Brief Encounter with... Andy Higgins, Sign Language interpreter for theatre.
Date: 1 August 2012
Action on Hearing Loss suggests that as many as 800,000 people in the UK are either severely or profoundly deaf. And yet, whilst the statistics are glaring, few theatre performances offer British Sign Language interpretation for this sizeable minority. What will it take to make theatre truly inclusive, and how can the industry adapt to allow deaf patrons to experience the theatre that they want to, when they want to?
One of the champions of inclusive theatre is Andy Higgins, a professional British Sign Language interpreter who has toured with productions from The Rocky Horror Show to Beauty and the Beast. We spoke to him about the current levels access for deaf theatre-goers, his hopes for the future and the diplomatic difficulties of signing when a Trekkie Monster is in the room...
What kind of service does Vee Limited offer deaf theatre patrons?
Vee Limited was setup in 2003 to provide deaf people with specialist access solutions to theatres and arts venues through the UK. Our aim is to provide information and high quality services for British Sign Language users, both Deaf and Hearing, and their families.
What made you want to get involved with the company?
I wanted to get involved because I felt that information on access performances for Deaf people was sadly lacking. Perhaps consequently, numbers of attendees were dwindling, and I felt I could help to raise awareness and make theatre more accessible.
Do you feel that enough is being done to improve access to theatre for patrons who rely on British Sign Language interpretation?
Well, in a word… no. With the recession, of course, it is hard to provide a quality service within the current financial constraints. Sometimes scripts are delivered to interpreters at the last minute and there’s not always a recording of the show to help prepare.
In Scotland, touring shows are signed by a variety of people. We always advocate using a reliable and regular touring interpreter for a number of straightforward reasons. They know the script well and they can learn the entrances, exits and stage cues to allow Deaf BAL users to fully enjoy visual jokes and those moments of romance, comedy and sadness that come with the magic of theatre.
Local interpreters work hard but they usually only get to see the show twice and then to sign it once. We focus as far as possibly on quality translation and making sure people don’t just watch the interpreter for two hours but get to see the show as well.
Would you say that there availability of signed performances is improving?
Slowly, venues are becoming more committed to advertising the accessible shows. The better it is advertised, the more people will be able to attend. Of course, deaf people can’t always come on any night. If they want to see a show, they normally have to book a ticket well in advance and can’t just read a review an then go to the theatre. They have to arrange their social calendar around what is programmed by venues. And that’s not very helpful to people who are passionate about theatre.
Currently deaf BSL users can only see mid-week shows because most producers will not allow off-peak performances to be signed. This is sad because Deaf people work like everyone else and a late night could mean that they will feel tired the next day at work. A lot of people complain that signed performances don’t happen on a Friday night or at weekends.
It’s hard to find a balance.
Do you ever find resistance from theatres or companies to the service that you offer?
Yes. Some producers are very supportive and don’t approach it with tokenism. Some make a real effort to include the interpreters. Others don’t see the point.
It’s important to make theatre a part of everyone’s life. Giving people the opportunity to attend theatre when it suits them is vital for us to socialise, meet friends, perhaps even life partners, go on dates and share things in common.
What do you think that the presence of a BSL interpreter brings to a production for hearing members of the audience?
For most, it’s something that people like. Occasionally they find it distracting at first but also pricks their curiosity. Recently at a signed performance of Avenue Q, hearing people were laughing at the interpreter because the translation of some of the humour is funny. It’s not something that’s written into the script but it does sometimes bring another layer to the performance.
When I was signing alongside Dame Edna in a pantomime in Wimbledon, she said to BSL users that “he may be your interpreter, but he’s actually my gynaecologist”. This wasn’t scripted and I really had to think on my feet without being rude. Audience members enjoyed that it was not just a joke for the Deaf but it included everybody.
You genuinely seem to be having fun when you’re standing on stage. In which ways does signing for theatre differ from signing generally?
Interpreting theatre is fun! It’s hard work, of course, but fun. There is so much to remember and you need a lot of energy for some shows. You need to interpret music and convey the characterisation of the roles. BSL users need to know which character you are interpreting for, naturally, and that can become complex!
An interpreter’s job is not to merely translate the words in the script to sign but to represent the actors on stage as accurately as possible, conveying a sense of their performance, intonation, volume and presence to deaf theatregoers.
The old adage that “it’s not what you say but the way that you say it” is very important here in getting across an accurate reflection of the speaker or singer. And that takes a lot of effort.
“One Day More”, the final song of the first act of Les Miserables features eight people singing at the one time. You have to build the song in layers for each character and make it explicitly clear which character is speaking.
You’ve recently toured with Starlight Express and Avenue Q. How does it feel to be so close to the action?
Starlight Express was fantastic. The actors were working so hard and I was inches from people whizzing past on roller skates. I had to be in the right place at the right time or there could have been a collision. I was asked to wear roller skates for the signed performance but I politely declined. Well, I was only a few inches from dropping into the pit…
Do you feel that you need to learn lines, like an actor would, or do you sign in response to what you hear the actors say?
You could not just walk on stage and interpret a show well. You need to spend weeks learning the script. A recording is an invaluable tool, too.
Avenue Q’s Trekkie Monster included you in “The Internet is for Porn”. Did you blush?
I loved Trekkie Monster! Whilst Trekkie sang about rude things, I was on stage representing them graphically in sign. I was quite nervous but knew the audience would laugh at both the lyrics and my signs. I like to make sure people go home with a positive impression and comfortable with an interpreters presence on the stage.
Do you think that every performance should be signed, or do you feel that it is acceptable to have an interpreter present for one night of a show’s run?
I think one night of a shows run is fine providing Deaf people have a variety of shows to choose from. Mostly we interpret at plays, musicals and pantomimes. But I think that the availability of interpretation should be widened to allow people to come, to maximise revenue for theatres and have a greater social impact.
If we think about the Edinburgh Fringe festival, it is true to say that the majority of productions will not offer BSL interpretation at any of their performances. Do you feel that small companies have a responsibility to provide BSL interpreters or can financial restraints in the arts justify their absence?
I’m not aware more than ten performances were signed last year. I also know that the Edinburgh International Festival had had refusal from an opera company to provide an interpreter for this year’s festival for “artistic” reasons. It’s a great shame as these theatre goers were completely denied access to something which they were passionate about.
For more information on Vee Limited and the access solutions which they provide for Deaf theatre patrons, visit www.vee.ltd.uk
- by Scott Purvis
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