Graham Turner & Michael Richardson: Access or Exploitation? A BSL Experience at the Edinburgh Fringe

Posted on November 26, 2017

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The question of Deaf people’s access to theatre and the arts is never far away from social media and community discussions these days.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe – one of the biggest annual arts events on the planet – potentially offers a great platform for signed performances. But is it happening?

During the recent Edinburgh Fringe, Company Chordelia’s Lady Macbeth: Unsex Me Her was widely promoted both as a piece of high quality dance-theatre, and as being fully accessible to Deaf spectators.

Following a visit to the show by a mixed group of Deaf and hearing sign language users, we consider here whether the show was in fact fully accessible, and some of the wider issues that its presentation raises for future Fringe productions.

The show was previewed on 7 June 2017 by Lyn Gardner, an arts journalist at The Guardian newspaper. For her it was one of the shows to see at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and she later (4 August) named it one of the “week’s best UK theatre and dance” shows.

Her colleague at The Guardian, Judith Mackrell, followed up with a four-star review on 8 August, describing the show as “beautifully made” and “excellently performed”. She named it as one of the “top five unmissable dance shows of 2017”.

In her review, Mackrell points out a particular feature of the choreography: the dancers’ “hands flicker through a restless vocabulary of sign language, their gestures catching at the half-heard phrases of dialogue”.

Indeed, the performance is advertised on the Fringe website with a BSL badge, meaning it is intended to be accessible to signing Deaf spectators, at every performance. Also, the marketing blurb clearly states that the production “uses British Sign Language as an integral part of the choreography”.

Our experience of the production did not match these claims: for us it did not offer a four-star experience for Deaf spectators. Below we consider some implications of our conclusion.

The problems start with the need to know the story before the performance. Mackrell is clear that “anyone without a fair knowledge of Macbeth would miss the full richness and subtly [sic]” of the show. She recognises that, even though it is part of hearing culture, knowing Shakespeare’s play in advance is not necessarily true for all hearing theatre-goers.

In the case of Deaf spectators, previous knowledge of the play is even less likely. Some work by Shakespeare is available to Deaf people, either through written scripts or interpreted performances, but neither of these necessarily provide good access to the play. Performances of BSL translations of Shakespeare are disappointingly rare. So from the start, many Deaf spectators are in a difficult position when trying to work out what is happening.

In this instance, it is not only the storyline that is hearing-centred. The production is a dance-theatre piece set to different pieces of classical music, including some opera. Whilst some of this may be appealing to some Deaf people, these are not cultural forms that are typically found within the indigenous Deaf art-forms traditionally found in Deaf clubs and at Deaf events.

Right from the off, then, this doesn’t feel like a production that is likely to give Deaf spectators a must-see performance experience. You may not be entirely surprised. The director is hearing, as are two of the three dancers. The person appointed as the specialist sign language advisor is hearing. Only one of the performers is Deaf.

Nevertheless, it is true that the performance does contain some sign language. Its use, however, is distorted. There’s very little familiar BSL on view. The signs are twisted into ‘danceable’ shapes that they lose the meaning associated with their BSL origins, and thus cease to be accessible to BSL users. They’re more like vaguely BSL-flavoured dance-gestures. It is similar in construction to the largely incomprehensible ‘sign-mime’ developed at the National Theatre of the Deaf in the US in the late 1960s – visually interesting, but largely meaningless to Deaf people.

Furthermore, the sign language within the choreography makes no attempt to make accessible the sung words of the operatic soundscape. Similarly, soundtrack phrases in spoken English are not translated into BSL. In reality the signing is added as a piece of ‘decoration from Deaf-world’ to make a hearing production more interesting. You might call it a gimmick, one that panders to the regular response of hearing audiences: ‘the signing looked beautiful – I wonder what it meant?’

So what? Maybe artists can exercise their creative juices to produce whatever type of work they like. Should there be such freedom of creative expression? In this case, we think not.

