Making an Impact

by Michael Richardson

For the last two and a half years I have been researching the participation of Deaf people in theatre.  With only a few months remaining, I am currently writing up my PhD thesis, wondering what I am doing – and often, why I am doing it.  Of course, working bilingually in English and British Sign Language with a mixed group of Deaf and hearing actors for a week last summer was great fun.  Finding out what audiences thought about the finished work was fascinating.  Turning it all into 80,000 words of highly academic but readable prose?  Well, let’s just say, the 65,000 words I still need to write aren’t coming easily.  I can’t yet see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Fortunately, my PhD journey started well, and I am regularly reminded of the benefit of academic research by emails I receive from people who have changed their practice as a result of my work.  It all started in my first year as a postgraduate, when I was invited by a theatre to conduct a small study for them, attempting to find out why the numbers of Deaf spectators were lower than expected for Sign Language Interpreted Performances (SLIPs).

SLIPs are performances of spoken language theatre that are simultaneously translated into sign language, usually by a single interpreter standing in the downstage corner of the stage at some distance from the actors.  They are the typical method currently employed to encourage Deaf sign language users to attend mainstream theatres.

In my research I interviewed Deaf and hearing audience members, as well as a theatre interpreter, and staff responsible for access in the theatre.  The results suggest that SLIPs do not provide Deaf spectators with an experience equivalent to that of hearing audience members.  Interpreters are inadequately trained and usually given insufficient resources to prepare for a SLIP.  Theatre companies are often uninterested in, if not opposed to, the presence of the interpreter on stage, and insist on her spatial separation from the main production, making it impossible for spectators to follow the show and the translation at the same time. Theatre venues, despite promoting a performance in sign language, often do not use sign language in their marketing materials or in front of house facilities.  As a result they do not present a welcoming image to the very people they are trying to attract.  Understandably my Deaf participants had little positive to say about the effectiveness of SLIPs in providing access.

The aim of a preparatory study such as this within the PhD process is to give an opportunity for postgraduate researchers to develop and refine their research skills; and for academic staff to ascertain whether their PhD student is ready to progress to the full-scale study on which their thesis will be built.  My work on SLIPs, however, has gone far beyond this.

My research was the first to ask Deaf people their views on SLIPs, and there has been significant interest in my results from the academic community.  I have spoken at several conferences in the UK and Europe on the challenges of delivering SLIPs.  Most recently I presented my thoughts on the need to establish a separate professional speciality of performance interpreting to support the development of quality provision of SLIPs, at the Third International Conference on Interpreting Quality in Granada (http://qinv.ugr.es/iciq3-en.htm).  I have also written articles based on my research.  A paper on interpreting and theatre translation was published in 2017 in the online journal TranscUlturAl (https://journals.library.ualberta.ca/tc/index.php/TC/article/view/29265). A second paper, ‘The Sign Language Interpreted Performance: A Failure of Access Provision for Deaf Spectators ‘ will be published in March in the journal Theatre Topics (volume 28 (1), pp. 63-74).

Whilst spreading awareness of my work within the academic community is a desirable part of the PhD journey, I am also pleased that my research is having impact in the real world.  I have been invited to speak at events aimed at cultural managers, theatre practitioners and interpreters throughout the UK:  at the South Bank Centre in London with Deafinitely Theatre; in Ipswich with the Pacitti Company; at Manchester Art Gallery for the Greater Manchester Cultural Group for Deaf People; and as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Each of these events is part of the work in progress towards adequate access to cultural events for Deaf people, as is my ongoing contribution to a working group in Edinburgh that aims to develop opportunities for Deaf-led arts and cultural activities.

More tangible results have followed from discussions with individual practitioners.  Zane Hema, an interpreter trainer based in Australia, is using my ideas about performance interpreting in Continuous Professional Development sessions that he leads.   ZooCo (https://wearezooco.co.uk/), a small touring company that works to make theatre accessible to diverse audiences, is using my research to inform their thinking about how to engage Deaf audiences.  In Gloucester, the Strike a Light Festival took on a number of the recommendations that I made, including having staff Front of House who could greet Deaf patrons in sign language; and keeping seats for Deaf spectators at SLIPs that give the best possible view of interpreter and stage.  Previously they had not attracted any Deaf people at all; having made these changes, they estimate that approximately 5% of their audience during their 2017 festival was Deaf.  In the March 2018 festival they will also use the Difference Engine, a piece of technology that streams captions onto an individual’s smart phone or tablet, for their production of Lucy J Skilbeck’s Joan (https://www.strikealightfestival.org.uk/events/joan/).

As I write this, I am in the middle of slowly redrafting the first half of my literature review, and thematically coding the seemingly endless hours of video data that I generated in my main research project last year.  Nevertheless, I am encouraged by the fact that the work I did in the first year of my PhD is already having an impact, not only in universities, but also in the real world of cultural provision.  My research is contributing to an improvement in the lives of Deaf people, at least in the arts.  And that, I remember, is why I am doing it.

