access for Deaf people.  The timing was particularly appropriate as I have just completed a project interviewing a small group of Deaf people on the subject of theatrical interpreting.  So, debit card at the ready, I logged on to the Fringe website and began my search for sign language interpreted performances.

The first good news I can report is that the amount of interpreted theatre has increased since 2011.  The Fringe website’s own list of performances accessible to Deaf people featured 31 different shows, of which 11 were interpreted on 2 or more occasions.  In addition, in the Free Fringe the Deaf and Hearing Ensemble worked with Forest Fringe to present a whole day of BSL interpreted shows at the venue Out of the Blue.   Certainly there are more options to choose from for Deaf spectators than in earlier years.

Interpreted shows included a wide range of performance styles. Drama, physical theatre, circus, children’s shows and comedy were all represented, as well as traditional Scottish storytelling and music, a choir performing African song and dance, and a skit of the Eurovision Song Contest.  More choice was offered by the use overall of a relatively large pool of interpreters.  Still lacking, however, was a strong presence by Deaf actors.  The Fringe website listed only one bilingual (BSL/English) theatre show, which I will describe later; and a one off spoken word event performed by my colleagues, two Deaf and two hearing from Heriot Watt University (Jemina Napier, Gary Quinn, Stacey Webb and Mark McQueen).

Incidentally, although the accessibility pages of the Fringe website are not easy to find, once you have clicked through they are increasingly good at giving the kind of extra information that Deaf theatre goers asked for in my research project.  75% of the shows described as accessible had a named interpreter advertised, and over 30% either gave the position of the interpreter or offered the option for Deaf spectators to choose appropriate seats when they arrived at the venue.

This kind of pre-show communication is certainly starting to address the first requirement of accessibility:  that target audiences need to be fully aware in advance of all relevant details of the accessible event (although in 2016 no information was presented in BSL, a situation which may change following the BSL (Scotland) Act 2015).  However, I am particularly interested in the communication that occurs during the show, and the ways that it engages Deaf spectators.  My Deaf research participants had been clear that in interpreted theatre they expect a particular style of high impact interpreting that matches the performances of the actors and is presented within the same visual frame as the performance, so I set out to see if theatre companies and interpreters were meeting these expectations.

I was not disappointed.  At Forest Fringe I watched three shows where there had been rehearsal time put aside to integrate the interpreting into the show as much as possible.  In all three the interpreters were costumed effectively to match the actors, but the choices of shows had an impact on the degree of further integration.  Nic Green’s  Cock and Bull, interpreted by Catherine King, was an avant garde political satire that was highly visual and sexually provocative.  This accessible visual style was contrasted with a complex script in which sentences were broken into individual words and even parts of words, with actors overlapping different lines with songs and voice-over.  This combination of a very physical staging with a difficult spoken text unavoidably limited the fuller integration of the interpreter.

The other two Forest Fringe shows, both interpreted by Yvonne Strain, presented fewer challenges.  Greg Wohead’s Celebration Florida allowed her to be both costumed and fully integrated into the action, moving with the two actors and giving Deaf spectators an equivalent experience to hearing audiences of the show’s exploration of nostalgia for forgotten experiences, people and places.  A different approach was taken for Action Hero’s Watch Me Fall, a show which used home-made stunts to question our relationship with ideas of tough-guys and daredevils as celebrities.  Possibly for her own safety as much as for anything else, the interpreter took a fixed position on the side of the performance area.  Rather than being integrated into the show she performed as though a member of the standing audience, reacting as we did to the stunts, but also interpreting the announcements between the stunts and the few short sections of dialogue as they occurred.

Away from Forest Fringe I saw two shows interpreted by Yvonne Waddell, a PhD candidate at Heriot Watt University, in which she had worked independently with the companies to provide as much integration as possible.  Ronan O’Donnell’s Brazil is a one man show set in an imagined Scotland destroyed by the bombs of war and living in poverty and mistrust.  Yvonne provided a highly visual BSL interpretation to match the poetic language of the original, and was fully integrated into the show.  She was costumed, and performed from on the small stage close to the speaking actor.  At significant moments the two made eye contact, effectively suggesting that they represented two different sides of the same character.

A different style of integration was used in Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons by Walrus, a play with two characters exploring their changing relationship in a world where they were only allowed to use 140 words per day.  Here Yvonne Waddell worked with Greg Colquhoun, a recent graduate of Heriot Watt University (MA British Sign Language (Translation, Interpreting and Applied Language Studies)).  The interpreters were less integrated into the action, standing on one side of the theatre-in-the-round stage, but each interpreter represented one character throughout, fully costumed, partly shadowing their actors and often using a word to sign literal translation to reflect the way that English words were used in the original.  The matching of the interpreters to the actors was particularly effective and is hopefully a sign of things to come in theatre interpreting.

