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> > > Pulse Festival: the uses of BSL and Audio Description in Theatre

As part of the Ramps on the Moon event at New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 5 June, delegates had the opportunity to sit in on an open rehearsal of Jeni Draper’s Fingersmith’s latest show ‘War Crimes for the Home’ and Sue MacLaine’s ‘Can I Start Again Please.’ Liz Porter responds to the uses of British Sign language and Audio Description in theatre.

staged photo of two actresses in long dresses, sitting surrounded by reams of paper with a large drawing of a birds head on the floor

Sue MacLaine and Nadia Nadarajah perform Can I Start Again Please?

In the last few years there has been a resurgence of exploration around the use of incorporating British Sign Language into the dramaturgy of performance.

The Fingersmiths presented an open rehearsal of 'War Crimes For The Home', which tells the story of Gloria, now in her 80s, who is struggling with questions about a time she has tried to forget; dealing with memories connecting to World War II. English and British Sign language is simultaneously interwoven with three actresses; Shena Govan, Jean St Clair and Emily Slater; playing Gloria at different stages of her life, using different languages. It’s going to be a great show, poignant and extremely funny. Tour ready Spring 2016

For those who haven’t thought about the concept of dual language BSL English an open rehearsal demonstrated the complexities of communicating a director’s instructions between cast members. Vicki Gee gave further interpretation, so we saw access support in action too. It was interesting to notice the different rhythms of each language and to discuss in the brief Q&A afterwards the differences. For example there can be time lapses as signing a phrase can be faster than the amount of words spoken. Also when it comes to conveying humour, you have to consider which jokes will work in both languages and present the same outcome. 

There is a musicality within any language whether spoken or visual. I’ve seen great productions from companies such as Les Ballets C De La B who incorporate multi-layered approaches using many languages including sign and movement. Sue MacLaine’s production of ‘Can I Start Again Please’ (performed later that day), is also about raw memories and uses similar theatrical devices. Dual language BSL & English are central to the themes of this powerful and provocative work and push the boundaries of what languages and visual communication is all about. Both the Deaf and hearing audience need to work extremely hard as this is a challenging piece of work that draws on academic references to illustrate some of the many layers of language miscommunication.

'Can I Start Again Please’ was conceived, written and performed by Sue MacLaine alongside Nadia Nadarajah with an extensive team of language consultants, including Deaf academic John David Walker. Sue’s publicity says: ‘The work is about the capacity to comprehend and articulate traumatic experience, in particular childhood sexual violence and the placing of sign language and spoken English together is integral to the form of the work, asking audiences to move their attention in and between the two languages. Much of the physical score has been influenced by the testimony of Deaf people who endured intrusive speech therapies as children. So the audience is asked to question the nature of what abuse is, thereby challenging understanding and comprehension. 

The message is powerfully put across for audiences who can see. But what if you can’t? It’s a highly visual piece of work beautifully staged. It feels a little like eavesdropping two sculptures who come to life at night. Props and costumes are used to great effect 

I respect both companies work enormously. However, with both shows concentrating so heavily on visual communication and passing comment on how spoken and visual communication is interpreted even down to facial expressions, I couldn’t help but wonder how much thought is given over to communicating this to a blind or partially sighted audience. What consultation has been done around this? It’s a known fact that 75% of information is communicated visually, so if you’re exploring ‘communication’ and language miscommunication, surely this needs to be addressed too?

The Fingersmiths usually weave audio description into their work, yet during the open rehearsal there was no discussion around how this might be incorporated and I got the feeling that it usually happens at a later stage, which is disappointing and a possible disconnect to what could potentially be achieved. I suspect it was a situation of lack of time and mone, but if they are doing an open rehearsal again I’d hope they could consider demonstrating their AD approach.

For Sue’s work we did have AD (provided by New Wolsey) through headsets). It was unfortunately delivered from the back of the auditorium and some people could hear the describer, live. For such an intense performance, perhaps this was not the most sensitive approach yet, it raises the need for more understanding of the complex nature of what is required in access provision for blind and partially sighted audiences from performers/company producers – especially for those using such a strong visual language such as BSL, which is being used for theatrical impact. 

Some people need an incredible amount of detail. Others need good preparatory notes and set and costume descriptions. For Sue’s piece it was the physical and visual construction of the piece that mattered. Here a pre-show walk around the two performers could make all the difference. 

Literal descriptions can be boring. There is real need for Deaf and disability companies who incorporate high levels of visual theatre to actively consider a more dynamic creative approach to balance audience experiences.