When I first started working in drama 15 or so years ago, inclusive theatre was more or less left to specialised theatre groups.
Now, however, I’m finding more and more mainstream companies that want to be inclusive and are taking active steps to being so. And it’s not just about booking interpreters for shows and installing stagetext – as invaluable those services are. More companies seem to be reaching out to Deaf professionals, consulting with Deaf artists and taking a genuine interest in integrating British Sign Language into their work.
An example of this Scuffed Shoes, a physical theatre company I was recently invited to work with. They employed Sarah Gatford, a BSL interpreter, and myself to work on their show Do As I Say Not As I Do. Featuring dance and drama, it was their intention to also fuse sign language within the production.
With the piece being performed by two hearing artists who had zero experience and very little understanding of BSL in general, it was a steep learning curve for all. I particularly enjoyed working with the actors on a scene where they are listening and lip-syncing to various songs on the radio. Bearing in mind that a deaf audience may not know what the songs were, it was a mammoth task to visually convey songs by Whitney Houston, The Killers, Marvin Gaye and more.
My time with this company reminded me first hand that as Deaf artists, we have unique skills to offer the acting world – skills which would benefit many.
Theatre directors in general should realise that emphasising visual aspects and being actively inclusive to deaf audiences should not only be for certain projects that “deaf people and BSL” are pigeon holed into.
Speaking to Jonny and Fern, the founders and performers in Scuffed Shoes, I was thrilled to find out that they also agree. Read on for an exclusive interview with them here…
Hi Jonny & Fern, can you tell our Limping Chicken readers a bit about yourselves?
I studied dance at the University of Northampton, graduating in 2014 and since then I have been working as freelance artist in the Midlands, as well as being one half of Scuffed Shoes!
I studied Drama Studies at De Montfort University, returning to do a Master’s Degree in Arts, and during that time was also working as a freelance Actor and Facilitator, I now operate as Community and Education Manager at the Lichfield Garrick Theatre, as well as being the other half of Scuffed Shoes Theatre.
The company itself came from a series of workshops we had organised in order to share our skills with each other, Fern wanted to develop her acting skills, and I wanted to learn how to create dance. The work that we developed during the workshops quickly snowballed into something we were both incredibly excited to work on and that work has since become Do As I Say, Not As I Do, our first show. The driving force of Scuffed Shoes is storytelling, both Fern and I had expressed frustrations with narratively incoherent Dance pieces, and with very static Drama performances, and so we found ourselves determined to develop a methodology of working that had both Drama and Dance in the companies toolkit, available to use the best option for expressing the story in that moment.
Very soon Scuffed Shoes will be finishing it’s first ever national tour! We have been touring our work Do As I Say, Not As I Do to a number of D/deaf clubs around the Midlands area, which has been great fun, and a fantastic opportunity for us to show off our work!
Very exciting! So, what were the reasons for the show Do as I Say Not as I Do incorporating sign/visual elements?
Fern A key part of our ethos from the very start was that we wanted to make Dance/Theatre that was accessible in its form and content for anyone.
Jonny: I was always adamant that I wanted to make a Dance/Theatre performance that my Dad would enjoy and choose to go to!
Fern: The show is made up of about 80% movement and 20% text, and as time went on we found the text was incredibly important to contextualise the movement for people who might not be dance literate. Though the performance had text and dance, we found that it also often sat in the middle ground of physical mime and comic movement.
Jonny: We were in a meeting after having shared a 20 minute version of our work at a number of scratch nights, and I said to Fern `Wouldn’t it be cool if we actually turned our gesture and mime into BSL` and it had turned out that for the past week Fern had been thinking the same thing!
Fern: I think it probably felt too ambitious for either of us to even bring it up at first as neither of us had any signing experience.
Jonny: But being young and perhaps a little overconfident, we decided that after suggesting it, there really wasn’t any going back, as to ignore the possibility of incorporating the sign and visual elements into the show would be directly going against our ethos of creating performance that was accessible for everyone. We quickly developed our motto of `every show the same` with the idea that the show was inclusive enough that anyone can come along and watch the show on any given night, rather than having their choices limited by when a theatre will hire an interpreter.
Fern: It’s difficult enough to find time to see performances, without having to wait for specific shows, and sometimes missing out on shows entirely!
How did the process work, then?
Jonny: The process began with Fern and I acknowledging that this was a topic that we knew very little about, and so were not about to declare that we knew best how to go about approaching this. I asked Neil Reading at the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton if he knew anyone who might be able to operate as a consultant with us on the project, and he recommended the incredibly talented Sarah Gatford.
Fern: Who is fantastic.
Jonny: I set up a meeting with Sarah, and she also asked if it was alright if she brought her friend Rebecca Withey
Fern: Who is also excellent.
(Thanks 😉 )
Jonny: she told me that Rebecca was a D/deaf performer and Journalist. The first meeting was very much pitching the idea that we had of translating the entire show into BSL.
Fern: Which Sarah and Rebecca quickly made it clear that in no way was this going to be possible for people who have never attempted signing before and that it also was simply not the best way of going about making the show D/deaf Inclusive.
Jonny: From that I asked them if they would be interested in us hiring them to show us what they felt was the right way to go about doing this, and we all signed on to a Research and Development Project together!
Fern: The first week of working together was very much a week of two parts, we would show the choreography and text that we had to Rebecca, Sarah and our Consultant Director Fran Richards, and then we’d work as a group to change the mime that was already there into sign, or other visual storytelling movements to make sure that the situations and story were clear. As the week went on we found that as a group we were establishing a visual language that really appealed to us, and thankfully appealed to anyone who dropped in to visit our open rehearsals! The second part of the week was very much an induction into D/deaf culture and what it meant for us to enter that world.