I cannot finish this article without discussing further the work of the Deaf and Hearing Ensemble.  Individual interpreters are doing what they can to improve the experience of Deaf spectators, but this company bring a strategic approach that is shown in their partnership with Forest Fringe.  In addition, this year they performed their own show People of the Eye, featuring one Deaf and one hearing actor and using a mix of BSL, speech and creative captions to tell the story of a Deaf girl growing up in a hearing family.   The show puts across the combination of humour and anguish that is often a Deaf child’s experience through a mix of emotional dialogue and tightly choreographed physical and visual theatre.  The aim is to create accessible bilingual theatre that both engages and educates audiences, and the four and five star reviews it received demonstrate that this was achieved.

Unfortunately People of the Eye was (to my knowledge) the only theatre show to feature a Deaf actor at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016, although there was also a bilingual BSL/English poetry event (that I was unable to attend).  For me (and others) this raises the question of why significant sums of money are put into theatrical interpreting rather than using at least some access funding to support Deaf actors and Deaf theatre:  a show like Deafinitely Theatre’s recent production of George Brant’s Grounded would be a perfect fit for the Fringe.  But for now we can be clear about one thing.  The use of BSL in performances at the Fringe is increasing, and interpreters and theatre producers are working hard to do it better, and to make interpreting more integrated.   As signed performances become more common place, hopefully an appetite will grow in theatre audiences to attend performances by Deaf actors using BSL, thus coming to appreciate Deaf language and culture and all they can offer to the creation of high quality physical and visual theatre.

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Progression 2015:  A two-day celebration of Deaf Arts

by Michael Richardson

Only ten days into my Ph.D. research programme, exploring the engagement of the Deaf community and the use of British Sign Language (BSL) in theatre, I was fortunate to be able to attend a two day conference in Glasgow celebrating Deaf Arts and the progress made in that arena over the last decade.

The conference was hosted by Solar Bear, a Glasgow-based organisation which among other things runs Deaf Youth Theatre, a group working in BSL with young people from across the Central Belt; and Deaf Theatre Club, which encourages Deaf people to attend theatre performances across Scotland with BSL interpreters provided.  Recently Solar Bear has also been a key contributor to the development of the new B.A. Performance in BSL and English which was launched at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland earlier this month.

Also represented at the conference and giving presentations were Graeae Theatre Company and the Deaf and Hearing Theatre Ensemble from England; Tyst Theater, the National Deaf Theatre of Sweden; ANO Nedoslov, a Russian company using sign language as the basis of its performance practice; and composer Dr. Oliver Searle, who has recently written a piece of music specially for Deaf and hard of hearing children.

The two days of the conference were filled with practical presentations, giving delegates the opportunity to learn by engaging in different processes of theatre making, as well as the presentation of work, both theatre and film, with subsequent question and answer sessions designed to shed further light on different methods of creating accessible work.

The range of material explored at the conference was both exciting and stimulating.  Jenny Sealey, whose company Graeae creates work by and for Deaf, visually impaired and disabled people, advocates a fully accessible approach to theatre making that uses spoken English and BSL as well as sound effects and music.  Their practice aims to bring physical expression and audio description to bear as part of the communication from the stage:  this is accessibility in action, in the context of making great theatre.

In contrast, the Deaf and Hearing Ensemble have developed an approach which could conversely be described as theatre making in action, in the context of providing effective accessibility.  The ensemble is a group of theatre-makers with a range of skills who work in a fully collaborative way to produce theatre which is ripe with symbolism and emotional expression.  They use every possible mode of communication available to them including spoken English, BSL, movement, mime, projections (of text and images) and music and soundscapes to ensure that the meaning they want to put across is conveyed accessibly to Deaf and hearing audiences alike.

Using BSL as a communication tool within the production was central to all the work I saw during the conference, but there was an interesting variety in the ways in which BSL was used as a language within the different performance styles.  The two companies thus far described sat in the middle of the spectrum of techniques employed, as did the performance project created by Tyst Theater during the course of the second day.  But two other presentations sat at opposite extremes of the sign language as performance spectrum.

At one extreme was Deaf Youth Theatre, who had made a film, A Love Divided, with Deaf actors. The result was accessible to Deaf and hearing audiences, as a result of using body language, music and effective moving image story telling techniques to communicate to the audience.  However, almost no signed or spoken language was used, and the former was only intelligible through lip-reading:  no dialogue was heard.

At the other extreme was the Russian company ANO Nedoslov, for whom the use of sign language was a full theatrical statement  in itself.  Using techniques similar to those explored by Pollitt in Signart:  (British) sign language poetry as Gesamtkunstwerk (2014), the energetic physical actors and dancers of this company used the different linguistic components of signing to create a language of performance that was communicative, creative and beautiful.  During their presentation one of the actors signified the sport of skiing using a mix of facial expression, body language, hand shapes,  iconic signs and role shift to stunningly demonstrate to his audience a clear picture of the skis, the act of skiing, the snow, the landscape, the terrain, and finally the sheer emotional joy of completing the run successfully.  It was a perfect introduction to their techniques that set up high expectations for their later performance which were not disappointed.

In summary, the two days were a fantastic introduction to my field of research.  Having already some experience in creating theatre with Deaf people and using different techniques to include BSL in performance, it introduced me to approaches being used in other parts of the UK and further afield; and to the people involved in developing them.  I returned to my desk today energised and eager to explore the topic further over the coming years.

 Michael Richardson is a PhD student in the BSL section in LINCS