Without Walls TALKS: Theatre Témoin on integrating BSL
24 May 2023
Written by Adam McGuigan and Abbie Willcox
Adam McGuigan is Associate Director of Theatre Témoin and Director of FLOOD, an outdoor theatre show highlighting the health of the world’s oceans through the eyes of Britain’s communities. Along with Abbie Willcox, Executive Producer, they share their experience of developing FLOOD into a fully integrated BSL show.
Developed with communities across the UK, FLOOD takes you on an epic adventure to understand how our coastline and communities have become ‘seasick’. Through playful discussion exploring the impact of climate change, many voices are woven into a soundscape, experienced through personalised sound umbrellas that intersect with the performance.
In early R&Ds, we worked with BSL interpreters to accompany the show and sign from the side, but as rehearsals evolved, we found ourselves coaxing them further into the centre of the action. BSL unlocked the development of FLOOD, enabling us to find new ways to approach text and physical performance, progressively bringing deaf-driven content into the heart of the show. It made much more sense to work with an artist who uses BSL and embed BSL into the piece, helping us to engage audiences we had not previously reached. We worked with deaf artist Ciaran O’Breen, deaf BSL Consultants Daryl Jackson and Mary-Jayne Russell de Clifford, many BSL interpreters and our creative team to create our first fully integrated BSL show.
‘We made beautiful creative discoveries and we also made mistakes.’
We made beautiful creative discoveries and we also made mistakes. We met with the cast and creatives from FLOOD, the BSL interpreters and Theatre Témoin senior team to reflect on learning, achievements and how to prevent missteps. Please note there are many great resources available to support embedded access of this kind. This blog will focus on some key areas we hope might be helpful for companies at the beginning of their journey.
Firstly, if you’re reading this blog and planning to book a BSL interpreter for a rehearsal process, put down your cup of tea and get in touch with them NOW! Leave the blog and make contact – you can come back to it later. We had a baptism of fire trying to populate a rehearsal process with 2 fully qualified registered NRCPD BSL interpreters, but let’s start at the beginning…
‘Powerful message delivered playfully. The sign language was so visual it portrayed the message really clearly.’
– deaf audience member
Deaf Awareness Training
It was critical to start our process with deaf awareness training for the whole creative team. Led by a deaf BSL Consultant, they provided key information about deaf culture as well as space to learn some basic signing. It was an important first step in understanding the needs of the company and getting to know each other, which in turn enabled the design of an inclusive process.
Allow space ahead of rehearsals for everyone to digest the training. It inspired members of the FLOOD team to pursue their own BSL journey beyond the project, which was a fantastic outcome.
It cannot be stressed enough just how early you need to prioritise booking NRCPD registered fully qualified interpreters as they are in huge demand. By the time we began interpreter recruitment, which was after we had secured funding and recruited Ciaran (our deaf artist), it was too late. This meant we struggled with availability so had to find additional resource within the budget to put towards recruiting the right people.
It’s beneficial to recruit interpreters before auditions so they’re involved from the beginning of the process and, where possible, employ consistent interpreters who form part of the company. Something Ciaran suggested during evaluation was to invite a BSL Consultant to sit on the audition panel, so they can take a view on the quality of the performer’s signing along with their performance.
During our first week, we were forced to rely heavily on a trainee interpreter because we were unable to secure someone fully qualified, which put pressure on the team, particularly Ciaran. Therefore, we advise to budget for and book fully qualified interpreters and only use trainees if struggling with last minute availability. The NRCPD website is a great resource that includes specific information on registration and types of ID badges.
We found our time with the Consultant a pivotal part of the process which significantly elevated the performance.
You need at least 3 days with a BSL Consultant on a 2-week rehearsal process structure, preferably more if you have the resource. In one clumsy directorial choice, we had Ciaran always signing after text was spoken by speaking actors. The BSL Consultant questioned why the speaking actor always preceded the signing one. It was a simple thing to change but reflective of the unconscious bias of the speaking world. They were able to support the development of FLOOD from a much wider creative perspective, beyond the translation process, including dramaturgical and directorial choices.
Spend time finding the right person for your project, preferably through consultation with the deaf members of your team. The earlier you can draft them into your process, the greater your results will be. You can also seek financial support for access-related employment adjustments including interpreters and BSL Consultants through the Government support scheme, Access to Work.
The Making Process
Maintaining openness and being clear that you’re learning as a company was the reason we gelled as a team despite the challenges with interpreters in the first week. There was a lot we didn’t know but it’s important to be open to learning, connecting and checking-in. There are obvious budget implications for working in this way but planning and starting the process early with a deaf performer can help.
We found it very helpful to use games in rehearsals even more so than in other processes to aid communication. Communication is key, not just through BSL, but your way of communicating as a company. There is often fear when you start working in a new way but you quickly find your language as a company both practically and in performance. Practitioners made adaptations such as being more aware of where they positioned themselves to be more visually accessible, and performers found different layers of movement using eye contact, physical contact, vibration etc. to communicate cues.
Where possible, have the script available in advance. If it’s a devising process like FLOOD, be clear that it won’t arrive until a specific point and give enough time for deaf artists to actually devise their signing and contribute ideas. As early as possible, share a working script and/or outline of character profiles even if they’re not yet set. It’s especially key within a devising context to think carefully about how deaf performers are involved from the start of the process as equal curators of content. It’s a good idea to fix the daily focus of the rehearsal timetable so the performers and interpreters know what to expect.
A major learning for us was to be kinder as leaders. We’re used to cramming in extra rehearsal time and doing run-throughs post 5pm when budgets are small and rehearsal time is tight. Being kinder in the process really helped everyone’s mental health. It’s not rocket science but it’s a powerful reminder that people are more important than product.
Whilst on tour, many hotels say they’re accessible but what does that mean in practice? Flashing fire alarm and vibrating pillows are needed for deaf artists and we need to be robust in communicating these needs with partners if they are in charge of booking rooms. On one occasion, we had a fire alarm go off in the middle of the night and were evacuated. We struggled to wake Ciaran because the hotel wasn’t fully accessible and this was distressing for everyone. The situation was resolved but it was one of those unfortunate lessons learned after the fact. It’s also useful for the Production Manager to have a bank of signs to communicate during get ins/outs such as ‘danger’, ‘hot’ etc. to indicate hazards.
It was beneficial to have deaf audiences come and watch the show early on. Suggestions from deaf audiences were critical in ensuring the performance was clear for all. On one occasion a deaf audience member suggested introducing the communication methods of the three performers before the show. We adopted this introduction throughout the tour.
Think about how to market your access offer. FLOOD included elements such as BSL integration, touch tours and an easy read guide, but this was often buried in festival programmes. Where possible encourage programming partners to have dedicated space for access so audiences don’t have to search the whole programme and can plan their visit more effectively.
Incorporating and integrating BSL is a really rich way to work as opposed to adding interpretation to the side of an existing show. More time may be needed to find your magic moments but integrating BSL as a complete practice produced incredible results.
Theatre Témoin are touring FLOOD again this year and working with deaf schools in the lead up to rehearsals. The FLOOD family have reassembled and we would be delighted to welcome you at one of our performances across the summer!
Cave & Sky, Stockton Borough Council