Bringing Stories of Women to Life

Bringing Stories of Women to Life

Top of Mind with Julie Rose

Foreign Diplomacy, Electoral College, Detecting Dyslexia

Episode: Foreign Diplomacy, Electoral College, Detecting Dyslexia

  • Oct 28, 2019 10:00 pm
  • 16:44 mins

Guest: Alison Booth, Professor of English at the University of Virginia Women are underrepresented in biographies and other historical works. But part of the problem is that thousands of accounts of women have simply been forgotten. Alison Booth has been tracking them down to bring these stories to light and make them accessible. It’s called the Collective Biographies of Women Project. TRANSCRIPT: How Effective is Sign Language Interpreted Performance for Deaf Audiences? Ciara Hulet: You're listening to Top of Mind, I'm Ciara Hulet. Attendance at live theater performances by deaf people is low and for good reason. The costumes, makeup, set, and lights are all part of the full sensory experience of theater. But that's lost on those who have to watch an interpreter off to the side the entire time. Is it possible for a deaf person to have an equal theater experience as someone who isn't deaf? Michael Richardson just completed his doctoral research in how to make theatre more accessible for the deaf community. He joins me on the line now from Malta. Welcome. Dr. Michael Richardson: Hello. Nice to be here. CH: Can you describe for us the experience at a live theater performance for a deaf person? MR: In the context we're talking about, with an interpreter who's off to the side of the stage, it's kind of like watching tennis. Trying to focus on two players, but needing to watch them both at the same time. Because essentially most of what the interpreter can do is translate the spoken language into sign language. But of course when you go to see a show, as you say, there's so much more information coming from the stage. Costumes, physical action, that all adds to the plot. And for a deaf person that means they need to try and focus on both those things at the same time, which is clearly not possible. CH: Yeah that seems like it'd be so hard to be looking at the stage and then back to the interpreter, then back to the stage, back to the interpreter. It seems like it wouldn't be enjoyable at all. MR: Yeah and in the research I did one of my participants said that you just have to guess which is the most useful to be watching at any given time. And that he estimated that he probably overall got 50% of the information and then he had to fill in the gaps by guesswork. CH: Do deaf people have to come in knowing the story? Have to come in prepared to have a good experience? MR: Well, this is one of the things that they said, that for deaf audiences the more they know in advance the better it is. And I also interviewed some hearing people and they said the less they knew in advance the better it would be because they'd have that sense of suspense. But then there's an additional problem there, that if the show they go to see is based on a written language script, they might not have particularly good skills in reading that language. So then it's quite hard to prepare. CH: And these interpreters off to the side, are they in costume? Are they actors or are they just signing the words? MR: What you said last. Certainly in the UK, the manner in which interpreters are chosen to do the job doesn't match the way actors are cast in any way. So usually there's a small pool of interpreters and they just volunteer if they're free to work on that evening. In comparison to the director casting the actors with auditions and all the rest of it. And they typically wear what they would wear for a conference or a community interpreting assignment, which is all black. So the attempt to match what's going on the stage is really limited. CH: So they don't even rehearse with the cast then? MR: Not at all, no. Usually the typical model is that they would see the show once or twice, and then obviously preparation in their own time. And then in their own little space off to the side they would deliver this, what is essentially a translation of just the words. CH: This experience for the deaf person with watching an interpreter off to the side and then, like you said, kind of having to fill in the gaps, would you still call that theater? MR: Not really. It's a kind of administrative process for providing something that theaters think offers access. But usually the people who work in the theater don't use sign language, so they are not in a position to assess it. CH: When did you first realize this was a problem? MR: I was running a big youth theater organization and a residential deaf school relocated to where I was working. And deaf teenagers started to come to our workshops and then take part in performances and we tried to work out. Well, the first thing we did was we did some performances with the interpreting in this traditional model that we're talking about now. And it was really obvious it didn't work. So then we started to think about other ways of doing it. CH: And what are those other ways that you've been researching to make this a better experience for the deaf community? MR: Well, if you stick with interpreters, then you really need to move the interpreter into the overall frame of what's happening on the stage. CH: Up on the stage? You'd put the interpreters there? MR: Yeah, deaf people have said to me that the interpreters don't need to be right next to the actors, although that is one way of doing it. The problem when the interpreter is way off to the side is you have to move your head and that completely takes your attention away from what's on the stage. So what they said was if the interpreter is close enough that you only have to flick your eyes back and forwards, then that's much easier to follow everything. CH: Do you think though, that the audience that isn't deaf would be annoyed at that? Do you think it would ever happen? MR: This is a really interesting one. The general feeling from hearing people when they sat down to discuss it was that if the interpreter was on the stage, it would be less distracting because it's in the same space. And what happens when you're watching something that has lots going on, it's that you're your brain chooses which things you want to take information from. There's a really good clip online, I think it's on YouTube, of a basketball game. And it asks you, I'm going to ruin this now for anybody who wants to watch it, but it asks you to count how many baskets are scored, if that's the correct expression. So you're really focusing on the ball and you don't notice that somebody in a gorilla costume walks across the basketball courts. CH: Yes I have seen this. MR: You've seen that? So that principle leads you to stop watching the interpreter. CH: They just kind of evade into the background, you forget they're there. MR: If you don't need them, you don't pay them any attention. CH: Do you think it would ever be a good idea to actually put the interpreter into the scene and kind of have them, you know, following the actor around and maybe have them in costume? Because still, even if they're on stage, the deaf person is still going to miss a lot of things if they're watching the