Borderland identities

by Kerstin Pfeiffer

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“Wie, Sie … äh… du weißt nicht wie Snapchat geht?” Three pairs of eyes fix me in complete disbelief. A part of me wants the floor of the rehearsal room to open wide and swallow me there and then. For the third time in less than two hours I am pleading age-related ignorance of this or that social media platform. And it is only day 1 of the workshop.

Catching up with 21st-century culture was an interesting by-product of my work with Čojč Theaternetzwerk Böhmen Bayern (http://cojc.eu/cs/), a Czech-German theatre network in 2017. The network organises bilingual theatre projects on both sides of the border, and I joined last year’s main project, Like/Hate, as a participant observer. For two weeks in August and September, Like/Hate brought together 20 young people aged 14 to 27 living Bavaria and Bohemia to create a theatrical performance centering on the influence of social networks on our thinking, behaviour, and the way we present ourselves to the world. My main reason for observing the project had less to do with the question how we conceive of performing the self in and through social media than with an interest in the participants’ real-life communication and interactions – with each other and with the audience.

In many bilingual youth projects along the German borders, pooling linguistic resources is considered one of the main strategies for facilitating intercultural dialogue and fostering cross-border relationships unencumbered (or at least less encumbered) by the baggage of historical differences between the Germans and their neighbours. Čojč projects are no exception but they go one step further in that they aim to create performances which are accessible to monolingual speakers of Czech and German alike by using a hybrid of Czech and German, Čojč, on stage. The network motto provides a good example of how this can work: ‘Mit divadlem theater hýbat grenzen hranicemi bewegen’. The word Čojč itself is a blend of from the Czech word for the Czech language, Česky, and the use of Czech spelling for the word [d]eutsch – [d]ojč, and in some senses, Čojč (the language) is the verbal manifestation of a strong sense of a distinct regional identity grounded in the historical and cultural particularities of the Bavarian-Bohemian border region that pervades the network.

The city of Plzeň

So how does the Čojč network use language(s) to express, negotiate and potentially transform (individual) identities? How do workshop participants communicate with each other? Which language do they use, when, and why? What are the effects of using a hybrid language on the audience? In other words, how is regional identity performed and how is it changed in and through performance?  And how do such performances integrate into contemporary discourses about the role of regions in responding to societal challenges within the EU? These were just some the questions that guided my observation of the devising process and the interviews I conducted with participants and network members. The larger framework for this research is the Horizon2020-funded project Critical Heritages: performing and representing identities in Europe (CoHERE) (https://research.ncl.ac.uk/cohere/) which investigates the socio-political and cultural significance of European heritages and their role in developing communitarian identities. My work with Čojč Theaternetzwerk Böhmen Bayern forms a case study within the project work package led by Heriot-Watt and the Latvian Academy of Culture focusing on cultural forms and expressions of identity in Europe (PI: Prof Ullrich Kockel).

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Landmarks of Plzeň

Data analysis is still ongoing, but some main themes are already emerging. The first is the importance of liminal spaces in which borders – linguistic, cultural, political – and dichotomies are temporarily suspended a and in which the question of the contours of a particular cross-border identity can be explored and negotiated. The second concerns language use. For Like/Hate, some ground rules for communication were assigned top-down from the bilingual project leader team; more frequently, however, participants made their own decisions about how to communicate effectively with each other and  how to produce theatrical material that is accessible to monolingual speakers of Czech and German respectively. Bilingual cooperation relied quite strongly on translation in the devising and rehearsal process. Within that process, translation was conceived of from the outset as a collaborative activity – and a collaborative responsibility. While translation accountability was sometimes regarded as an unwanted or uncomfortable responsibility by the participants, it also holds the potential to become a vehicle for authority in the co-creative process. Moreover, the communication choices made by the participants clearly went beyond pragmatic concerns: they frequently reflected existing linguistic asymmetries. Or, in other words, German dominated the rehearsal room. These initial findings about communication choices suggest interesting parallels with other bilingual theatre workshops, such as Michael Richardson’s (Heriot-Watt University) investigations into BSL-English theatre. These will be presented as part of a comparative study at the upcoming conference of the International Association for Translation and Intercultural Studies (IATIS) in Hong Kong:

Pfeiffer, K., and Wurm, S., ‘(Un)Performing Barriers: A comparative  study of bilingual theatre in two inter-cultural spaces’, paper to be presented at 6th IATIS Conference, 3-6 July 2018, Hong Kong

Curious about Čojč and Like/Hate? Meet the participants and watch the project vlogs here: https://www.like-hate.com. Two of seven performances in Passau and Pilsen are also available as a livestream on the Čojč Land Network Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/cojcface/.

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Performance: Like/Hate 
Photographer: Valentina Eimer
Photo taken on 25 September 2017 in Passau