Jacqui Beckford: My role as a BSL interpreter and performer in theatre

Posted on October 4, 2016

My first role in theatre was as a freelance BSL interpreter for the Graeae Theatre Company, interpreting their workshops. I then had the opportunity to support Ali Briggs’ theatre directorship at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester where I was able to see the process of putting on a show from casting right through to performances.

Soon I was being asked if I would interpret in shows. My debut was as a nurse in Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw – Graeae. It gave me a license to be on stage as a sign language interpreter / performer. That was the beginning of this journey.

dsc_0139To be successful in the role you need good spatial awareness. I was very fortunate to have had training in contemporary dance and I think that has helped exponentially in terms of my stage presence.

I have a Deaf sister, so I am immersed in the Deaf community, absorbing Deaf culture. All of this has helped me to understand what is easily transferable from a script to the stage for a Deaf audience.

My relationship with the director and other performers is crucial as it allows me to extrapolate the context behind the words, so I can translate them into the unique grammatical structure of BSL.

There’s a lot of discussion throughout the rehearsal process to help me understand the intent behind the dialogue. It might be that I have to find an equivalent meaning because something in spoken English won’t necessarily translate into BSL but, will give the Deaf audience the same sense as the hearing audience and bring them along with the storytelling process on a par with the hearing audience.

Most theatre companies are anxious about how it’s going to work having an interpreter in the show – ‘isn’t it going to spoil the aesthetics and ruin the hearing audience’s enjoyment?’ They can’t look at their productions in a lateral sense to see how they can make the interpreter an integral and artistic part of the show. In Muhammad Ali and Me the script is written so that the interpreter/ performer is a fundamental part of it, not something to add on at the end or, stick on the side of the stage.

My primary character in the play is the referee, the outside entity that is able to provide moments of balance. A unique challenge is that we’re performing in-the-round, to convey the feeling of a boxing ring. I’ve had to take an artistic and aesthetical decision to have my Deaf audience on one side of the auditorium, to ensure that I’m always interpreting in the right direction.

Performing to a live audience means that you’re on a continuously changing journey and you can get instant feedback, when you hear the laughter and see the different expressions that come from the audience.

If the laughter comes in the right place you know you’ve done a good job, if it doesn’t you know that in the next show you need to change what you’ve done to ensure that the Deaf audience is laughing along with the hearing audience.

Every show is a different challenge and it’s a pleasure to bring the Deaf community on that journey with me.

Muhammad Ali and Me runs at The Albany Deptford 6-15th October before heading out on tour – details here https://mojisolaadebayo.co.uk/2016/09/20/muhammad-ali-and-me/

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