Easy Access: Bringing Theatre To The Deaf

Companies like W!LD RICE and Pangdemonium have been working with Sign Language Interpreters from SADeaf to make their shows more accessible to the Deaf. Teo Zhi Xiong chats with us about what it takes to interpret performances, and why it matters.
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Zhixiong interpreting for last year's W!LD RICE pantomime, Mama White Snake, with his colleagues, Siti Rohanna binte Omar and Nur Amirah binte Osman

What are interpreted performances?

It is the act of translating a performance on stage into sign language to enable Deaf audience members to experience the performance. It isn’t just translating words though; it’s like creating a work of art. Performance-interpreting can take different forms, such as in theatre, music, poetry and so on.

How did you come to be an Sign Language Interpreter with the Singapore Association for the Deaf (SADeaf)?

I stared learning sign language as a CCA in school. Along the way, I made many friends in the Deaf community. Before joining SADeaf, I was a community interpreter providing interpretation on an ad-hoc basis. Eventually, I left my full-time job to join the association as a Sign Language Interpreter.

As an Sign Language Interpreter, how do you prepare for these performances in advance?

Upon receiving the text, we first study it to gain a rough understanding of the story, characters and themes of the play. We then attend a reading of the play with the cast and crew. This gives us a clearer understanding of the text, and an opportunity to clarify any questions we have, especially with the playwright.

Next, we go into the intensive task of deconstructing the text. We try to find the meaning, emotions and visuals behind the text, and adapt them into Singapore Sign Language. When doing so, we also seek the advice of a Deaf person, who acts as a language coach to make sure that our signs are clear and accurate. 

What things do you have to be mindful of while adapting the text?

The process of analysing the text is an ongoing one. We start attending the rehearsals and, eventually, live performances, studying the actions and tones of the actors, the language used and the moods portrayed via sound effects. We then adjust our signs accordingly.

Are there choices that you have to make during the interpreting process? 

Other than deciding what to interpret, we also need to decide on what not to interpret – or when to hold back on our signs so that attention can be focused on the stage. For example, if a character is going to suddenly fall during a scene, we direct the audience to watch what is happening, rather than have them look at us and miss out on the action. All of this requires us to commit the text and scenes to memory.

Do you provide support beyond what takes place inside the theatre?

Yes, we also assist the theatre company with the physical set-up and publicity for the show. For example, we advise them on the seating arrangements for the Deaf audiences so that the interpreters, actors and surtitles are in their line of sight. Special arrangements must be made in the lighting design to ensure that interpreters are always lit when information is being conveyed. Lights should also not be shining in the audiences’ eyes. We generally recommend the use of warm or cool light, as opposed to harsh lighting that will mask the interpreter’s facial features and cause eye fatigue among the Deaf.

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Zhixiong (far right) interpreting during a talkback for Grandmother Tongue

What’s the most challenging thing about doing these interpreted performances?

It really depends on the play. Every show has its unique challenges. With Grandmother Tongue, the challenge was navigating through Teochew. For Mama White Snake, it was a challenge to balance between interpreting and directing audience attention to the action on stage, especially during the singing parts. Interpreting for songs could get complicated, too, since one interpreter might be signing for multiple characters who are singing the same song! The challenges really make every show exciting to be in.

How about the most rewarding thing?

For me, the arts has a unique way of conveying messages to and enabling discourse among audiences. The most rewarding aspect of interpreting the arts for the Deaf is when they appreciate the show and talk about what they enjoyed and learned from it. It means that we can share more of our world with the Deaf community.

How long has SADeaf been working with local arts organisations to provide interpretation for arts events?

We have always worked with different arts organisations to provide interpretation for arts events. For example, we’ve been doing so for the Singapore Writers Festival as well as concerts by Very Special Arts. Theatre interpreting is rarer – that started picking up in 2015.

Why do you think interpreted performances matter?

On 18 August 2013, Singapore signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). According to Article 30, persons with disabilities should be allowed to take part on an equal basis with others in cultural life, which includes recreation, leisure and sport.

Having performances interpreted is a step towards becoming a more inclusive society. The Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Community can now enjoy access to cultural events and performances, which are a great source of knowledge and recreation.

For hearing people with Deaf family members or friends, having an interpreter present means that they can invite them to the event as well. Then they would not have to worry about their Deaf friends or family members feeling left out or excluded; nor will they have to take on the burden of interpreting themselves, which takes away their own enjoyment of the event. Most importantly, both hearing and Deaf people can enjoy and participate in the events together. Hopefully, what is now a novelty will be a norm in the future!

Three shows at the Singapore Theatre Festival will be simultaneously interpreted in Singapore Sign Language (SgSL) for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing. These include Supervision (7 July, Saturday, 7.30pm), Press Gang (15 July, Sunday, 3pm) and An Actress Prepares (20 July, Friday, 7.30pm). Find out more at www.singaporetheatrefestival.com, and learn more about SADeaf at https://sadeaf.org.sg/.

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