The Marlowe
Celebrating d/Deaf awareness week with BSL Interpreter Hayley Wiseman

Celebrating d/Deaf awareness week with BSL Interpreter Hayley Wiseman

This d/Deaf Awareness Week (Mon 6-Sun 12 May), we are proud to take a moment to reflect on the work we have been doing to break down some of the barriers and enhance performances for Deaf people in Kent, in particular, our British Sign Language Interpreted performances.

“Without interpreters being provided I would not be able to access theatre, live music, concert or events. When an interpreter is provided I can use their ears as they interpret and change the songs to a visual language. This means deaf people can access the performance and have equality with their hearing peers.” – Phillip, Deaf audience member

Since April 2023, we have welcomed 300 Deaf people who use sign language to a total of 16 shows ranging from drama and family shows to musicals and dance. Even at our pantomime, our stalls were buzzing with excitement from Kent Deaf Children’s Society members who loved watching their charity patron, Phil Gallagher, who starred in Aladdin.

For those who haven’t yet attended a BSL performance at The Marlowe, an interpreter stands on or aside the stage and translates the dialogue, sound effects and music that features in the show, bringing it to life for Deaf audiences through a rich combination of hand gestures, facial expressions and body language.

BSL interpretation isn’t a word-for-word rendition of the script – we convey the meaning and emotion behind what’s being said or sung at the time.

In order to get a closer insight into the fascinating process of putting on a BSL Interpreted performance at The Marlowe, we spoke to professional interpreter Hayley Wiseman, who has interpreted many shows at The Marlowe, including last week’s BSL performance of Shrek The Musical.

Watch our British Sign Language translation of this blog in the video below.

How long have you been a BSL interpreter? What led you to be a BSL interpreter?
I’ve been working as a qualified interpreter for 10 years, but I’ve been learning BSL for 20 years in total. I started learning because I got a job as an administrator for a team working with deaf individuals in the community. I didn’t have any BSL skills at all when I started and, while it wasn’t a requirement for the job, I didn’t realise the majority of the team would be predominantly deaf people. They were very supportive in my learning and got me into introductory courses, and being fully immersed was so useful for me to learn.

It’s a long process to working towards becoming an interpreter, and a really fun one, but I believe it has to be a long process as you have to immerse yourself in the culture – it’s not a language you can just learn from a screen in my personal belief.

What does a BSL interpretation look like?
What we tend to do is embody the characters; whatever they are doing or saying, the mannerisms, the size and physicality of the character – in Shrek The Musical, for example, Shrek is big and burly – all of these things come into play when interpreting a show. Through these, we convey who’s communicating and we can then switch between characters to show who’s saying what line.

Where there are parts in productions like dance breaks, rather than pointing at the stage, you use your eyeline to draw attention to the area of the stage that’s intended to be focused on.

When characters are speaking to each other, I would use mannerisms and take on the form of that character to highlight who’s speaking. BSL interpretation isn’t a word-for-word rendition of the script – we convey the meaning and emotion behind what’s being said or sung at the time. If a line is really short, sometimes you can just give a look even if there are words in the script.

What does the process of preparing for a show look like?
When you receive the script ahead of the show varies depending on the production and some might have little tweaks depending on where they are in the tour. Some people work with just the script but I also like to have a video recording so I can see the actions and mannerisms of the characters to build those into the interpretation. I also like to watch the show beforehand to see how they interact with the audience and see their positioning on the stage so I can make sure I’m facing the right way if there’s a two-way conversation.

The sign names are really interesting because there will be sign names that are established and recognised within the deaf community, or that have been created by production interpreters previously which you can find online and use for continuity.

Sometimes those need to be changed if you have a character that has a very visually distinctive aspect – say a hairstyle – which has inspired the normally used sign, but then in the current production the character has a very different hairstyle so it couldn’t just be used interchangeably. In that case I’ll look at the character as it’s being done now and adapt the sign, which makes it quite a fun task to see what visuals we can pick up from the characters to give them a sign name for that show.

Another example from Shrek The Musical is Princess Fiona with her plait which, as it’s featured in every film and production I’ve seen, is quite a universal sign for her. In this production, Lord Farquaad doesn’t wear the hat. Previously his sign name would’ve been linked to the hat, but his hair is still quite a big feature of his look so that’s what I referenced instead.

What does a performance day look like for you?
Normally we get into the theatre a couple of hours before, which gives me a chance to meet with the production team and find out where my positioning is on the stage. I then go back to the green room to have a moment of calm and to run through bits of the script again. Sometimes you get to meet the cast beforehand, which is helpful to get a bit of familiarity with them.

I then change into an outfit that I specifically choose for each show to try to represent it and make sure it isn’t completely off tangent to what the show’s trying to be. For example, Shrek’s of course very much a fun fairytale story so I wouldn’t want to be dressed all black.

After the show, I unwind in the car on the way home with some music which I like to sing along to. Sometimes when you’re interpreting a show with heavy emotions, it can be quite heavy to sit with because you kind of take on some of it as if it’s your own. So for me, that car ride back is really important to lift off anything that might have been difficult to interpret.

What are your favourite signing moments?
I really love representing robotic characters because you can really get into it and it’s clear who you are. The movement also changes the signs a little bit to keep it authentic to the character, so they’re really fun to do.

In terms of my favourite moment in my interpreting career, it probably has to be the ‘no place like home’ section in The Wizard Of Oz because it was so iconic – the timing had to be spot on for that and it just gave me goosebumps doing it.

In general, what’s the reception been that you’ve received? Have you had any feedback from audiences?
As you walk out of the theatre, people do identify you as the person who had been standing in the corner of the stage. The comments we get are generally positive and people are happy to see we have that provision. A lot of people tell me they’d like to sign, to which I would say ‘Start! It’s never too late.’ So if more people are seeing BSL is being represented and are inspired to learn to sign, that’s brilliant!

What does being a BSL interpreter mean to you?
I feel incredibly lucky and privileged to have this job. It’s definitely not a career I envisaged when I was younger but I feel so privileged to be part of accessible shows that deaf people can attend.

Hayley works for Interpreting Matters, a mother-daughter partnership based in the South East who provide high-quality professional BSL interpreting services. We want to thank Interpreting Matters for supporting us in our mission to make theatre more accessible for Deaf audience members.

We also wanted to thank local d/Deaf support organisations HiKent and BSL Community for collaborating with us and helping us to gain further knowledge on how to improve our accessibility direct from community members themselves.

You can find out our upcoming BSL Interpreted performances by visiting our What’s On page.