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The Life of a Theatre Interpreter

04 Nov 2015, by Auslan Stage Left in Articles

This article was originally posted by SLFirst Entertainment Team on SLFirst Magazine.


Following our recent wonderful experience of integrated theatre we interviewed Becky Allen to get a behind the scenes look at how the show was developed.


Some of the SL First team recently went to see a play called, The Jew of Malta performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company and interpretated by Becky Allen. Unlike traditional ‘accessible performances’, with an interpreter perched on the end of the stage, this one was one of the newer integrated style provisions that we have written about before. Having added so much to the enjoyment of Deaf people in the audience, we wanted to chat to Becky to find out about her involvement in the play and what sort of work goes into preparing a performance like that.


Q – When did you first start learning BSL?

A – I started learning BSL in 2001. I had planned to take a gap year after sixth form – but because of BSL that gap year became a gap decade and more! In that year off I had planned to get a job to earn a bit of money and I wanted to learn something. I always had a big interest in theatre and thought that’s what I wanted to go into.


During that year I started working as a Learning Support Assistant in a college – some of the students I worked with were Deaf and they lived in an RNID residential centre which meant there were some Deaf staff there too and it I took a real interest in BSL. I’m sure initially I was really bad and signed everything wrong but they were all incredibly supportive and thoughtful and I started picking up bits of the language.


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Q – Where did you learn?

A – I did my Level 1 in Cornwall (where I’m from) with Sue and Barry Curtis, two lovely members of the Cornish Deaf Community. The following year I continued with my Level 2 in Plymouth because there wasn’t a Level 2 class in Cornwall at the time.


I left it as that for a little while, carried on working around Deaf people, going to Deaf Club, socialised and did all those things with Deaf people to really try my best and use the language that I’d been learning; but at that time I couldn’t go any higher than Level 2 in my area.


Then I moved to London in 2006; I had moved to work with a theatre company who were touring and there was a Deaf actor involved, so at that time I did my NVQ Level 3 (and later NVQ Level 4) with Dianne Webb at Remark! In London.


After that in 2010 I finished my interpreter training by completing the Post Graduate Diploma at SLI (UCLAN) led by Peter Llewellyn-Jones and other brilliant tutors too – that year really opened my eyes to all the possibilities, variety and challenges of this profession.


Q – Was theatre interpreting always something you wanted to do, or did you decide that much later?

A – I guess because I come from a theatre background it was something I’d always done growing up – I had every intention to work in theatre – I guess it was something that I must have thought about, but I was very conscious that I needed to take my time and make sure that I was learning everything properly and I wasn’t trying to run before I could walk. I think I was pretty open to whatever was out there, but as time went on it did seem like a natural progression for me to combine the two things that I really love.


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Q – So working in theatre was your original career plan and interpreting happened afterwards?

A – Yeah, I guess so, but now I always describe them as my ‘parallel careers’ because I do work in theatre as well. At times, I’m also on the stage not as an interpreter but as a performer.


Sometimes people say to me, ‘Oh it must be nice as an actor to have interpreting to fall back on’, but I say to them absolutely not, my careers are absolutely equal and it took me a long, long time to achieve my fully qualified interpreter status and it’s something I never plan to ‘fall back on’, it’s something I highly respect and value. So while theatre did come before the interpreting originally, now they run very nicely in tandem.


Q – Did you do theatre/drama qualifications at school?

A – Yes, I’d always been involved in Youth Theatre and local productions, then I did ‘A Level’ Drama and as I said, I did intend to go to university to continue studying Theatre & Drama, but that’s when I got distracted by the wonderful BSL. I didn’t actually do any further qualifications in theatre, but I’ve been extremely fortunate over the years and I’ve had some fantastic opportunities come my way and I have been able to gain a lot of professional experience as a performer now. I’ve been very, very lucky over the years.


Q – Had you seen interpreted theatre in the past that inspired you to do the same?

A – I think I’d been aware of interpreted theatre when I was quite young. Around 20-21, I came across Graeae Theatre Company (based in London) who are disability and deaf led, so their work is always accessible and is always integrated, as most of the staff and performers are deaf or disabled themselves. This gave me an awareness of not just interpreted theatre but theatre that by its very nature is accessible. Graeae is a wonderful company and if you ever get the chance to see them, their work is exceptional, I’d highly recommend it.


