Well, December was busy, it always is. Just as everyone else is winding down for the festive season, us performance interpreters go into top gear crossing everything (metaphorically, or interpreting can become a bit awkward!) that the dreaded lurgy will avoid us until January, or until the Panto season is over!
During this season, it’s our opportunity to work with theatre companies and venues and demonstrate what a professional, likeable bunch of hand flappers we are. Some of them even discover we have quite a bit to contribute to the creative process and decide they’d quite like to work with us in a less conventional way. But it takes a lot of trust and development of a safe working environment for a theatre company, who have an established a great reputation for doing things in a certain way to take the plunge and include interpretation in their show, in an unconventional way. Although, this is becoming more of a thing.
We’d been working for years to find a like-minded theatre company who ‘got it’, who got the idea of access being more than standing at the side of the stage. We’d banged on about it to various people who nodded but didn’t want to commit. But our banging on eventually paid dividends.
The Lost Boys ‘got it’. For the past 3 Christmases, we’ve performed with them at the wonderful National Trust property, which is Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire. Paul Broesmith, Artistic Director, and Ben Adwick, Education and Community Lead, initially approached us wanting to provide interpreted performances but not in a tokenistic way, so this matched what we’d been wanting for ages. They wanted us to be immersed in the performance. So we set about working out how to do this. Firstly, we needed the right team. Put the wrong interpreters in, and it could go wrong. We also needed a Deaf Creative Consultant.
There was little question in their mind who these people should be. They wanted to work with me but soon discovered that we needed another interpreter for it to work so I suggested we work with Tracey, for it is her I blame for me doing so much theatre stuff. Our Deaf Creative Consultant was the clear choice of Emily Howlett (PAD Productions).
The show we do is A Christmas Carol but with a twist – lots of humour, audience participation and risky double-entendres, we never know what’s coming next, despite knowing The Boys pretty well now. They work regularly with The National Trust so we knew we had to ensure that whatever we did worked and didn’t damage the relationship they have built up. We really appreciated how risky doing this was for them because ultimately if it didn’t work, they’d not get the gig again. It was also something we discussed as interpreters a lot before we went for it, as we didn’t want to put either the National Trust or The Boys off working with ‘hand flappers’ in the future. We looked at the bigger picture; we’d be influencing people’s whole impression of how interpreters work – something that is all too often not taken into consideration. We are influencing any future interpreting interaction.
Working with an established theatre company, who work really hard to make it look easy, is a challenge. Having the ability to be flexible enough as an interpreter to know where the boundaries are but also to muck in and not be so ‘interpreter’ as to not relate as a human being takes skills and awareness of the process that aren’t necessarily taught on tradition courses. The Boys wanted us to fit in with their ethos and contribute to the creative process. From the start, we were part of the team. The audience sussed from the start that we were part of the show. There were times we did things to move the story on. All the time though we worked hard to shadow, we reflected them. They were the important ones.
As this was the 3rd year we’d done this, we’d already done a lot of the groundwork relating to how we work together. Each interpreter had an actor each, one of whom played multiple characters which led to having to remember much more – carrying costume, closing/opening of doors/ make up application/removal. Interpreting was the easy bit!
We’d made then feel safe as we felt safe working with them. We’ve developed how we work over the 3 years. The first year, our first show was really our rehearsal. Every show was then different depending on the audience reaction – some were more risqué than others, some more child-focussed. In the second year, due to being heavily committed elsewhere, one of the shows had to be a one interpreter show – it worked like that too. Promenade performances aren’t structured, so this adjustment was accommodated successfully. The one thing we weren’t quite as happy with in the second year was what we wore – we didn’t feel it worked for us. The Director had a vision, so we went along with it. The 2017 performance went back to us being in more authentic costume, which worked much better – we blended in and felt much more part of the whole piece. This in turn helped our interpretation.
But December 2017, the venue altered the areas we could access to do the show. This led to discussion about the viability of the piece and whether it would actually work at all. We were sure it’d work but there was doubt from The Boys. There was much discussion about how much we’d need to change the performance. We thought it all through and came up with solutions before problems came up. Working as a team, we supported and encouraged to enable the performances to happen. After all, it was a shadow interpreted, promenade performance so lack of space and dim lighting in an old stately home were potentially big issues. Tracey did a recce at Sudbury making suggestions to Paul and Ben. I arrived and Tracey knew that I’d accept the suggestions she’d made. The benefits of knowing how each other works pay dividends in such a situation. Our professional judgement led us to believe it would still work and we’d adjust the way we did each show to suit the needs of the audience.
We know The Boys pretty well now, they trust us not to jeopardise their reputation and are confident we do a good job. We know them even better now, having shared a dressing room for 3 festive seasons! It takes a certain personality not to be thrown by the extremely random and sometimes irreverent warm up. They have their own rituals, way they talk to each other pre-show, way of getting in the zone so it’s not the time to talk about the show. No judgement, they do their thing, we do ours. In fact, we didn’t talk or particularly do anything that could have affected their approach to preparing themselves. Always something to bear in mind when working in theatre is the inter-professional working we enable to happen. Our being there changes the environment, we can enhance it or we can destroy it. We are pioneers for the next conversation that these theatre professionals have about access. If they had a good experience, they will tell others and you can be doubly sure that if it was a bad experience, others would definitely find out! Be radiators of good practice and being good humans to other professionals.
It worked. People liked the performances and loved seeing interpreting included in the show, some of them surprised that we didn’t detract from the performance but that we enhanced it. We’ve now built up a following and families now have a visit to Sudbury for A Christmas Carol as part of their ritual Christmas celebrations. Let’s hope that the next time we do it, there’ll be even more interest and more theatre companies see the value of working this way.