How do you tell a joke in British Sign Language? Jeni Draper on restaging Bryony Lavery’s ‘Frozen’

Neil Fox-Roberts, Mike Hugo, Sophie Stone, Deepa Shastri

What are the challenges of reinterpreting a well known play through the medium of BSL? What creative opportunities does it through up? And most importantly – how do you tell a joke in sign language? Jeni Draper, director, actress and founder of The Fingersmiths Ltd, offers an insight into the process of staging Bryony Lavery’s Frozen, at the Albany Tuesday 18 February (11am & 7.30pm) and Wednesday 19 February (7.30pm). Find out more here.   

I read Frozen a few years ago and mentally filed it as a fantastic play that would translate into BSL brilliantly. It starts as a series of monologues from the 3 characters. I knew immediately that I would like to direct this with a double cast, telling the stories in both British Sign language and spoken English.  Not only does this fulfill the fingersmiths aim to present both languages on stage, but we could also give a double whammy to our audiences seeing 2 mothers grieving over a missing child, 2 child abusers and 2 psychiatrists. The theatrical opportunities were endless…….grief manifests in many ways and with 2 actresses we could explore this; 2 men working together to lure a child into a van resonates with the awful truth of paedophile rings. I realised there was potential for Frozen to work on many levels in an audience’s mind.

It is beautifully written and the very powerful emotions are explored both subtly and in their most raw state. When this is translated into a theatrical version of BSL the story telling becomes very visual and visceral. Not without its challenges though! Agnetha, the psychiatrist in the play, presents a lecture about the brain; what different parts of the brain do, what happens if an area doesn’t develop fully. We needed help to understand this and how to translate this into BSL so that a non academic audience would understand. A few emails later and I was in touch with Dr Sally Austen (a clinical psychologist specialising in working with Deaf and disabled people with mental health issues). Not only does Sally sign, she lives and works in Birmingham, loves theatre and was more than happy to support us. A godsend!

Sally spent a day with the company explaining about the development of the brain, her day-to-day work, anecdotes to support Deepa Shastri and Sophie Stones’ character research for Agnetha and generally becoming an honorary fingersmith. By the end of the day we were reeling with information but definitely clearer as to how the brain works. We also worked with Judith Jackson who is a BSL linguist specialising in theatre translation. Jean St Clair was at school with Judith, she had taught Neil Fox at Reading Uni on their Theatre for the Deaf training course and she was my assessor when learning BSL stage 3 back in the day, who put me through the mill but I thank her immensely for this. Judith has worked on every fingersmiths play; her insight is essential. Although I have been signing for more years than I care to say in print and I work as a sign language interpreter as well as a theatre director, my first language is still English and things get missed. Judith still puts me through the mill….I clearly enjoy this! Theatre is a collaborative process and I have loved the learning whilst developing Frozen.

We face one more translation issue. Deaf jokes are very different to hearing jokes.Bryony Lavery has written a joke in the play which is based on word play. The topic of the joke is relevant to the play, the execution is short and sharp and although not eliciting a belly laugh, where it occurs in the plot does allow the audience to respond. This joke does not translate well into BSL! Deaf jokes are brilliant. The best joke tellers take on multiple characters, vary the speed of delivery, can present exact locations in a fraction of a second and by and large they are long. Now, I am not particularly interested in simultaneous translation all through the play as that is boring but at this particular point of the play we can’t be miles apart in our 2 languages. Endless conversations and joke telling ensued (and they call rehearsal ‘work’!) and we have found our equivalent. It is funny, it is shorter than normal, the topic is relevant to the story. Job done. I clearly can’t tell you the joke here or you won’t come and see the play but you can ask me in the bar after or better still, ask one of the Deaf cast to re-tell it and I’ll get my interpreting hat on and voice over for you! There are a few moments in the play when sign language interpreters will have a different experience to anyone else in the audience and this is one of them. It messes with your head seeing and hearing different things but i reckon if I can cope so can my peers.

Working with Bryony has been amazing too. From day one of our R&D at National Theatre Studios she understood fingersmiths style and aims and has been with us ever since. This production has some new lines she has written for us as I wanted to set the play now and some things have changed since the play was first presented at the Rep in 1998 e.g. most American states use lethal injection rather than the electric chair now and a mention of a ‘nicam digital television’ doesn’t have the same impact now as a ‘Samsung 43″ plasma television with wide colour enhancer plus’ so thank you Bryony for the additions.

One of the reasons for wanting to have some 21st century information in the script was to reinforce the topicality of the issues of child abduction and killing. Whilst rehearsing we were reading about the little boy in Edinburgh who was missing and then found dead. There was more information about Madeleine McCann’s disappearance and of course the investigations following the revelations about Saville are ongoing. It sadly feels very timely to be presenting Frozen in 2014. It is an extraordinary play and we want to support anyone in our audience who is affected by any of the issues. We are very grateful to have support from NSPCC who have created a take away postcard with information about their services, which will be available to every audience member to take away. At every venue we will have NSPCC helpline counsellors available to sign post to local services and on Dr Sally Austen’s website there is a list of services nationally that are accessible for Deaf people. We have volunteer interpreters front of house to be with NSPCC staff and we have a range of post show discussions too.

We hope you enjoy the show. Do tell us what you think; we are a new company and need to know the good the bad and the ugly, so let us know please either through this theatre, on our website or come and have a chat in the bar after the show!

Jeni Draper, director, actress and founder of The Fingersmiths

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