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Q – How long have you been interpreting theatre performances?

A – I became ‘fully qualified’ (RSLI) in 2011, so I guess on and off since then, just the last four years but it’s not all I do, I do other kinds of interpreting too. I really love working in education and quite often I work with deaf team members who are part of a theatre of play. Sometimes that will be interpreting rehearsals, or if they’re putting on a workshop for kids, I’ll be there to interpret those. It might have only been four years so far, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it!


Q – Are you employed by anyone or freelance?

A – I’m freelance for both sides, interpreting and other theatre work, so I’m sure you can imagine the juggling of budgets, accounts and taxes. Sometimes theatre contracts can be longer – 6 months, 9 months, a full year – that can sometimes feel like it’s a full-time job as you’ve got a steady wage coming in, but ultimately you’re still freelance and you’re responsible for sorting out your own taxes in January.


Q – Your recent interpretation of The Jew of Malta was tightly integrated into the performance – have you done theatre like that previously?

A – Yes, I’ve done a fair bit like that before. For me, I really love that way of working. I’ve done integrated work before and also some where you’re at the side of the stage, but this experience was a really wonderful one. The company, the cast, the directors and the production team were so incredibly supportive and were also very brave, they totally trusted me with their play and let me walk about their stage and do my thing.


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Q – How did you prepare for it?

A – The Jew of Malta is a play based on very archaic text. It contained lots of unusual and rare language which meant I couldn’t rely on just listening to it. I had to really understand it and know the whole thing inside-out. I went to see the show, and they were kind enough to send me a DVD recording so I could watch that at home and think about what they were saying, what did it all really mean and how would I put that into BSL.


I wanted to make sure that I knew every term used and the meaning behind it. The director was incredibly helpful with this and I also had a chance to speak to the actors, to find out from them what they were thinking when saying particular lines.


Once I felt I had a good understanding of it, I would then playback the DVD and record myself in my kitchen interpreting parts to try out different things. The key for me, was making sure I understood it inside out and chatted as much as possible to actors and directors, to make sure that what I was producing is as close to what is in their heads as possible. The audience have come to see their performance, not me, so I have to get it as close to that as I possibly can.


Q – Did you get chance to practice with the cast at all?

A – On the day of the show, we had the whole day to do a technical rehearsal, trying out everything with me on the stage and making sure I wasn’t getting in the way of anyone and that was a really great day. The cast were so supportive, when they weren’t in a scene they would watch it and it was so sweet. You could see them going, ‘Ahh right so in that scene they’re looking at Becky, so in my scene maybe I could do something with her too.’ As the day progressed the integration built up and up and I think they were really excited by it. I think that was such a wonderful thing, they’ve gone away with that knowledge and they’re excited to tell other people about promoting access.


Q – You really managed to get all that sorted in just one day?

A – Yeah, I had gone up for one day previously just to look at lighting and things like that. We had a chat then, so I had a big list of, ‘In this scene you stand here, and then for the next scene you need to move here’, but actually going through it with the cast – yup – just one day to practice. And it really did only work because of them, they were so open and generous. Jasper Britton, who played the lead Barabas, on all of his soliloquy scenes, he asked if I could be near him and that was so great for the Deaf audience, because if they wanted to lip-read they could We were right next to each other and they didn’t have to do the ‘eye ping pong’ between the two of us, we were right there together.

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Q – Were there any issues with terminology or translating things into BSL?

A – I was very lucky that I had access to the director to ask about meaning, so in terms of getting from the archaic text to a modern understanding was okay, but getting from that archaic text into BSL and still try to keep a flavour of that archaic nature was more difficult. I’ve no idea whether I’m right on this or not, but I felt that the story had to be crystal clear, that was the priority, then as much as I could, I tried to use elements of BSL poetry to reflect particular sections.


For example, if there was a lovely poetry section, I’d try to use some similar hand shapes that were very similar to link things together. There was one section where Barabas is saying something about, ‘the heavens must be punishing him because all his gold and wealth had been taken, what should I do, should I kill myself? Is that what’s needed?’. So I was using the sign/handshape for stress while looking up to the heavens and took that sign up into the sign for ‘hanged’, to show there was a poetic link but keeping the meaning.


