Integrating a Signer in Performance

Recently, I spent two weeks at The Orpheus Centre – here I should put a tag line to describe the centre for you, something very politically correct and concise. However, I’m going to go for… The Orpheus Centre – an inclusive, innovative performing arts centre and lifeskills college/a big inspiring bunch of fun! The Orpheus Centre put on a Christmas show every year that is written, designed and performed by the students. Having been involved with a few Orpheus projects over the last couple of years, I know how much fun it can be and just had to get in on the action so I volunteered to sign the songs of the show in performance.


As soon as the song lyrics were written by the students they were emailed to me so I could work on the translation. I have to admit that I may have slightly underestimated the songwriting talents at the Orpheus Centre as I gazed at the beautiful and complex metaphors on my laptop screen at home, wondering how to sufficiently do this justice in Sign Language. Nevertheless I relished the challenge and prepared myself for the two weeks of excitement of rehearsals and performances.

I arrived to meet the cast and discover who plays the various characters in the show. I asked the director if the cast could create sign names for their characters as this would be useful to incorporate into the songs but also promotes some deaf culture awareness. As the cast have been working on characterisation, who better to develop a sign name than the actors themselves. Sometimes, as a Sign Language Communicator I find myself using the same sign too often rather than expressing things in different ways. A group of performers were playing the baddies, they all came up with different signs and gestures to express their characters which furthered my understanding of this group of characters, providing the

creativity to use signs other than ‘bad’. This exercise got the performers thinking about their characters, trying to sum them up in one sign and could be useful to other theatre groups as a dramatic exercise or to aid the inclusivity of performance.

I solidified my decision to sign the songs only as all involved wanted the sign language to be as integrated as possible, meaning I would have a character and costume not just be plonked on the side of the stage. My focus was on using sign language creatively in performance to provide some access and promote deaf accessibility to an audience.

Getting Stuck In

There were rumours of a rap in the show, slightly daunting to sign but I went along to the rehearsal to hear this created for the first time. Having recently seen Graeae’s Reasons to be Cheerful I was inspired by the way the integrated interpreter had fun with signing Ian Dury’s anarchic songs and decided to throw myself into the spirit of things. The rehearsal, lead by a very talented musical director was such a playful atmosphere. The students and musicians experimented with different ways to structure the song, this is very different from how I remember music where things were set in stone, so many musical laws and Italian terms to obey. In addition to the musical composition, I got to observe a rehearsal of a song with unfinished lyrics. Wonderfully poetic lyric writing happened so quickly and as the signer I really wanted to do this poetry justice. Song lyrics are often difficult to translate as you have to search for the meaning but observing the lyric writing process really helped me to create some visually pleasing and meaningful signs to accompany the song in performance.

Once I had polished the translation and committed it to memory my confidence was on the rise. Now to work on giving it some oomph! I was still buzzing from Graeae’s Reasons to be Cheerful

– If you didn’t see it then you really missed out. In my opinion it really raised the bar for disability led theatre, it was just a massively enjoyable piece of theatre. The interpreter in role was fab and donned fish net tights, a tartan mini skirt and Doc Martins – a huge contrast from your standard theatre terps! She made it look so easy though so I guess the secret is to just have fun with it. Enjoy it, stay in role and hopefully that will translate to the audience, BSL users or not.
Act 1 Beginners to the Stage

The gloves are just to keep my hands warm!

As a signer it’s great when you are given a costume. However, I did feel slightly guilty taking it back and asking for some alterations,

I didn’t want to seem ungrateful. A lot of people don’t realise that what a signer wears is really important, when I started as a Sign Language Communicator my funky patterned tops were relegated to the depths of my wardrobe. So when I was given a white blouse to wear I needed to explain that next to my snowflake skin I would just be a moving white blob. The rule of thumb is to wear a plain top that stands out from your skin colour.

In performance I had some really nice interactions with the cast, which is the icing on the cake to integration. I have seen many performances where I am convinced that I have seen the occasional evil glare in the direction of the SLI as if they are competing for the audience’s attention. I can understand this, as an actor you want to captivate your audience, especially during that all important Shakespearean soliloquy. The visual language at the side of the stage can be a distraction. But tough! Both actor and SLI are professionals providing a service. I do not believe that the SLI should dumb it down so as not to interfere with the performance, that just creates more barriers, and besides, terps only terp off the energy of the speaker. Yet another challenge I came across was that the integrated signer in role needs to run off their own energy and find their own character in addition to interpreting the songs for other characters.

The Finale

The show had great feedback and tickets were sold out for almost every performance. I had a fantastic time working with The Orpheus Centre and I hope I did your show justice! I look forward to seeing you all again soon.

To find out more about The Orpheus Centre click here

A big thank you to Sarah Carew and Kai Takatsu for the use of their photographs.


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