I am an actress who uses British Sign Language. I have been fortunate enough to work in a range of theatre environments where I have used a variety of signing styles depending on the play and the venue in which we are performing.

But this article is not about me as an actress, this is about me as an audience member, a deaf person who loves going to watch theatre and who enjoys the use of sign language in theatre.
I have noticed some interesting developments that I wanted to share with you all.

I am passionate about seeing sign language on the stage performed as part of the ART form and not as part of the access. That is the key thing for me.

I want the sign language used on stage (whether it’s by a deaf actor or an interpreter) to be clear, fluent and in keeping with the style of the production so that it becomes a part of the artistic vision of the production and not just an afterthought for access, or thrown in because it looks pretty.

In recent years, there seems to be an increased number of deaf actors being used in mainstream productions with a mixed cast of deaf and hearing people, and this is something I am delighted and pleased to see happening more and more – as directors are now realising the skills and talents of deaf people as artists and not as an access provision.

And by deaf actors I don’t mean those who only use BSL in performance, some may choose to speak, some may choose to communicate using International Sign, or physically or visually, there is a whole range of communication methods that can be used when a deaf actor is performing.

But before I waffle on too much, let me give you a couple of examples of recent productions that have used deaf actors within them and some of the issues about the use of sign that I would like to be discussed in more depth.

Firstly, I saw Birthday in Suburbia by The Upstairs Brigade at the Brighton Fringe. It included one deaf actor and eight hearing actors as an ensemble and the deaf actor, Dawn Birley, is from Finland but studied here in the UK and communicates physically and through the use of International Sign (IS).

When I booked online, I was told that the play contained the use of International Sign Language (ISL). Now I don’t want to get in to a debate about labels, but I think this term ISL is a very dangerous one as others around will see it and therefore think that if they use ISL, then could make a play accessible to any deaf people across the world.

I know the performer herself calls it International Sign and not ISL – as ISL is not a language. I hope there can be more awareness going forward of this as an issue.

But in saying all that, I really enjoyed the performance, followed it clearly and enjoyed the physical nature of it. There were a few parts of people just using spoken dialogue with no captions or sign for deaf people and I know that can be very frustrating as a deaf audience member. (We discover this information later signed to us by the deaf main character so we have the same destination just a different journey to get there than our hearing peers).

Also the deaf actor in Birthday in Suburbia used American Sign Language one-handed fingerspelling which was an interesting choice.

In the UK, we use the two-handed manual alphabet and I think the performer could have used this in the production and have that still under the umbrella of International Sign.

Overall, I thought the project was a success with all the performers working well together and indeed the deaf performer become the main character within the play.

Also, there were very clever devices used to give the audience information visually with other actors doing some gestures and they wrote things on the set but before I go into too much detail, let me move on to the next production I wanted to talk about.

This year, the first production from the Arts Council funded Ramps on the Moon Project has been touring the UK. I was so excited to go and see The Government Inspector, which performed at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in May 2016.

It features a mixed deaf, disabled and non-disabled cast of 18 performers and includes live BSL and captions throughout. I am a sign language user and so made the decision to follow the BSL throughout the production, rather than the captions.

BSL is my preferred language and so I wanted to watch the performance this way. The BSL was provided by two Performer Interpreters (one deaf and one hearing) and also one of the other characters used BSL to deliver their dialogue.

The play has a frenetic pace, especially at the beginning, as multiple characters are being introduced and having all this information coming through the performer interpreter made it quite difficult to follow.

In the first section of the play, one interpreter was used to portray multiple characters at once and the other performer interpreter seemed to only translate for one character later on in the play which made their delivery much easier to follow and absorb.

It was hard to know where to look and work out who was going to be signing next, as sometimes it was the characters and then sometimes the interpreters.

For me, I believe it is hard to follow a production with so much happening when the bulk of the information was coming through one person – as I can’t follow which character is saying what and I have to admit that I didn’t laugh as much as my fellow deaf audience members (who had made the decision to follow the captions).

Going back to why I wanted to write this article, it’s about sign language and how it’s used in theatre.

This play is very funny. It is well known for being funny, witty, and intelligent and I am a big fan of this writer’s work.

When you use sign language in theatre as a performer, it is vitally important to find equivalence (meaning both languages being treated equally, not cutting down one of them to suit the other, and conveying puns, jokes and word play) in your sign language delivery to reflect the written English.

Some of the jokes, puns and word play in this production I feel were lost in translation. There were wonderful moments of BSL equivalence from one of the performer interpreters about a “Ball” and a nice combination of signs were used to give the deaf audience the meaning here, but these examples were few and far between.