interpreter. MR: I think if it's interpreted, the ideal situation is that the interpreter is costumed, they're on stage, they're rehearsed into the production. Or they're deaf characters within the show who are providing a version in sign language. And there is some of this work happening and especially in the last year or two. It's happening more and more, but it demands a completely different approach. Lots of people need to think differently about how they work if that's going to be made possible. CH: And you'd have to have a very specific audience, I think, because that takes it to a whole 'nother level of people, I would imagine, getting annoyed at that for sure. Because I think that wouldn't fade into the background as much as maybe having just an interpreter on stage. MR: At the Globe Theatre in London, where they do all the Shakespeare plays in a style that's close to the original. They've had two deaf actors in the company in the last year. In fact, I think in the last two years. And it's been really popular because the physicality of the signing adds something to the overall emotional response that you get as an audience member. CH: So if they have an actor that is playing that part and signing it, do they have somebody else? Do they have like the words in the background on a screen or something to let other people know what that person is signing it? MR: In that case, no. And I think it's not that difficult to follow in the context of a conversation. Obviously, a really long monologue, then that's another issue. But there are ways that you can play with captions and the way that actor's question and answer each other in a way that you get all the information across or enough information across to everybody. CH: And speaking of captions and maybe words in the background, how come they haven't done that in the past for the deaf people watching? Just have the words up on a screen behind so they don't have to have an interpreter. MR: So sometimes this does happen. But sadly, because of decisions that were made a couple of hundred years ago, 150 years ago. The manner in which deaf children have been educated has not encouraged language development. And so lots of adult deaf people whose first language is sign language, don't have particularly good skills at reading written language. And so, if in their own time they were reading it and they could understand it then that might be fine. But the speed that it's going at in a show, it becomes very tiring and then they just give up. CH: Are there any shows that have been done, that the cast is completely composed of deaf people? MR: That's a really, really big tradition in the deaf community of deaf theatre. Deaf storytelling and then that formalized into deaf theatre. But it's not often seen in mainstream hearing theaters. In the States, there's been the National Theater of the Deaf, which was founded I think in the late 60s. But all the actors were deaf and they toured. I think it's the only theater company in the US that's toured to every single state. And at the beginning, that was really well-funded. The problem now is that, that kind of work is very niche and it's hard to get funding. There's a company, I think they're in Los Angeles, "Deaf West." And they had a show that was really successful. They used deaf and hearing actors, but they were invited to do a transfer to Broadway and they really struggled to find the money. I think they had to do crowd funding in the end. CH: So we talked about one solution would be to put the interpreters up on the stage, so that you just have to flick your eyes instead of having to turn your head for the deaf people. MR: But, before you before you move on, then that does raise a lot of questions about training those people so they do also look like actors. It wouldn't just be a case of moving them onto the stage, it would trigger other requirements in terms of skilling them up to be able to do that. CH: So they couldn't just be any old interpreter, they'd have to be specially trained to interpret for theater. MR: Yeah, I mean, and you've hit the nail on the head. I think it requires particular skills in performing and quite high level translation from a theater script, in the same way that there's legal interpreting and medical interpreting and things like that. CH: Do you think it also needs to go to another level of not just interpreting, but they also need to be doing some acting as well to get more engaging? MR: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. Because the traditional model of interpreting, which is gradually changing, but the traditional model is that the interpreter aims to be as invisible as possible in the interaction, which clearly doesn't work if you're going to be on stage with actors. CH: So there's moving them onto the stage for one and then having them specially trained, having them act. Is there anything else that you think needs to be done to make this a better experience for deaf people? MR: I think there's a general point to be made about theaters, well two points to be made about theaters. Just spending a little time thinking about it from the deaf perspective, and that will trigger two things. One is they will more actively consider putting deaf theater on the stage occasionally and interpreting it into spoken language. And putting deaf stories onto stage because we all like to go to see shows where we can engage with what's going on because we identify with it. So that would be one thing, but also it would create, taking the deaf perspective a bit more would shift some of the activities that happened before and after performances to make them more accessible to deaf people. And then deaf people might feel more comfortable walking into mainstream theaters and more confident that the experience they'll have will be a good one. CH: Do you think that will ever happen though? If it's, you know, the deaf community is a minority population, a fraction of the audience for these theaters. Do you think they would ever really fully take into consideration the needs of these people? MR: I think when it's done well, deaf people do buy into it. And the deaf community, because it is so small, they're very willing to travel to things where they know they'll have good language access. And then if lots of deaf people go, then they create a little, we call it "deaf space," they create "deaf space" where there's lots of signing going on. So, there is a potential, let's be blunt about it, there's a potential box office return for doing it well. But one of the issues in theaters is that staff turnover quite quickly in theater administration, especially at the levels in the hierarchy who were given responsibility for access. So that means even if you do train somebody and support somebody to develop the skills to make it work well, they might not be there for very long and then you have to start again. And deaf people just get frustrated with having to re-educate the relevant department and individuals in theaters. CH: Michael Richardson just completed his doctoral research in how to make theatre more accessible for the deaf community. Thank you so much for your time today, really appreciate it. MR: My pleasure. CH: I'm Ciara Hulet, this is Top of Mind.