Behind the Signs: Susan Emerson and Auslan Stage Left

15 Oct 2015, by Auslan Stage Left in Behind the Signs

In this section of the blog, Auslan Stage Left goes behind the signs with some of our interpreters to find out more about a specific show or project they have worked on. In today’s special edition, we asked Auslan Stage left co-founder Susan Emerson to share with us the journey of how the organisation came to be.


Coming from an entire deaf family I fell into interpreting over 30 years ago. Since I was a girl I have been fascinated with music and musical theatre. The first Auslan interpreted show I saw was Phantom of the Opera and I took my mother – this is where music, theatre and Auslan came together and I instantly fell in love and aspired to be like the interpreters on the stage. I continued to attend many Auslan interpreted performances and auditioned for several. Auslan interpreted shows back in the day were scarce – if lucky, there would be one or two a year! I knew I had to start small to gain experience and develop the right skills so I did several small plays to instill some confidence and learn from working with more experienced interpreters, and then worked my way up from there to musical theatre, which is my favourite genre.



Susan and Daniel Hately rehearse for The Lion King.

I love working in a dedicated team – the many hours is all worth it in the end (although it may not seem it at the time!). It can become frustrating at times because I am pedantic and I want everything to be perfect. I love the entire process. Viewing the show initially, dividing roles, researching the story, translating the script, working with the deaf consultant and everything else in between and that follows.


Medina Sumovic, Michelle Ashley and Susan.


The best part though is seeing deaf people experience the same emotions as the hearing audiences. Then I know I have done my job – as a team we have provided access.



Medina Sumovic and Susan, some of Auslan Stage Left’s co-founders.


Some highlights from the last two years of Auslan Stage Left…it’s a big question!


Establishing the business with Stef and Medina was very daunting, but exciting. We received wonderful support – from interpreters, audiences, loved ones, deaf organisations, our communications coordinator, patrons and production companies.


I think the major highlight would be seeing so many deaf community members who have never been to see theatre constantly come back for more. I love that deaf people now have a choice, and are not limited to a small handful of shows per year with the same interpreters. Deaf people now understand they can request interpreters at shows, something that Auslan Stage Left works hard to follow up on.



Susan interpreting Musicians for Hearing. Photo: Xavier Fennell

I love seeing the variety of interpreters working in theatre, and seeing up and coming interpreters shine and show great talent – they are our future and I have been so impressed with their passion, skill and readiness to learn. In the past there was the tendency to use the same interpreters. Now we have a wide pool of interpreters – experienced and new – and training, to ensure that deaf audiences are receiving the best access possible. This is something Auslan Stage Left feels very strongly about – training, regular professional development and opportunity. We also have a mentoring program which is being trialed this year.



The team for Les Miserables (L-R): Karen Clare, language consultant Marnie Kerridge, and Susan

I am proud that we engage deaf language/ cultural consultants – they are very much the forefront of what we do – they are wonderful language models and it keeps us interpreters honest as we have a responsibility to do the best we can for deaf people who pay to see a good show – the translation and the output has to be spot on. I don’t think you can provide this without deaf involvement in the interpreting team.


I also love seeing deaf people attend theatre with their hearing family – their kids, their siblings, their parents… theatre isn’t just about enjoying the songs and the acting – it’s also about sharing cultural experiences and special events with loved ones.



The Auslan audience for Sophisticated Lady.

The biggest challenge for providing access is finance – for nearly every show we have to negotiate and we do our best to make it affordable for production companies but at the same time, we need to be respectful of our interpreters and their preparation time which costs money. There are some production companies out there who think we should fund the access and not themselves. It is disappointing, but we are seeing less of that attitude.



Interpreting the musical Hair.


Maintaining good relationships take time also. Communication and helping production companies understand that we need time – time to secure the best seating possible for deaf audiences, time to work out interpreter positioning and lighting, enough time to promote the events and give people a chance to save money to buy tickets.


And as many people would have seen or understand, interpreter positioning is sometimes the biggest battle we have. But we have had some excellent wins! Grease the Musical, The Lion King and Hair the Rock Musical, to name a few.



The Auslan audience for Jumpy.

One day I would not even like to see the word access. It should just happen, and the question never need be asked.  I can’t prescribe why deaf audiences should come and see different theatre shows. Just like I can’t tell them which footy team to barrack for, or what to wear in the morning. But we can offer them choice, and experiences like any other person in Australia has the opportunity to.


(Visited 646 times, 1 visits today)
  • Julie Judd Reply

    Congratulations on providing such a valuable service to the Deaf community Auslan Stage Left. I personally know the hard work and dedication Susan has brought to this initiative…

    As a theatre interpreter myself I have had the pleasure of working with ASL and have been impressed with the collegiality between the theatre interpreters, consultants, theatre staff and Deaf audience members.

    Keep it up Auslan Stage Left!

  • kai Reply

    Enjoyed reading this post! I have had some negative experiences in accessing theatre and thus enjoying it on the same par as hearing people and thus haven’t had the motivation or passion to attend any theatre shows. However I am prepared to give it another go soon and will be looking forward to seeing an Auslan interpreted show one day soon 🙂

  • Marnie Kerridge Reply

    My sisters and mother saw the musical Cats without me. I wasn’t going to understand it so there was no justification in spending a lot of money for me. I agreed. A friend and her family got cheap matinee tickets to see Phantom of the Opera, and right up the back of the theatre, I fell in love with the theatre. No, I didn’t understand the songs or dialogue but I understood the emotions and beauty of the play. My first interpreted theatre was Beauty and the Beast. I was very sick that night, but sick or not, I was going. I went for the first time, with my mother and sisters.
    Auslan Stage Left isn’t just about access. It is about allowing shared experiences to happen too. I can see theatre with my mother and sisters, my friends, my husband, my children and understand it. I can laugh, cry and discuss the show for hours after. That is something many people take for granted. I don’t. So thank you to the people who are involved in Auslan Stage Left, to the theatre productions who understand and want their shows interpreted, and to the theatre community for supporting us.
    Right now I’m busy saving up to see some wonderful theatre for next year. One of these, is Cats, 25 odd years later. Life is wonderful like that!

  • Maria burgess Reply

    Have loved the shows that you all put on….my fav being HAIR which allowed the interpreters to really let their hair down and have a ball..the cosy audience at Chaoel on Chapel all got the see just how well the story was told in song, dance and dialogue. Didn’t the original have full frontal nudity….!!! Lol

  • Diana Laing Reply

    My sister Freda and I (we both deaf) went to the interpreted theatre of ‘Strictly Ballroom’, interpreters being Chevoy Sweeney and Alex Jones recently in Brisbane. I was not expecting to enjoy much of it as I recently lost all my hearing and the hearing aids doesn’t help. But it was delightful to have the interpreters present and it was easy to follow the dialogue. Most feedbacks were positive from the other deaf audience also. Well done guys : )

  • Cheryl Sandilands Reply

    I am full of admiration for the team at Auslan Stage Left…the tireless work and enthusiasm you have put into providing access for the Deaf into the arts is simply amazing. I have thoroughly enjoyed each of my forays into theatre interpreting; exceptionally challenging work; but knowing I have support from Susan with all her experience, access to a fantastic team of deaf consultants to draw on, makes the work so pleasurable. I recently had my first endeavour into the field of comedy and I must say my team terp was fantastic; he did an outstanding job! What fun!
    Thanks for all you do ASL ….. may you long continue.