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.