Jonny: Learning about D/deaf culture was something I actually found very frightening. I felt myself constantly terrified about getting things wrong (which we inevitably did) and causing offence (which is entirely possible), and Sarah and Rebecca did an amazing job of calming I think both of us down, and encouraging us that it was ok to get things wrong, as long as we were working hard to get things right!
Fern: It was especially nerve-wracking sharing that with a few of Rebecca’s D/deaf friends who came along to our rehearsals to have a watch of what we were up to, as at that time we still weren’t 100% sure that what we were doing was working.
Jonny: It’s always been a policy of Scuffed Shoes that we have an open door policy on rehearsals, and that anyone who is interested in our work is welcome to drop in and have a look, which can be un-nerving when you’re not yet confident in the material you are making!
Fern: Since that point whenever the work is being rehearsed or being sent out on tour, we always bring Sarah and Rebecca back into the room, not only to tidy up any visual elements that have gotten sloppy, but also to continue to develop the visual language of the show. It’s been great that even now after we have `finished` the making of the show, we are still having the opportunity to develop and improve it each time it is performed.
Did anything surprise you about making dance theatre more visual?
Fern: Yes! It has made our show so much better. It was exciting finding new ways to express ourselves physically.
Jonny: It really did simply increase the quality of the work that we were making. We were already working with movement, and we then found that adding this extra layer of precision and clarity to the storytelling made it not only inclusive, but clearer and more enjoyable for anyone who was watching.
Fern: It was really useful for the acting side of the performance, it meant that we had to be incredibly clear with our faces and gestures, there was no room for ambiguity.
Jonny: We found ourselves saying at the end of the process that it `felt more like our show than it did before`, and that was an incredibly exciting, and rewarding, feeling.
That’s great! So, what would you say were your greatest challenges when adapting the work for a deaf audience?
Fern: Although both of us are movers-
Jonny: Some of us more than others!
Fern: We actually found working with our music was a difficult one for us. Having it pointed out to us how important it was to have a visual indication that music was playing meant we then had to tackle the task of how, even in still, dramatic moments, do we maintain the beat physically for our audience.
Jonny: Building the scene that takes place listening to the radio in the car was a particularly challenging scene, as in it’s first iteration it was very much a scene about listening and responding to popular songs that people had a relationship with, and figuring out how to convey that to an audience visually, being unable to necessarily point at exactly what song was playing was a difficult thing to get our heads round. It did however turn out for the best as it really meant that we were pushing the story of the 8 hour journey, rather than creating a funny skit around music that it perhaps could have ended up being.
Fern: Certain habits that had established between us during the making of the show very quickly had to be ironed out as well! Sarah and Rebecca were both constantly having to tell us to move closer together as our audience would not be able to tell when the dialogue was passing between us otherwise.
Jonny: I think on a less practical level as well there was a mental barrier perhaps at the very beginning. There was a lot to get our heads around, immersing ourselves in a culture that we knew very little about had the effect of making you feel 10 years old again. From that real lack of knowledge about the cultural sphere we were now working in we had to trust Sarah and Rebecca a great deal with our play. We felt at this point already that we had made something that very fortunately was working brilliantly at keying in to audiences and was incredibly relatable, and we were very frightened of losing that, and handing that to someone else to adapt it, whilst also learning all about the sphere we were adapting it for, was a lot to take in!
Fern: We couldn’t help but be a little protective over the show before working with Sarah and Rebecca especially the wordy jokes in the piece. These did change however we didn’t feel we had to make any compromises. The show still had wit but just became a little different.
Jonny: One challenge that we are still facing, which I find both very interesting and a little sad, is that every time we talk about the work we do as a company to Hearing people who might be interested in the show, or work in the industry, there is always a definitive shift in the way our company is considered, where we are often pigeonholed as `D/deaf theatre`, and it is assumed that it is not for anyone else at all. It is something that I find very disappointing that in our current climate, making work accessible and inclusive of everyone somehow convinces others that it is not for them, as if everyone is unable to enjoy the same things! Or that visual storytelling with sign integrated cannot be universally enjoyed.
That’s a very good point! Im intrigued though, as you are artists do you feel you’re naturally visual or has this process emphasised that?
Fern: We feel we are quite visual performers but the process has definitely emphasised that. We have learnt you always need to give more with your body language and facial expressions and to be clear on exactly what you are trying to get across to your audience.
Jonny: I think this process has perhaps, rather than emphasising visuals in our art (as we are also working hard to ensure that our performances are audio described as well!), it has taken a natural desire we had to be visual, and honed it into a distinctive style that we are very proud to share with others and call our own.
So pleased to read that! Finally, what is happening next for Scuffed Shoes or what would you like to happen?
Fern: Aha, that is a good question.
Jonny: Well what we are able to tell you is that Do As I Say, Not As I Do will certainly be touring again in the future, this time to Arts Centres around the country. But we are also in the incredibly early stages of deciding what our next project will be, and how we can continue to follow our ethos with it.
Fern: We’re nearly there with it, Jonny just needs to write it at the moment!
Jonny: One thing we are certainly looking to with our next project is continuing to experiment with visual storytelling and the integration of sign into our shows, and one thing we are hoping to develop to with our next project is the opportunity to employ more D/deaf artists, not just as consultants, but potentially as performers as well.
Fern: More than anything, we are keen to keep creating work that really is for everyone.
You can find out more about Scuffed Shoes at https://m.facebook.com/scuffedshoestheatre/?locale2=en_GB or tweet them at @ScuffedShoes_