Signs of Life: How Deaf Theatre Can Reinvigorate the Spoken Word

11 Nov 2015, by Auslan Stage Left in Articles

This article was originally posted by Lyn Gardner on The Guardian.

In productions like Can I Start Again Please and Grounded, sign language is thrillingly folded into speech – but more needs to be done to encourage these hybrids.

Fourteen years ago I went to Exeter to see Jenny Sealey’s signed staging of The Changeling. I still recall the scene between Beatrice and De Flores when the appalled realisation dawns on both of them that they have misunderstood the other’s intention: she suddenly understands that he doesn’t want her money but her body; he twigs that she sees him merely as a paid assassin, not as a potential lover. What made it so vivid was the signing, which added layer upon layer to the drama, multiplying the gaps between the way we interpret language and misconstrue intention. The signing wasn’t a distraction, it was a bonus that added to our understanding of the drama, whether we could hear the text or not.

That was a long time ago, but we’re finally seeing more artists, deaf or not, understand the creative potential of signing on stage. At Edinburgh this summer the signing by Catherine King in My Son and Heir was as much an element of the performance as any of the text or other visuals. It felt entirely integrated. It might feel odd, now, to see the show without it.

For Deafinitely Theatre, heading to London’s Park theatre this week with George Brant’s Grounded – using two actors, one of whom speaks and one of whom signs – signing has a strong performative element. It is just another type of storytelling. The play is about a nameless female US fighter pilot, grounded through pregnancy and motherhood, who now flies remote-controlled drones from a trailer in the Las Vegas desert. It was blisteringly performed by Lucy Ellinson on its UK premiere and has been taken on by Anne Hathaway in New York. But Deafinitely’s staging should add another dimension to the pilot’s increasing sense of dislocation by having the signing actor Nadia Nadarajah playing the pilot and Charmaine Wombwell voicing the pilot in English.


Although deaf and hearing audiences seem to embrace these aesthetics with ease, it’s not easy for companies such as Deafinitely to get a foot in the mainstream. The Park has been immensely welcoming, and Deafinitely learned a great deal from the Globe to Globe festival in which they performed Love’s Labour’s Lost in BSL at the Globe, alongside companies from all over the world presenting Shakespeare in their own languages. So successful was that show that the company was invited back to perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

But while theatre is getting much better at ensuring that work is accessible to deaf audiences, there is not always willingness to collaborate fully with companies such as Deafinitely, who offer a different aesthetic possibility through putting signing at the heart of the creative process. It means there are very few working deaf actors who aren’t also able to speak, and those that don’t have speech have very few opportunities to develop their craft. But as Deafinitely have proved before, and hope to prove again with Grounded, nothing is lost when BSL and English hold the stage together.

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