The show is advertised as being accessible to signing Deaf people when in reality it isn’t: and – if you know what’s actually going on here (and perhaps what could be, but isn’t, going on) – there’s something about selling tickets to Deaf spectators in this scenario that might leave a nasty taste in the mouth.

After all, this show has a high profile. It’s being taken very seriously by the arts world – the critics are paying it close attention, and lavishing it with praise, and it appears at a premier dance venue alongside work by well-respected international artists. In our view, that means that its makers have an obligation to represent Deafhood and sign language responsibly and sensitively. After all, the arts provide a mirror on the society they serve.

Does a production that portrays the complexity and beauty of sign language as a series of incoherent gestures reflect well on society’s views of Deaf people? Does taking BSL, which British Deaf people value as the highest expression of their identity, uprooting it and using it in this way encourage greater recognition of the value of Deaf communities in the hearing world? We’re unconvinced.

The process for developing Deaf-friendly and genuinely accessible arts events is complex, however, and responsibility for it lies with several stakeholders. Three are relevant here: producers, venues, and the Fringe itself.

This show is widely advertised as being made by Company Chordelia, but in fact it is a co-production with Solar Bear, the company in Scotland that describe itself on its website as “embedding inclusion and accessibility into theatre”.

Solar Bear has a particular focus on the participation of Deaf performers and spectators, and in the pursuit of this aim has been funded over several years by Creative Scotland and others. You might expect their involvement to have drawn attention to the experiences of Deaf audiences, but this was not evident at this performance. For example, a ringing bell was used to mark the beginning and end of the production, a significant auditory reference to the original Macbeth story that took place behind a curtain and was not represented visually.

As for venues, when programming supposedly Deaf-friendly productions, they need to take into account the needs of Deaf spectators in front-of-house areas, putting in place the means by which to communicate effectively throughout the entire theatrical event.

For this performance the venue was DanceBase, a major Fringe venue that describes itself as “Scotland’s National Centre for Dance”. Our experience was that Deaf spectators were not accommodated well. For example, safety announcements were made over the public address system without being interpreted or explained visually.

Our view is that the Fringe organisation itself should take some responsibility here, too. Buildings are only accepted as Fringe venues if they can demonstrate that they are physically accessible. But no other access requirements are imposed on performing companies.

This year, there were over 54,000 performances at the Edinburgh Fringe. Far fewer than 100 were advertised as accessible to signing-Deaf people. Does this suggest a festival that is taking access issues seriously enough? The Fringe could take a more assertive stance on accessibility: this might, in turn, lead to the pro-active programming of Deaf performances. There have been very few of these so far, despite the great BSL-centred shows that have been seen elsewhere in recent years.

What do we mean by Deaf performances at the Fringe?   Shows that are genuinely built upon and delivered in BSL. Shows that celebrate Deaf performers as BSL-using artists. Shows that are directed at and therefore deeply accessible to Deaf people. When these shows feature strongly and consistently at the Fringe, then perhaps BSL can be added as a quirky extra element to ‘mainstream’ productions without this seeming uncomfortably like a form of cultural appropriation.

This year’s Edinburgh Fringe, of course, happened in the context of a Scotland that, since the passing of the BSL (Scotland) Act 2015, is supposedly committed to promoting the use and understanding of BSL. It would be very hard to argue that this production, in this venue, during the 2017 Fringe, was a true Deaf performance. But that is not to say that a festival of the size and significance of the Fringe couldn’t, in future years, play a central role in facilitating and celebrating BSL–centred and Deaf-led art-forms.

With that in mind, we look forward to a future with a thriving Deaf Fringe-within-the-Fringe.

Graham Turner is Professor of Translation and Interpreting Studies at Heriot-Watt University. His research interests are in Deaf Studies and sign linguistics. His work has explored how language barriers can exclude Deaf people from a range of social environments, including theatre.

Michael Richardson has worked as a theatre director and as a Communication Support Worker, supporting Deaf young people studying in Further Education. He is now a Ph.D. candidate at Heriot-Watt University. His research interests are the participation of Deaf people in theatre, both as actors and as audience.

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