Sign of the times - adapting My First Play: A Midsummer Night's Nap for BSL users

Posted by The Garage Monday 22 July 2019, 16:34
The cast of My First Nap sign A Midsummer Night's Dream while Tricia, centre, signs the word nap

Tricia Thompson has earned the title of hardest working woman on stage during The Garage and All-In Productions’ BSL interpreted performances of My First Play: A Midsummer Night’s Nap.

Staging Shakespeare is tricky. It’s more poetry than dialogue, most lines are laced with multiple meanings and the language is, well, really old.   

“When people watch the BSL interpreted show the real performance is by Tricia,” says director Daniel Burgess, and not just because she’s got to learn the entire script.

Shakespeare was writing in poetry, effectively, so you have to untangle the metaphors within that into English and then you have to work out what the British Sign Language would be. At times we’re doing that conversion and, at times, especially during some of the songs, we’re going for much more of a visual vernacular.”

First they did a very basic translation of the original text into English, then into BSL. The duo slaved over each page of the script for hours. Making sure the meaning remained the same. There were practical challenges too.

“When they say ‘my name is whatever’ you would sign ‘name, me, what’ then their name. The difference with this it’s Elizabethan language. When you see lines like ‘is all our company here?’… If you heard that in English you’d think business and sign that. What we’re looking at here is ‘is everyone here?’ so we’re thinking how we sign that,” said Tricia.

They also had to contend with the constant switching between the magical and the mundane.

Daniel has pulled out the dreamlike fairy world, then he’s got the theatre company performing the play within the play which is very dramatic, exaggerated and comedic. How you sign each is very different. It’s an amazing project.”

He admitted to having no understanding of the depth they’d have to go to make this show accessible.   

“Normally with the My Firsts, I hand Tricia a script and she can look at each role. Because Shakespeare can be interpreted differently from production to production, before we even got into rehearsals I had to get her up to speed on where I thought the interpretation was going.

“That’s not to say during rehearsals the actors haven’t brought other things that are better or different than what I thought of and suit our production more successfully. That informed what Tricia does again so it was a much closer relationship and very organic.”

Both strive to make a show that’s accessible to all. 

The most important thing for me with My First is providing a setting for parents, grandparents and care-givers to play with the young people in their lives. I wouldn’t want to exclude someone from having that interaction just because of them being neurologically or physically diverse,” said Daniel.

“Or feel nervous about coming,” added Tricia, seen in the photo above signing nap while the rest of the cast sign A Midsummer Night's Dream.

“I’m not standing there, on the side. This whole All-In Production journey together has been about me bringing the audience into the story, including them - it’s not just signing.

“It’s getting those kids who may want to communicate in sign language immersed in the performance. If there’s a D/deaf parent and there’s an interactive part of the play I can pre-frame that by saying ‘there’s going to some dressing up now’ or whatever. They can be fully involved and actually be the boss of the youngsters and say to them ‘go play now’.

“That lady at Stormzy’s Glastonbury performance… there’s loads of levels of interpreting, lots of training, it takes a long time, a lot of commitment… she absolutely loves it and that’s how I come at it. I have the heart for it, for everyone to feel like they can be immersed in that experience.”

That level of involvement doesn’t come without its challenges added Daniel.

“We’re not working in a proscenium fashion, which is the main theatre setting in this country, which I think has resulted in interpreters standing either stage left or right and having their own spotlight. Because we work, in most cases, in transformable spaces where the audience can move, I need to keep open to everyone but also try to identify who is using the signing communication. We have to work extra hard when we’re thinking about staging and positioning to fully integrate in that sense.”

He’s currently learning BSL and would love to use it more in future shows.

“Because the actors in our shows are generally actor musicians their hands are full so there will be restriction on how much we can integrate. I’d like to see more. It’s not part of my writing process yet, maybe it should be.

“Just translating this my understanding of BSL construction has approved vastly. Where it will influence productions going forward as I carry on learning it will be striving to integrate the signing with the actors, which will mean Tricia is redundant,” he joked.

My First Play: A Midsummer Night’s Nap runs at The Garage until Sunday 4 August. Reviews so far have been great.

On a cool summer’s night, all havoc is breaking loose in the forest. The fairies are up to no good and they want you to help them. The Fairy King and Queen have fallen out of love. Meanwhile, a group of awful actors are getting ready to put on their play when their lead actor is turned into a donkey. Will all be right by morning or was it just a dream?

Aimed at ages 0-7, it lasts around 50 minutes to an hour depending on how much you play. The BSL interpreted performance is at 1.15PM on Thursday 25 July and an audio-described performance at 3.15PM on Friday 2 August. Get your tickets here.