Sarah Gatford: Inclusion can sometimes be an illusion

Posted on April 13, 2017

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‘That looked so beautiful, I’m always mesmerized by watching you.’

‘I’ve always wanted to learn sign language’.

Two phrases I often hear after shows. I smile and ask them, in response to the first statement, if they sign. More often than not, they don’t, which leads to the second statement.

My internal smile grows. How can they tell whether, firstly what I’ve done reflected the show and secondly, if I did it well?

I tell them that I’m glad they enjoyed the show and as a bonus, I hope they leave slightly more aware and with a renewed urge to actually not just learn to sign but to engage with Deaf people.

Why is it hearing audiences are so fascinated by what us performance interpreters do, but this fascination doesn’t seem to be reflected when it comes to being a truly inclusive society? There seem to be lots of questions thrown up by choosing to write about this topic!

Standing on stage interpreting performances to a large audience certainly gets you noticed! Excuse me for stating the obvious. The Deaf audience gains access to the show, how much access I’ll be blogging about elsewhere as there’s loads to think about!

Let’s just take it, for sake of argument, that there’s more access than without an interpreter. The hearing audience becomes aware of the existence of such things as interpreted performances and the illusion of inclusivity.

As for the interpreter, in my view, we are the ones who have a foot in all worlds and we’re culturally interpreting between any and all of them at any one time. There’s the hearing world, the Deaf world and the theatre world (on and off stage).

The job of a performance interpreter is as much about people management as it is about standing on stage interpreting the actual performance.

From the first phone call/email requesting that I interpret the show (by the way, how do these people decide which shows should be made accessible? Is there engagement with the Deaf audience, asking them what they might be interested in? Have they decided it might be good to do it? The illusion of inclusivity….– more questions again!)

I go into Deaf Awareness/Marketing/Audience Development/Staff Training Mode whilst being extremely encouraging that they’re doing a very valuable thing. I become their supportive colleague – and that’s just it, for that show, I’m part of the team.

If I haven’t got the people on the ground working with me, it makes the job so much harder. These people include the person making the booking, technicians, front of house staff, company manager, stage manager, actors etc etc.

I’m booked for their show, which has been worked on for months, for (more often than not) one night only. I have to approach it with respect and humility, I do not know what’s gone before and I don’t want to rock the boat.

All those people need looking after and relationships need nurturing to ensure they are confident I’m going to be working with them, not against them. I am also, occasionally, the repairer of their past experiences of working with other interpreters. I am the image of performance interpreting which will be etched in their memory for years to come.

I do contribute to creating an illusion of inclusivity in doing what I do. The bottom line for me is it’s about access and offering choice to as Deaf audience.

That choice though, does have to be marketed to the community the provision is aimed at. Deaf audiences need to be encouraged and included in programming decisions. I don’t do what I do to be a rock star of the interpreting world.

Theatre should be reflective of its community and is in a great position to be leading the way in demonstrating how all things access related should be done. Without engaging with Deaf audiences, the illusion of inclusion persists and interpreted performances will be a box ticking exercise and in 2017 is that really how things should be?

Sarah Gatford was guest lecturer this year for the IRIS series of lectures at Wolverhampton University and has done a webinar for LinguistPD about performance interpreting. She runs workshops for interpreters wanting to work in theatre or at events.  She is currently researching her first book, which will centre around her approach and observations relating to theatre and event interpreting.Find out more about Sarah on her website: www.sarahgatford.co.uk and follow her on Twitter as @MsSarahGatford.

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