Sign language for theatre

 8 May 2013

Alison Pottinger became interested in signing for theatre after stage managing a signed performance. She spoke about the skills it requires, and the opportunities signing opens up for performers and audiences.

Alison has worked with deaf and hard of hearing theatre practitioners to develop a series of signs for technical theatre terminology.
Alison has worked with deaf and hard of hearing theatre practitioners to develop a series of signs for technical theatre terminology.

In 1996 I was the DSM, or deputy stage manager, for a production of Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll’s House.

We were in the Young Vic studio (as it was then), and as well as being DSM I was operating the lights too. One fateful evening we were joined by a sign language interpreter, and that changed the course of my life.

Discovering signed theatre

I had never seen a sign-interpreted production before, and I found it absolutely fascinating – so much so that I nearly forgot my lighting cues!

Before that, my recollections of seeing sign language in drama had been confined to a wonderful children’s TV show called Vision On and the work of the TV presenter Pat Keysell.

After seeing this performance, I was so taken with it that I wondered if signing for theatre might be something that I could do one day. 

By this point in my career, I'd been working fairly solidly as a stage manager since leaving the Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance in 1989. 

My work was varied. I started at Theatre Royal Stratford East, which was a brilliant training ground. I worked at places like the Tricycle Theatre and the Royal Court

I also worked with companies such as Black Theatre Co-op (now Nitro) and Talawa

Life was pretty good, but I was starting to wonder what might be round the corner for me. 

Learning how to sign

Seeing the interpreter working really got me thinking, so I enrolled in an evening class. The course was an introduction to BSL (British Sign Language).

The beauty of the language, and its expressiveness, really made an impression, along with the realisation that I could work with this language in theatre.

"The beauty of sign language really made an impression, along with the realisation I could use it in theatre."

I didn’t want to abandon theatre – far from it. I just hadn’t known what else I might do in the theatre world. 

From 1996 to 1999 I mostly worked in theatre administration at Battersea Arts Centre. This enabled me to attend evening classes, because unlike stage managing, it left my evenings free. 

But I never left stage management behind, and I still haven’t to this day.

Developing BSL skills for theatre

Eventually, I had another encounter with sign language and interpreters, two years after that first experience.

In 1998 I was DSM again, for a production called The Little Violin, again at the Tricycle Theatre and on a national tour. 

The play, by Jean-Claude Grumberg and Adrian Mitchell, was based on a Charles Dickens story, Dr Marigold’s Prescriptions. It's a story about a young deaf girl who plays the violin for a circus troupe.

The actress playing her was not deaf, but the narrator was – a wonderful actor called Neil Fox-Roberts.

This was an opportunity for me to work closely with a deaf person, and once again to see BSL interpreters in action. It was brilliant, and I decided to develop my skills further.

Theatre for deaf audiences

I completed my training to become an interpreter. However, I quickly realised that onstage interpreting was not for me after all. 

I am a stage manager to the core – being onstage is just too uncomfortable for me. On top of that, I realised that I just don’t have the acting talent to interpret onstage.

"The most successful BSL stage interpreters are also very good actors."

I believe that the most successful BSL stage interpreters are also very good actors. They understand characterisation, which isn't my strong point. 

The rehearsal room is really where I feel happiest. I'm now able to interpret for deaf actors and directors during rehearsals, technical runs and dress rehearsals.

Being able to do this is brilliant. I feel like I get to combine the best of all worlds. 

Working with deaf performers

As a stage manager with BSL, I have been lucky in the past few years to have worked on a range of productions.

I've worked on The Harder They Come at Theatre Royal Stratford East, for example. But I've also worked on productions which feature deaf performers, so being a stage manager who can sign has really come into its own.

I've worked with Graeae Theatre Company, who specialise in accessible, signed, audio-described theatre. Signs of a Star Shaped Diva starred sign/song diva and actress Caroline Parker.

I also worked on Reasons to Be Cheerful, the cast of which was featured at the London 2012 Paralympic opening ceremony.  

Making theatre accessible to all

But what I would really like to see is more deaf or hard of hearing people getting interested in theatre, and technical theatre in particular.  

We can encourage greater participation in the arts through access via language.

If you are deaf or hard of hearing yourself and want to get involved in theatre, you may be pleased to hear about a project which aims to break down the language barriers: the Technical Theatre BSL Glossary

"Theatre is a wonderfully varied world. It offers lots of opportunities to broaden your horizons."

The Glossary aims to provide definitions of technical theatre jargon, and translations into BSL of some common terms. 

The areas covered are:

  • Stage Management
  • Lighting
  • Sound
  • Wardrobe
  • Scenography (Set Design). 

If you aren’t deaf or hard of hearing, the project may well be of use to you. Maybe you are interested in broadening your knowledge, or maybe you want to work with deaf people. Either way, it's useful to build up skills in BSL.

Over the years, I've discovered that theatre is a wonderfully varied world. It offers lots of opportunities to broaden your horizons, meet new people and be involved in great new work.

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