Performer Interview: Todd McKenney

01 Jul 2015, by Ilana Gelbart in Interviews

Ilana from Auslan Stage Left met with the critically acclaimed and award winning performer, actor and host Todd McKenney after his workshop with interpreters and deaf consultants at Auslan Stage Left’s Musical Theatre Training weekend.


Read on to see what Todd has to say about his experience with the deaf community, the beauty of Auslan and why it’s not hard for producers to provide access.


ASL: We’ve just got a few questions about your experience onstage and working with interpreters. So, first of all, I came to Grease, and when you stopped the show to sign, I was like, “What’s going on?!” because I had no idea that you were involved in the Deaf community.

TM: Oh, okay, right!

ASL: So that was all by accident?

TM: I just saw signing onstage in a musical that I did in 1989… and it was just always stuck in my head as something that was beautiful, and interesting, and the fact that it was a communicational tool rather than just sort of expressive dance.



ASL: What’s the best part about your job?

TM: The audience’s reactions to things you do. Watching people have a good time. I like the feeling of taking care of a little bit of [people’s] day. I think taking care of someone’s day for a couple of hours and telling them to just sit down in the dark and let us entertain you for the next two hours is actually more important than people give it credit for.

ASL: Absolutely.

TM: Yeah, they just turn up. Like having a massage.


ASL: You’ve worked with an Auslan interpreter in the past, obviously, with things like Grease. What’s that like as a performer?

TM: It’s interesting for me because I love the deaf community, so it’s great to be able to be part of the process giving access to the theatre to the deaf audience. And it’s great seeing the other cast members who perhaps haven’t come across interpreting or sign language very much in their lives seeing how powerful it is and how beautiful it is. That’s great, watching them discover it.


ASL: That was my next question, how does the cast react to working with an Auslan interpreter?

TM: All of the casts that I’ve worked with that have had a show interpreted have been really supportive and really intrigued. For people that use their bodies every day like we do, it’s kind of just a natural extension, they’ve all been really, really supportive.



Todd teaching his Auslan Stage Left movement workshop with presenters Della Goswell and Alex Jones.


ASL: Why do you think, as a hearing person, that deaf access is important?

TM: I think access for the deaf is as important as access for any part of the community. You know, we’ve got a product which people love, and so why not let as many people enjoy it as possible? We have people who – and I’m not generalising here – but we have people who spend most of their days in hospitals, who we can get them on their beds to the theatre, and that’s extreme. So, to me, I’ve always thought to sign a show, truly it’s easy, compared to that! But we go to that length, and we have audio described shows for blind people as well. It’s important to have as many people in the community to have access to what you do as possible.


ASL: I know that you mentioned that you appreciate there can be some reluctance to provide Auslan interpreters. What would you say to encourage production and theatre companies to provide deaf access to their shows?

TM: Because I think you’re in a business that is providing joy to the community, and should provide joy to the whole community, and not segregate part of the community because it might be just a little bit more hard work to give those people access. It’s not hard in our business either, because we have a script, so it’s not as though you have to write anything. It’s not a lot of work for a producer to do, really, in order to make the show accessible.   You give [the interpreters] a script, you give them a video, and [the interpreters] go away and do your work, which is great work, and difficult, it’s hard for interpreters to learn the show, I get that. So the hard work is with the interpreters. The producers should just see it, I think, as another idea to sell a few more tickets! And that’s their business, it’s to sell tickets, and so I can’t see where the problem is. Even if you just get two people – get two people!

ASL: And as you said, hearing patrons really enjoy watching interpreters as well.

TM: If I know a show is being signed, even if I’ve seen it before, I’ll grab one of my friends and we’ll go and see ‘The Lion King’ again because we know it’s the day that it’s signed, because you get a bit more of what’s happening onstage.   You’ve got two shows to look at! And that’s the trick of the interpreters, is to get that balance right too, of how full on to be and how laid back to be. And so, it’s a really interesting process, and I would urge people, if they get the opportunity, to see a signed show. Go and see it, because it’s different to signed conversation. It’s a real performance, you know, it’s expressive, and it’s beautiful.



Ilana with Todd McKenney and Auslan Stage Left founder Susan Emerson.

Thank you to Todd for providing such a valuable workshop for our training and for being a patron of Auslan Stage Left.  Your support of our organisation and the deaf community is much appreciated.


If you have a show and are curious about making your show accessible, please contact us by clicking here.

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