How to See a Voice: Designing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in BSL for Shakespeare’s Globe

(Originally published in Blue Pages, the journal of The Society of British Theatre Designers)

Designing for deaf audiences brings very specific, practical challenges but also opens up huge new possibilities. As Deafinitely Theatre’s artistic director, Paula Garfield explains,

Deafinitely Theatre’s style is to be visual and so for me what we bring is that visual storytelling and I don’t just mean British Sign Language. I want to see the story happen visually on the stage to make it clear for any audience. That is why the design is so important as it compliments that visual storytelling element.

This production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream came about as a result of the success of Deafinitely’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost for the Globe to Globe season two years ago. Deafinitely’s inclusion in Globe to Globe clearly signposts British Sign Language not just as a tool for accessibility but as a language in its own right. And what’s particularly exciting to a designer is that BSL is a visual language. Globe to Globe and Deafinitely also share a vision of productions transcending their specific languages, whether BSL, Italian or Guajarati; our production was very specifically conceived as being for a mixed deaf/hearing audience.

The initial process of finding a world for the play to inhabit was very much about story and character. There was no sense of patronising the audience by providing them with a dutifully safe version of the play; we wanted to find a world that would resonate with us as artists. Our final vision was of Theseus’s court as a bank – materialistic and hierarchical – with the fairies offering an alternative world, not only of magic but of nature and sustainability, their costumes made from discarded office-wear and foliage.

The process of translation, which dominated much of the first half of the rehearsal period, brought a new kind of artistic freedom; while some lines of text were spoken by the few hearing actors, and while scene summaries were provided on LED displays, translating word-for-word was never the aim. Literal translation doesn’t work in BSL or related sign languages, nor should it. Sign languages bring their own range of meanings and modes. The choices around translation were therefore central to the artistic conceptualisation of the piece. Again, Paula explains:

Of course, our language use is different as our predominant language is British Sign Language but for this production we used different forms of BSL for each of the different worlds. Our four lovers and the Athenian court used BSL, our fairies used Visual Vernacular (VV – which is more poetic, creating beautiful clear pictures) and our workmen/mechanicals used Sign Supported English (which is where you follow the English word structure but add some sign with it) with some speech as well. We wanted each group to have a distinctive ‘voice’

This is clearly an exciting textual world for design to operate in. It has its own modes and nuances which prise out latent or new textual resonance, reaching beyond linguistic modes. There is already a dialogue between the visual and the spoken within the play, for example, the text of Pyramus and Thisbe, the play within the play, lovingly mocks theatrical technique and convention. ‘I see a voice’ says Pyramus ‘Now will I to the chink,/To spy an I can hear my Thisbe’s face.’ In our production the wall was made of box files; Bottom, unable to sign through the chink, finally acknowledges his deafness and punches out one of the files. It’s a hole big enough to look through – indeed to kiss though – but, clinging bravely to the spirit of the script, Bottom and Thisbe ignore this and sign at each other through the gap.

So what are the limitations? The most immediate challenge is making signing as clear as possible. This does not only mean good sightlines. It also means consideration of the relationship between costume and skin tone, the level of potentially confusing visual detail on the costume or on areas of the set that may be a background to signing, and the need to keep hands and – because many signers also mouth the words – faces as free as possible.

Designing for Shakespeare’s Globe immediately brought a few of these problems to the fore: it is a visually busy space and has famously limited sightlines. A particular challenge was to mitigate visual busyness with the costumes, especially around the arms, while sightlines dominated the blocking part of the rehearsal process.

Signing actors also have a different relationship with costumes and props than their speaking colleagues, and this is where practical challenges start to overlap with exciting design possibilities. Establishing a character and specific emotional states through voice obviously isn’t possible, and the options for body language are limited; not only because of signing itself but also because of the facial expressions that support it. Costume, gesture, props and any other visual tools therefore become far more fundamental parts of the actor’s expression of character than is often the case.

One can also deliberately play against this. When Bottom was transformed into an ass, not only did he gain an ass’s head (made by Puck from discarded card and plastic) but also hooves made from rusty cans. His ability to sign was thereby muted by the transformation and gave David Sands, who played Bottom, a chance to take his brilliant instinct for physical comedy to new heights.

What may seem like linguistic limitations turn out to be anything but. An example of this comes when Bottom’s colleagues sign his name as the body part, much to his annoyance: he prefers a different sign, conveying a more dignified meaning of the word. It perfectly encapsulates Bottom’s sense of dignity and, as the signs are fairly self-evident, it’s a joke audience members who don’t know BSL can get.

For Paula, this accessibility, this transcending of the hearing/deaf barrier, is the key.

My passion is to create visual work for the audience. I don’t distinguish between a “deaf” and “hearing” audience. For me, I want to show the audience that deaf people can be creative and expressive and look what we can do! My main concerns for my audience are like any other director, I want to make the story, characters, relationships and dialogue delivery as clear as possible.

Our artistic style is always to find the most creative and visual way of telling the story. I don’t want the speaking lines to come from off-stage or having one character as the ‘narrator’ throughout (which was one thought for this play). I want to find creative ways of integrating the language used in the play (the BSL and the English). It’s vital to me that we find reasons for characters to be signing/speaking and that it is not only to provide “access”

Once you start making theatre for a universal audience, BSL and other modes of signing are no longer a translation of the ‘real’ play for a minority; they are the thing itself. Of course that drive to universality has to be tempered, or the piece could become bland. In fact, such things as different segments of the audience getting different jokes are a form of richness. The play was accompanied by live music too (a beautiful score by Phillippa Herrick); a gesture of solidarity from Deafinitely towards their hearing audiences. The end result is an inspiring corrective to our national tendency to put the written text on a pedestal. Instead the work celebrates communication in a broader sense. The end result is a gift to designers as well as audiences: a style of visual theatre that stands in its own right and in which text is fundamentally visual.

The cover photo for this is articles shows Deafinitely Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in BSL, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Ace Mahbaz, Alim Jayda, Anna-Maria Nabirye, Nadia Nadarajah. Photo: Simon Kane.

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