Over the past 6 months Francesca Millican-Slater and the wider Stories to Tell in the Middle of the Night team have redeveloped this 2016 Birmingham Repertory Theatre Commissioned show.
After a run at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, national touring, and a regional community tour with their partners Birmingham Repertory Theatre and their Sir Barry Jackson Trust tour network, they are really excited to present the work in new forms.
In a first for the team, they collaborated with in-screen Interpreter, Artist and Performer Donna Mullings and myself as BSL Director. Together they worked with interpreter Dan Handscomb to reimagine and reinterpret the Stories for the D/deaf community. Filmed by Rachel Bunce this special set of films will be hosted online and viewed at https://www.storiestotellinthemiddleofthenight.com/
The original pieces from Stories to Tell were performed live by writer & actress Francesca Millican-Slater. These have now been filmed as podcasts to be viewed/heard online and BSL interpretations have been included.
Working on the BSL stories I was delighted by how they feature a hearing actress and a BSL actress on an equal platform. Donna Mullings, who is an acclaimed deaf performer, worked beside Francesca who recited the pieces in English. Yet neither one of them appeared to lead the performances, with both delivering the text simultaneously, merging beautifully in style and pace.
In previous consultancy work I’ve undertaken the BSL translations are usually an ‘add on’, with the interpreter or BSL performer in the corner of a stage/film screen and the hearing actor centre stage. This means the spoken English inevitably directs the pace and style of the performance.
Yet here, it seemed that Donna and Fran were two sides of the same coin, with impeccable timing and great similarities despite the different languages used.
I was employed to translate the English text into BSL and direct Donna’s delivery. Seeing as the auto cue for both performers was in written English, it was of great importance for Donna to have this support as her task was even more complicated given the constant interpretations her brain had to make whilst performing. Exploring a visual or BSL autocue would be a great next step… (suggestions welcome!)
Seeing the written texts come to life in BSL was an absolute joy and it added so much depth to the original pieces. But what made this project reach out to BSL in the first place? I spoke to writer and actress, Francesca Millican-Slater, to find out more.
What inspired you to create podcasts with BSL interpretations?
When we toured Stories to Tell the show I performed at BID as part of the Sir Barry Jackson tour and I was interested and inspired as to how the stories I tell translate into BSL. I worked with two hearing interpreters on the day and it seemed that some of the stories worked for the audience and some of them didn’t and I wanted to investigate this further. We then met Sarah Gatford at East meets West, a theatre conference organised by Little Earthquake that aims to bring together East Midlands and West Midlands Theatre Community. Listening and talking to Sarah really made us (myself and producer Pippa Frith) think about how we integrate accessibility for a Deaf audience at the beginning of a project, as whole part of the project rather than an after thought. Little Earthquake has asked us to make a pledge for our work in the future and this was mine. As our next project was to turn a theatre show into a podcast this seemed like the most challenging but important!
What were you most surprised about during the process of integrating BSL into the work?
We initially approached the idea of turning a podcast into a BSL interpreted video in very naive way; we were going to have a hearing BSL interpreter translate on screen with myself. At this point we thought we were considering a Deaf audience in the initial stages of a project, but we had a lot more to learn.
At every stage we were learning something new, which was both surprising but obvious when we took the time to think and consider. For example learning about the difference between a Deaf BSL presenter and a hearing BSL presenter was a revelation but, of course, makes complete sense. Someone gave us the example of translating from English to Spanish and asked the question would you rather have a first language Spanish speaker translate or English speaker who can speak Spanish? This example is so simple but so useful for a hearing artist in considering BSL translation and presentation.
I think I am most surprised that the way we worked, with the hearing presenter and the Deaf presenter together in an equal focus has not been explored more in a podcast video form and contemporary story telling.
Were there any challenges to working with BSL performers and a BSL director?
I think the challenge ,which stems from that naivety, was not giving enough time. Realising that adapting complex written English into BSL takes time and more time than we had scheduled. Having now worked with Donna and Rebecca I would now approach how I write and put together scripts in a different way and really consider what is interesting and what is at the heart of what I am trying to say in a story. Rebecca also mentioned the idea of a BSL auto cue and how we could run that along side the prompter for myself as the hearing presenter.
Working in the room with Donna and Rebecca was such a pleasure and we needed to ensure we gave enough time for creative conversations, as these were being relayed between Donna, Rebecca and myself through one hearing interpreter. As with all new collaborations there is learning in how everyone works and how you work together, by the end of the day I felt that there was a real understanding and synchronicity and I would have loved to have kept working for the rest of the week! This is not a challenge, as such, but again another part of the learning process.
I think, as an artist, working in any way that might feel different to the practice you have developed, you have to be prepared to challenge your own work and words. I entered into this in the spirit of experimentation and collaboration, so I had to make a lot of edits and cuts into what I thought we might originally do, which could be perceived as challenging but actually I found freeing and exciting.
