What’s It Like Signing A Stand-Up Show for the Deaf Community?

12 Aug 2015, by Auslan Stage Left in Articles

This article was originally published on The British Comedy Guide.


As part of the Edinburgh Festival, Venue 150 (aka the EICC) is featuring gigs with sign language interpretation for the Deaf Community.

Two shows each by Jimeoin and Daniel Sloss will be British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted by Catherine King. Renowned for her ability to sign with perfect comic timing, King has been working with both comedians for the past eight years.

[The British Comedy Guide] chatted to Catherine to find out more…

Hi Catherine. How did you first get into signing comedy shows?

My first show was for Adam Hills in 2001. The following year Jimeoin and Craig Hill asked me to step in for their regular interpreter who was no longer available, and then Daniel Sloss about 4 years ago. It’s great to see young comedians open to the idea of making their shows accessible to a wider audience.

Do you have to learn their routines beforehand, so you can get the timing right?

Every time. I see the show and take copious notes, then run through it as many times as I need to make sure I hit the joke with the same timing as the performer. Certain bits are translated and memorised so that I can make sure my timing is as precise as possible. You can’t be too married to the text though because stand-up takes flights of fancy in the moment and that’s when it’s my job to make sure I keep up.

Are there any gags you haven’t managed to translate?

I know there have been, but I think I’ve wiped them from my memory. Puns make most interpreters weep as they rarely translate and can end up rendered as a paler imitation of the funny original. Impressionists are a challenge, although sometimes a visual impression does the trick – think the Billy Connelly hair flick.

In the past you have become part of some of the shows, as the comedians have played word games with you to see what you’ll do. What’s that like?

It’s taken me ages to think of an answer to this! It’s part of the job and can be great fun. An interpreter on stage is bit of a paradox: we look like the centre of attention but we’re very vulnerable at the same time as we literally can’t answer back. We are not there to offer our own comedy routine but we can’t pretend that we’re invisible either so interacting with a performer is a neat way round that challenge.

Where it works well, the audience leave feeling they’ve seen a complete show rather than a bit of a show with an extra body tagged on the edge of the stage.

Do you think that there’s scope for more gigs to be signed, or will it always be something that is a ‘novelty’?

Well, these days in Scotland we’re seeing British Sign Language (BSL) being incorporated into an ever greater number of performances as just another facet of the show. Jimeoin, Craig Hill, Daniel Sloss and Adam Hills have led the way in stand-up comedy and this year Lloyd Langford will have an interpreted show as well, which is great.

It would be brilliant to see more. The bottom line is that a stand-up comedian has something to say otherwise he/she wouldn’t be in the job. Well, there are lots of people out there who won’t hear what you want to say unless you choose to create the environment to make it happen. All you have to have is the will to reach more people.

What’s been your favourite comedy related moment in your career to date?

Impossible to choose so I’ve listed some below – in simple chronological order:

Irish dancing onstage with Jimeoin.

Translating Phil Nichol’s “I’m the only gay eskimo” at Amnesty International’s Stand Up For Freedom in 2007.

Onstage with Tommy Tiernan at the Fringe – like interpreting on the outskirts of a tornado: awe inspiring and exhilarating.

The gay, deaf strippers who popped up in the audience at the end of a gig in the Lyric Theatre, London (a Channel 4 special with Adam Hills in 2012).

The moment in 2013 when I stood onstage with Daniel Sloss and realised I was exactly twice his age… although that’s more a personal moment of hilarity/hysteria.

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