On Friday I watched a monologue of mine performed entirely in sign. On Sunday I watched six hours of Shakespeare performed entirely in Dutch.
I am spending a year writing with disabled theatre company Graeae as part of Write to Play, and last week saw a ‘sharing’ of some work-in-progress. A monologue extract from a sci-fi horror I’ve been developing was beautifully performed by actress Nadia Nadarajah, who happens to be deaf. My piece was performed in BSL (British Sign Language), and this is not only the first time I’ve worked on a theatre piece involving sign but the first time I’ve seen a piece performed in sign.
The experience of being in the rehearsal room and the process of interpreting my text into sign was fascinating; more so was the different reactions from an audience comprised of both deaf, hearing, signing and non-signing members.
One of the things about discussing (no less living with!) disability is the awkwardness factor. It’s uncomfortable to write about, but sometimes situations around disability can be awkward, or involve unknown etiquette. For example, I have a neurological condition which sometimes if tired causes me to make unconscious and uncontrollable odd facial expressions or grimaces; I have no idea to what extent this is even noticeable to others, but I feel uncomfortable at the thought this might make it harder for deaf people who lip read to understand me. But how do you even ask? I’m barely comfortable admitting to this on my own blog. For able-bodied people the sense of awkwardness and not knowing the correct etiquette can be embarrassing, and a common reaction to embarrassment is laughter. Watching your work performed for the first time is always horrible, but I have to admit I was rather thrown by some initial embarrassed laughter that seemed to be due to seeing an actor performing in BSL (Nadia’s character was recording a goodbye message to her family ahead of her probable execution – not exactly chuckletown). Audience members who were deaf or had experience with deafness or knew sign had a different response, both to the performance and to the laughter. Yet the audience as a whole very quickly got over any initial uncertainty.
Over the last few years I’ve seen Shakespeare performed in a range of languages I do not speak, including some of the Globe to Globe Festival’s 37 Shakespeare plays in 37 different languages. These productions were designed for audiences who for the most part did not speak the languages in question, and were interpreted using physicalities and staging to “explore Shakespeare’s cultural universality” by refracting the plays through different cultures and cultural experiences. Language, here, was no barrier to understanding.
But Shakespeare is Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is big enough to handle whatever you throw at it. There will never be a production of Hamlet so bad it makes the world go, “Wow I always thought Hamlet was a good play, turns out we were all wrong!” Even the worst Shakespeare production will only ever be considered a bad production, not a bad play. New writing does not have that luxury. A bad first production of a new play can kill it in infancy, because who can know if it’s the production or the play?
Although my piece was accompanied by a translator, a couple of people mentioned afterwards that they’d found it hard to connect with the material due to having to mentally combine the non-verbal acting with the transcription. That was sort of a lightbulb moment for me, because surely that’s what a lot of deaf audience members have to deal with every time they go to the theatre? A production might have one or two captioned performances in a run of several months (and how often is caption board placed in some discreet place or way off to the side so the “regular” audience members aren’t bothered by the intrusion of being reminded non able bodied people exist? Better hope deaf theatre-lovers have good osteopaths for all that neck strain!) and we consider than a triumph of accessibility.
Now, I am a very wordy writer. Too wordy. My writing is dense, and packed full of literary allusions, scientific jargon, and intricate wordplay. Inevitably if you are watching something in a language you do not speak, a certain level of understanding will be lost. A modern audience cannot watch a Shakespeare play – regardless of his universality and undying popularity – without some similar loss, due to language and pronunciation drift or simply lack of comprehensive knowledge of the politics and customs of his era. But watching something in a language you don’t speak doesn’t mean the words are lost, just that you are lost to them. The physicality of sign adds a rich dimension to an acting performance, but BSL is still a language; to interpret it as a physical theatre piece would be reductive and inaccurate. For non-signing members of the audience the words may have been absent but I’m sure audience members who did know BSL understood every word — possibly an experience they are not able to have with ‘traditional’ theatre performances.
In that context, performing in sign feels revolutionary. It’s flipping a paradigm in othering able bodied audience members – forcing them to stumble and reach that bit harder to stitch together comprehension. It’s shit that casting a deaf or disabled actress is considered revolutionary or remarkable at all, but maybe able bodied people (or members of any other privileged majority) would benefit from being othered a little bit. Like Rachel De-lahay said in her recent article on race in theatre: “We have to change the idea of normal.”
Which brings us back to van Hove’s startling and boundary-pushing (yet very white, and able-bodied) production. I’m sure Exeunt and the Stage have written hundreds of articles on watching theatre performed in a non-native language, so I won’t bother to give my opinion (mainly because I haven’t really formed one yet). The important point is no one considers a Shakespeare production performed in German or Dutch or Mandarin or hip hop to be anything but an artistic choice. In this context, the language barrier is considered a creative challenge to an intellectual audience, not an unfortunate accidental barrier. Why then is performing in sign perceived as something you have to put up with in order to meet diversity requirements, and not a unique skill bringing its own benefits and perspective?