Obviously there are loads of brilliant theatre interpreters out there and I’m sure their translation might be quite different to mine. I am by no means suggesting I am the best or anything, just my intention was to ensure that meaning and story was crystal clear and then try to layer on as much texture and richness with poetic BSL as I could.


Q – Trainee interpreters are sometimes told, “You must be invisible!” – did you ever worry about just how very visible this would make you?

A – I think what we did, we just accepted the fact, even if I was on the side of the stage, they can still see me. Let’s use this amazing language and form of communication to add another layer. Sarah correctly pointed out in her review that I wasn’t really another character but more like a member of the audience who happened to be on stage witnessing what was going on.


At times, when Barabas was going to address the audience, he would start by speaking to me and then we’d both turn and deliver that to the audience. We just had to embrace that and be brave and see what happens. There was a chance it wouldn’t work and it certainly wouldn’t work for all plays. This one was a great play for making it happen. There were a lot of times where the characters spoke directly to the audience and acknowledged their presence, so we just had to roll up our sleeves and make sure it worked because they could definitely all see me!


Q – Do you believe integration such as this, where you are a part of the show could be less distracting?

A – Interestingly, after the show, Sarah asked the audience how they felt. We sometimes hear hearing people saying that interpreters were distracting so what about tonight? And the audience couldn’t have been kinder, they really embraced it. One man said something about it being a joy to have Deaf patrons present so everyone could enjoy it together, that definitely brought a tear to my eye!


Q – Any advice for aspiring theatre performers or interpreters out there?

A – The response to this project has been incredible, but I’m by no means the best interpreter out there, it was just a wonderful collaborative night that worked well. My advice would be to get out there, watch some work, work out what you would like to do and find out who’s doing that already and how you can get involved in those companies.


Interpreters should think about what shows you interested in interpreting. Do you love Shakespeare and archaic text or really modern stuff. Find some things to go see, can you shadow other interpreters, find a really good mentor that you can bounce ideas off. Just keep going, keep trying and keep talking to theatre companies and make access even more readily available.


What I would love to see more than anything, is the wealth of Deaf acting talent we have in the UK being used in some of the major production companies. There’s so many skilled deaf performers, I’d love to see more of them doing their incredible work on our main stages.


Q – Do you know of any education programmes that combine theatre and interpreting?

A – At Reading University they’ve got a Theatre and Deaf Studies course, and also in Scotland they’ve just started a brand new degree course that looks at BSL performance. There’s also Graeae Theatre Company who have just launched a new programme called Ensemble aimed at 17-26 year olds who are deaf and/or disabled and they don’t need to have any formal theatre training.


There are things happening out there, there’s another company like Graeae called the Fingersmiths run by two wonderful women, Jean St Clair (a deaf actor) and Jeni Draper (an interpreter). They are producing bilingual work. There’s another company I’m working with in a few weeks called PAD (Positive About Deafness) and they’re promoting integrated work too, sometimes not using BSL, but it is using non-verbal communication so that it is trying to be open for as many people as possible, while also using music and sound to be accessible for visually impaired people. There are people out there doing great work and they would be great places for anyone interested to get in contact with. Ask if you can go observe for a day or do some voluntary work with them.


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Q – When can we see some more theatre like this?

A – The next integrated show will be 20th January which will be Wendy and Peter Pan. That will have a lovely interpreter called Clare Edwards who is fantastic. I’m sure that will be a brilliant night, and that one is going to be in the big theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.


Q – Anything else you’d like to mention?

A – Just a disclaimer for myself. I’d never want anyone to think that I always know how to do this. I believe this BSL show really worked because of the wonderful company members, the directors and the people at the RSC, as well as all the people that offered me support prior to that time. I really think it worked because everyone was so respectful about what we wanted to achieve and make it a wonderful night for all involved. I will never stop learning and it’s totally possible the next show I do, I’m going to fall on my face! I know I’ve never learned it all and for me this is just the start of a wonderful learning experience and the start of good things to come!


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