Can you tell us a little about deafinitely theatre and how it started?
During my 10 year career as a freelance actor, I realised there weren’t many opportunities for Deaf people to be in leadership roles. There was also a huge lack of Deaf writers. Most of the plays I was involved in as an actor weren’t really fully accessible for Deaf audience members and the stories were never being told from a Deaf perspective. I saw a gap in the market and decided to set up Deafinitely in 2002 to centre BSL as the main language being used on stage. I was very lucky to meet a woman called Jo Hemmant who worked for the Arts Council of England. Jo encouraged me to apply for an Arts Council Project Grant. We were successful and thus our first show was created. We continued to apply for these grants over the next two years and were lucky enough to perform our shows to full audiences. After this period of applying for individual grants, we decided to apply to become an NPO (National Portfolio Organisation). We got this funding is 2005, which led to very a busy year as I was also pregnant with my first daughter at the time!
Being the first deaf launched and deaf led theatre company, is this something you believe can motivate deaf people to get into theatre?
When we first set up Deafinitely, the pool of Deaf, Hard of Hearing and Hearing actors who can sign was very small and most of these actors used sign supported English as opposed to BSL. It’s incredible to see how much this has changed and evolved over the past 20 years. The number of Deaf and Hard of Hearing actors has grown extensively and I believe there are now roughly 100 Deaf actors in the UK, which is amazing and I’d like to think Deafinitely has had an impact on this growth over the years.
Having said this, there is still a long way to go and I’d like to see more Deaf writers emerging and we need more Deaf directors too as there are still so few. I’d say there’s maybe 5 professional Deaf directors at the moment and I know there are more people out there who would love the opportunity to direct but these opportunities are still so rare for the Deaf community.
What do you think needs to change within the theatre industry to make it more inclusive for deaf people?
I think one of the biggest issues in our industry is the high turnover of staff at theatres. People tend to stay at their job for about 5-7 years before moving on to another venue. This means that it’s very hard for theatres to sustain a strong relationship with the Deaf community. For example, if a theatre has an access officer who moves on after 5 years, they then have to employ a new one and more often than not the person they hire doesn’t have a huge amount of experience working the the Deaf community. This means we have to start building a relationship with them from scratch and it feels like going back to square one. This is also because the previous access officer doesn’t handover properly when they leave. They spend 5 years creating policies and building relationships and then the new person has to do it all over again themselves. I think that theatres need a nationwide standard policy that all venues can use as a guide and adhere to. At the moment this doesn’t exist.
I also think that the theatre industry is still involving Deaf people in the wrong way. More often than not, ensembles are mainly made up of hearing actors with one or two Deaf actors thrown in and this doesn’t always work.
Having worked in this industry for 40 years, I have seen this happen time and time again and it’s frustrating because I think people think including Deaf actors is a new phenomenon and that it’s amazing and “woke” to do so but for me this is nothing new and has been happening for over 40 years. What I’d really like to see is Deaf actors working with Hearing actors who can sign. This means there is no language barrier in rehearsals and everyone can communicate fluently and collaborate smoothly. That’s really what the Deaf community needs. We need more Deaf-led stories told from a Deaf perspective. At the moment, the opportunities are tiny. Maybe you have one Deaf actor in the show or a Deaf associate director or a Deaf BSL consultant but that’s it. It’s definitely grown a bit in the last 40 years but not enough and I’d say there is still a long way to go.
So in terms of what needs to change, I’d say the main things are we need more Deaf writers and directors and the theatre industry needs to be brave and bold enough to employ Deaf people in leadership roles. The tokenistic approach of just putting a couple of Deaf actors in a majority hearing cast is not good enough. Also hearing directors need to be aware that you can’t teach hearing actors to sign during rehearsals it’s impossible! They need to employ actors who are already fluent in BSL so that rehearsals can run much more smoothly. These changes would see a hugely positive knock on effect on the industry as a whole.
What advice would you give to people with a hearing loss wanting to get into theatre?
So first of all I never use the term “hearing loss” . I say Deaf or Hard of Hearing. “Hearing loss” has negative connotations as the word “loss” implies you have lost something, which is not how we should be viewing it. We should be projecting the positive side of being Deaf to ourselves and out to the industry. So I would rephrase the question to what advice I would give to Deaf and Hard of Hearing people who want to get into theatre.
I find it hard to give advice because my journey into the industry was a long time ago through the London Deaf Drama Group, which was an amateur dramatics group meaning it wasn’t professional. I was young and I had such a great time I decided to turn professional. However, the London Deaf Drama Group was part of a Deaf Club. In the old days, Deaf Clubs were all over England and you could get into drama there and potentially your school if it had a drama department. But Deaf Clubs have now largely shut down, which means Deaf Drama clubs have too so opportunities for young Deaf people to get into drama are very scarce.
This is why Deafinitely set up a youth theatre back in 2011 so that young people have that opportunity again. This is for young people aged 14-21 and if you’re interested in theatre you can apply for our summer school and/or our youth theatre. Young people need that exposure to theatre and that is what we provide.
Also, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow has a 3 year BA course in Performance in British Sign Language and English and so any young people who want a full time training can apply there.
I’d also recommend getting in touch with BSL Zone as they are always looking for Deaf actors to be involved in their short films.
It’s worth contacting us at Deafinitely and we can add you to our regular news letter, which often contains opportunities that you can apply for.
Social media is really good for this too so I’d recommend having a look on there as well.
It has been over 10 years now since you presented the first full length Shakespeare play in British Sign Language at the globe. How did that happen and what do you remember about it?
This was one of the best experiences of my life and I have such fond memories of that time. However, it is disappointing that there was no follow up afterwards. It’s a real shame this was just a one off. Again, I think this hearkens back to what I was saying earlier about high turnover of staff – the Globe has had a complete change of senior creative team since we did that show.
At the time, their producer Tom Bird was putting on a festival called Globe to Globe where he wanted to celebrate 37 Shakespeare plays all in different languages. You had plays in French, Spanish, Italian and so on and one of Tom’s colleagues said “why not do one in BSL?”. He then contacted us and it was the first time ever a Shakespeare play would be performed entirely in BSL at The Globe. We asked if we needed to include voiceover or captions and he said no – the whole point was that it must be entirely in our language. I was flabbergasted – it was an unmissable opportunity. It was incredible to be given permission to do a show entirely in BSL and it ended up being in the top four shows of the festival in terms of popularity and ticket sales out of 37! We then came back in 2014 with A Midsummer Night’s Dream which was a huge success again. However, Tom Bird has now left and we’ve not had the opportunity to go back since.
That show had a huge impact on the actor’s careers too. Some of them are now hugely successful because of what we achieved with that show. Many of them still say it’s the best experience they’ve ever had and I couldn’t have done it without them. They were all highly skilled and so brave and bold to be part of the first fully BSL production at The Globe ever!
What’s next for you? Have you got any new projects on the horizon?
We are also creating a new production for next year, which will tour the UK but you’ll have to wait for more information on that! We will be announcing it soon!
“Marking International Sign Language Day 2023, Deafinitely Theatre presents a special charity fundraising performance of V’s acclaimed The Vagina Monologues in British Sign Language, spoken English and captions, directed by Paula Garfield”
Purchase Tickets here