Behind the Signs: Karen Clare and ‘Les Misérables’

14 Jul 2015, by Auslan Stage Left in Behind the Signs

Auslan Stage Left goes behind the signs with some of our interpreters to find out more about a specific show they have worked on. What was their process? What were some challenges? Today Karen Clare talks about her experience working on the acclaimed Cameron Mackintosh production of Les Misérables.



L-R: Interpreter Karen Clare with Les Mis co-interpreter Susan Emerson.


I started interpreting in 1990 and interpreted my first big musical performance of the King and I at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne in 1992. I have continued to interpret amateur and professional theatre productions over the past 25 years for adults and children. My passion is musical theatre however from time to time I do interpret non musical/dramatic performance. In a past life I have a teaching degree with a music major so the musical theatre is a nice way of combining my passion of interpreting and music.


Over the years I have interpreted musicals that are completely sung such as ‘Joseph and the Technicolored Dreamcoat’ and ‘Sunset Boulevard’. The shows are a massive challenge just by virtue of the fact there is no dialogue per se and so therefore all the interpreting must be simultaneous requiring increased rehearsal time.


The Process

The production of Les Miserable would have to be the most challenging piece I have worked on. It has been a production I have long wanted to interpret. Many of the characters are strong and hold an untold story in the play but apparent in the book (particularly relationships to one another and further information as to why they are in the situation they are In). The subtexts in the stage performance are intricately woven into the songs, set and music. Sometimes these can be interpreted and others are so subtle only a seasoned passionate Les Miserable fan would be able to detect them (such as repeated music throughout with opposing characters singing showing contrast between their characters and their unique message, very cleverly done).

Just the length of the production (nearly three hours) means the physical and mental stamina required to interpret the show is far more than I have ever encountered. The preparation required to translate the many metaphors and sub themes in the play and render them simultaneously meant working closely with the interpreting team (Susan Emerson and consultant Marnie Kerridge).

The initial approach to interpreting the show means LOTS of research! Reading the book, watching the movie (started with the most recent and watched a number of other older adaptations), reading critiques of the show and even academic writings unpacking the various themes within the play. I also spent time with Gail Finn to discuss theological understanding of the time, religious themes and possible interpretations without using excessive religious signs that may be unknown to the Deaf audience, whilst remaining subtle. Hours were spent discussing what interpreting means when dealing with performances such as this and which of the themes to highlight and when whilst being restricted to the simultaneity of the production in Auslan. Agreeing to be ‘free’ with the interpretation puts an enormous load on the interpreters when working for such a length of time and the interpretation bearing little resemblance to the spoken English utterance 80% of the time. The advantage is the story line it clear and the Deaf audience is able to experience the various themes in the performance. If we agreed to a more literal interpretation/transliteration the subtle layers of meaning would be lost and compromise the Deaf audience’s ability to follow the story. There is a fine line between the two and as interpreters that is the challenge.

Auslan Stage Left asked me ‘What was the highlight of this show?’. For me it is about the process. Working on the script, consulting, refining, learning and then producing a piece of work. Like with any piece of work the interpretation has had a number of iterations. Melbourne, Perth and now Sydney have had a number of changes to the work.


L-R: Karen Clare, language consultant Marnie Kerridge, Susan Emerson.


The Challenges

At the end of the process of research, negotiation and collaboration it is up to the interpreting team to decide on the approach and the interpretation that will be rendered. Interpreting is highly subjective and each member of the team will bring different skills, experience and knowledge that is of value to the end product. From an audience perspective a ‘successful interpretation’ will mean different things to different people. What you in the audience see for three hours is the outcome of hours of work. Just like those that can hear, the actors in various roles in a performance can either appeal to you, or not. The same signs, different nuances, vocal quality, affect and their own interpretation of the character they are playing will have a bearing on the audience’s reaction to them. I personally find Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Jean Val Jean vastly different from Simon Gleeson.


As interpreters we also try and identify with their portrayal in our interpretation. The one thing many in the audience is unaware of is that we have the cast recording to practice with when we are not viewing the show. We do not find out the cast list until a few hours before and this can certainly play havoc with us recognising the voices (children are incredibly hard to recognise particularly when dealing with young males whose voices are yet to break with puberty and sound very feminine), and interpreting their intonation and timing of the delivery of their lines. There are occasional moments in the performance where cast ad lib where we try to preempt but are at risk of getting it wrong. The audience is often unaware of these moments.



The Auslan Stage Left team with Hayden Tee, who plays Jalvert.


The Performance and the Stage

The overall aim of interpreting any performance is to give the Deaf audience an opportunity to engage. The interpreting team decided this engagement would be enhanced by how the interpreters physically presented themselves in the interpreting space.


Les  Miserable mise-en-scène  is very dark as the audience will discover. The producers also use a number of special effects including scrims to project images up onto the stage at various times during the show. For this reason interpreters are unable to stand on the stage or be positioned where our lighting will impede the effects and mood created. All of the actors are dimly lit and there is a fine balance to be struck between lighting the interpreters enough to allow us to work and for the Deaf audience to be comfortable in their viewing but also not to be distracting and spoil the scene.


Susan and I decided to wear attire in keeping with the actors as we are in scene (not on the stage) below the stage and actors are often interacting behind and around us. We also opted on wearing cream shirts to give the Deaf audience a clearer view of our arms and also face to give an illusion of being better lit and greater contrast with our dark background. Deaf audience feedback has been that this allowed them to feel more connected to the performance as a whole.




To conclude, I hope you enjoy/or have enjoyed the production of Les Miserable and that our work went some way in providing you with access. I hope this gives you a small insight into the process.  Now I have definitely earned ‘my yellow ticket of leave’ and I will be ‘putting down my sword and picking up the ploughshare’ and only ‘one more day’ until ‘tomorrow comes’ PHEW!


Karen Clare first qualified as a Teacher of the Deaf (with a Primary degree with one of her specializations being music) and gained her NAATI qualification in 1990. Since this time Karen embraced her career with a thirst to develop new skills and combine her passions of music, visual arts, literacy and the creativity of a visual language; Auslan to convey theatrical pieces. Karen sees herself as being fortunate to have interpreted her first large theatre show in 1991 ‘The King and I’ sparking an insatiable passion for theatre interpreting. Karen not only enjoys the ‘on stage’ experience but highly values the preparatory experience with colleagues and Deaf mentors . Karen has experience with large scale productions as well as theatre aimed at younger members of the Deaf community. Over the years Karen has completed a Masters of Sign Language (Interpreting) and also been fortunate to work in International Sign broadening her use of visual expression. Karen has interpreted both professional large scale productions and small amateur theatre shows such as; ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’, ‘Winnie the Pooh’, the ‘Wiggles’ (multiple shows), ’42nd Street’, ‘My Fair Lady’, ‘West Side Story’, ‘Sunset Boulevard’, ‘Sweet Charity’, ‘Shark Finn Soup’, ‘Sound of Music’, ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’, ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘Billy Elliot’ and ‘Mary Poppins’, ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’, ‘Guys and Dolls’. 

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  • Amanda Galea Reply

    Fantastic! Very inspiring read, musical theatre interpreting is such a passion of mine, Karen your resume is sooo impressive!! Would love to pick your brain!! 🙂 Wonderful to have such a nuanced behind-the-scenes description of the complexities, and the hours of hard work that go into presenting a 3 hour masterpiece! Have heard some amazing reviews of the Sydney production in terms of the interpreting team and how flawless it was, well done Susan and Karen *claps* 🙂