When I perform it is usually it is just me on stage, or speaking the words for the podcast, I am often ‘directing’ myself in my head, making notes for myself to hit key parts or ensure a particular rhythm. In the filming of these stories, to a certain extent, I am the least important person in the film. This is both interesting and useful for me as a performer-taking a step back, working in time with Donna to ensure that her telling of the stories are the emphasis. When I speak, as a performer, I often use hand gestures and movements so I was in position of keeping my hands still so as not to confuse! I think for the future, especially for filming and with a view to live performance it would be useful to develop a relationship with a BSL hearing director for myself as a performer to work alongside Rebecca to get the most from both the Deaf and hearing presenter. In my own head I was questioning how expressive I should be with my face, what my intention was, so an outside artistic hearing eye that knows BSL would be another creative to have for the future.
What did you think the BSL version of your stories added to the tales, if anything? Did you notice anything different about the stories?
Yes! Working in BSL added a beauty in action and a simplicity into the heart of the stories I was telling. Listening and being part of the conversations that Rebecca and Donna were having where they worked through the intention was behind an action or sentence was incredibly useful. This made me see the stories in a different way than I had before, unpicking what I really meant when I first wrote them. A lot of how I write contains literary flourishes and play with words but in BSL this takes off the ‘dressing’ and reveals the humanity of them.
I learnt that the setting of a scene, where we are, who is there is important for clarity. Types of people that I had written as one sentence descriptions (for example: ‘men in slick suits’) became whole characters with Rebecca and Donna, people that could really be seen in actions and BSL language. As an artist who often works alone in a room, I think this process of understanding and embodying the text is incredibly useful- a tool that could be used in rehearsals rooms for process as well as presentation.
My particular favourite moment was working through ‘Morning Song’ the final story that we filmed. ‘Morning Song’ is almost a poem, an ode to the morning and being awake, even if sleep has been hard to find at night. Watching Rebecca and Donna move through it and find the heart of it, was very moving for me. Its a piece I have performed on my own with just my voice and a sound scape for a hearing audience many, many times. The way I have always performed it is a generalising of grief and heartbreak and a plea to continue being awake even if it’s hard. Rebecca and Donna made it personal, a story behind themes my words were hinting at. There became a person behind the words I had written and it made me view my own words in a different way while still being the intention of what I had written.
Would you like to create any further work with BSL, if so – what would you like to see?
Yes! I think it will be interesting to gather feedback from a Deaf Community and see if these stories have worked, if they are interesting and if there is a desire for more of these Stories. I’d be interested in other podcasts, particularly narrative ones, being filmed and performed in this way. I am also interested in live performance and how I can consider this and an equality in BSL presentation as I go forward.
How do you think theatre companies and artistic creators in general can be encouraged to be more accessible? What do you think is holding them back, and what would you advise?
I think there are two clear factors within the small scale theatre companies or performers; fear and money. I ,as a hearing artist, have a lot more to learn about making work that is accessible and integrates with BSL. There is a fear of offending or making mistakes, or that your work might be simply not interesting enough. For companies or artists I would advise accepting that ‘I probably will make mistakes, say the wrong thing or use the wrong word’ but that there can be space for discussion and understanding, and as a hearing artist mistakes are for you to learn from, own and work through. Ask questions even if you feel that you might look or feel stupid. As with all artistic work it will not be to everyone’s taste- it might not be interesting enough to some people!
I think within the small scale theatre community there is not always thought about accessibility from the starting point of a building a new project, it is something that is added as an after thought or a box to tick, though there are companies that do consider this from the outset. Often this can be to do with financial constraints, working in the way we have for this project comes at a cost. In the independent theatre world this can seem like another cost to add to a growing tight budget. But if that costing is always considered as simply part of the project, like a designer or a dramaturge then it cements a culture of accessibility from the starting point.
As with ourselves, we didn’t really know enough about BSL so we didn’t ask, until conversations were brought up in spaces such as East meets West. I think continuing to have those conversations in the wider theatre community will help, with people such as Sarah Gatford making those connections and bridges. I also advise going to see work, larger companies and producing houses are making efforts for integrated accessibility in performance and seeing this on a large scale can help to inform smaller scale companies and individual artists.
We, myself and my producer have learnt a lot from this process, and will still continue to learn as we try to implement this thinking in new projects and ways of working.
Finally – have you learnt any BSL ?!
Pippa made her sign name ‘Dancing/ Cheese’ and I am still working on mine – I think there will be something about wine (which I made sure I learnt!) and party or dancing. I also learnt plastic cup, which I really enjoyed and ‘breathing’ and ‘sleep’ as well as ‘double denim’!
The BSL launch night takes place on Tuesday 28th May at Birmingham Repertory Theatre. A BSL interview with myself and Donna will be featured and also available online afterwards.
Be sure to follow http://www.storiestotellinthemiddleofthenight.com
More details for Francesca’s work can be found via http://www.francescamillicanslater.co.uk
Details for the producer Pippa Frith can be found at http://www.pippafrith.co.uk
Images taken by Stories to Tell in The Middle of the Night