A sign was used repeatedly that looked like “angel” or “dove” or “Albania” and I was lost as to what it was that these multiple characters were using this sign to represent.

Glancing at the captions I worked out that this was their sign-name for St. Petersburg in Russia. Oh. I didn’t get that. Whenever I have used new signs in theatre, I always make sure to spell the place first, show the sign to establish it and then use that sign throughout.

I was disappointed with this sign choice as it is not the sign for St. Petersburg that I know, the one I know is based on the shoulder and not this bird in the sky sign that was used. This was very disappointing for me as an audience member as I’d had such high hopes for this production before I went in.

Also, role-shift is so crucial when you are trying to reflect the dialogue of multiple characters and I have to admit that when trying to follow one of the performer interpreters, I was lost and felt as if I played catch-up throughout, never really getting the full experience of my hearing peers.

I am sorry if this sounds critical but I want to protect, preserve and improve the sign language that is used on stage and I want it to be a part of the art form that deaf audience members can go along to a production and enjoy it as equally as their hearing friends sitting next to them.

I feel it is so important to bring in an outside-eye, an external BSL consultant to support and advise the performers on their language use.

In Birthday in Suburbia, I was so happy to see Dawn’s character being the main character, as traditionally when a deaf actor is used in a mixed group of deaf and hearing people they can be a minor role or used as an interpreter of everyone else’s dialogue which is a hard task.

In The Government Inspector, I was so pleased to see deaf actors on the stage equally performing with their hearing peers and I am looking forward to seeing what work comes next from this project, but I want to see more consideration put in to the sign language use on the stage.

I want to congratulate Daryl Jackson (deaf actor/interpreter) who I thought did a great translation job (which I know is very hard) on this project. He really understands what the deaf audience want and need to see and gave great equivalence to the deaf audience members.

I am hopeful about the future and I want to see MORE deaf actors being used within productions.

This is my plea to any directors, use the talented deaf performers out there who have the linguistic and cultural knowledge of translation and who are able to give equivalence to the deaf audience, as they are one of them too.

Sign language used in theatre has to be a part of the art and not just an add-on for access and I think that both of the productions that I have talked about here did do that but I want to see it done more and improved.

More theatre companies that are using sign language in theatre have brought in external deaf consultants to give an outside-eye on the sign language used in productions and what they experienced. I think this is so important when a play is in development or rehearsal.

I have been fortunate enough to be invited in to work with The Deaf & Hearing Ensemble on their current production of People of the Eye and gave my experience to them as an audience member (see main photo) before they will go off to the Edinburgh Fringe later this year.

Then I was on the other side as some external deaf people came along to my own production of Can I Start Again Please before it went out on tour to give feedback to me about my own delivery of sign language in theatre and what they got from the production.

I think that this is so important to bring a deaf external person, someone who is not too close to the production, to give feedback and share what they experienced being a part of the audience.

The use of sign language in theatre has to be a part of the art, not just for access and please use deaf interpreters or deaf actors to deliver this element for your audience members to truly experience equivalence in both languages.

Nadia Nadarajah is fluent in eight languages – five sign languages and 3 written languages. She is deaf freelance actress and presenter. She performs regularly with Deafinitely Theatre company, who is currently playing a main character in Grounded and also works with Sue MacLaine Ltd, who performs in Can I Start Again Please.

2 thoughts on “Nadia Nadarajah: Sign language in theatre should be art, not access

  1. Brilliant insider information Nadia about the subtle differences in the critical choices that directors make in casting Deaf actors. I saw you in Can I Start Again lease at Lancaster University and loved the moments when you spoke. It was powerful to hear your voice. I was also fascinated by the interpretation of spoken expressions like…’unexpected item in the bagging area’. Like you, I want to see more Deaf actors integral to performance, equivelance in meaning and creative methods for storytelling. I’m currently directing aplay about Gerry Hughes the only Deaf man to have sailed solo around the world. Every actor uses BSL throughout
    the show and we also explore the beauty od BSL to descibe landscape, he sea and he weather. I will let you know when and where we are touring and hopefully you will get a chance to see it. I’d love your feedback and insight. Jilly Sumsion

  2. I found this a very interesting Article, as well as incredibly useful thank you.
    I am glad to know that I am not the only one that has the opinion that ‘Signed Theatre’ should not be ‘Accessible’ and more ‘Art’ as you phrased it.
    Stephanie Ann Mills

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