Sign this: Representing deafness on stage

Using a handy skill to bring Tribes to life.

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Bea Svistunenko, who is playing Sylvia in our upcoming production of Tribes, and I were taking an hour in the Waterstones Café to work on the British Sign Language (BSL) lines in the play.

Before long, a man came up to us and started to sign. We explained with our very (very) limited BSL knowledge that we only know a little bit of sign and asked him to please slow down. It turned out that we’d happened to stumble across the monthly Tea and Sign meeting, and – after a good twenty minutes of trying to work up the courage – we went over and joined in.

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Nina Raine’s Tribes explores themes around the deaf community and deaf culture so it was great to have the chance to get involved ourselves. Within moments of sitting down we were asked if we were deaf or hearing. The helpful (read: slow at signing) woman next to us commented that in BSL people will be very matter of fact about these things.

For an hour we desperately tried to follow their signing, used poor finger spelling (they thought Bea was ‘Bia’), and lip read to hold conversation. We discussed the play and how the character Billy, who is deaf, did not learn sign language until his adulthood. Our friendly neighbour noted that she worked with deaf teenagers, who often reject sign language and other shows of ‘deafness’ for the sake of fitting in.

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Mark Milligan and Bea Svistunenko

Wanting to belong is a part of life, of course, especially during complicated teenage years. “I’ve definitely connected a lot with Billy in terms of his struggle to find a sense of identity and belonging to a community,” Mark Milligan, who is playing Billy, explains to me. “I’ve thought back a lot to secondary school and how disorientating being a teenager can be.” The idea of belonging is explored throughout Tribes, and not just for the deaf characters.

Inspired by Tea and Sign, the cast and I went to Cottenham Village College to run some drama workshops with deaf and hard of hearing students, organised through the Hearing Support Centre. At first we used devising to explore some themes in the play, such as problems in communicating, but soon the students’ keenness to make silly scenes overrode our dramaturgy and we were making plays about turning into zombies.

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Mark Milligan

Learning BSL has been a tough, but worthwhile, challenge. “I’ve never worked with British Sign Language before, so coming to the project seemed, at the outset, very daunting,” confesses Mark, “but the team for Tribes has been amazing.” We have had Jennifer Green, who was a student at Cottenham Village College with the Hearing Support Centre, helping us get to grips with this new language.

She’s worked with us on the grammar differences, the necessity of showing clear, heightened emotion in our faces, how to sign poetry, and more. “It was difficult getting used to the different grammar,” notes Bea, “words can come out in a different order to how you would speak them, and some words are not signed at all. It wasn’t as literal as I thought it would be.”

Once we were armed with some knowledge of sign, we filmed Jennifer’s friend Jade doing all of the BSL lines, and have been working through the videos to get the signed dialogue slick for the show’s opening on November 3rd. “With Billy and Sylvia’s conversations in sign, Mark and I have had to think about emotion, intention and objective – as we would with spoken lines – but with the signing movements instead,” Bea remarks, “it’s been an interesting challenge.”

The Cambridge University Sign Language Society have been a great support for the show, and we have managed to get the money together to have a BSL interpreter for the Friday 6th November performance.

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Mark Milligan and Bea Svistunenko

“There’s a fantastic moment in the play where Billy is signing to his girlfriend Sylvia at the dinner table, and his family see him using BSL for the first time,” Mark describes. “He is translating a rather rude comment about a member of the extended family, and we see his family in complete shock seeing Billy sign for the first time. For Bea and I, it’s been a real challenge – and amazingly fun opportunity – to work with a new language for performance.”

Come and check out the dysfunctional, comical, argumentative and possessive Tribes family as they try to deal with Billy’s changing identity as he delves deeper into the deaf community. This tribe just want what’s best for their youngest member. Besides, arguments are an expression of love… right?

Tribes is the Week 4 ADC Mainshow: 7.45pm, 3rd – 7th November (Friday 6th performance BSL interpreted). Tickets can be bought here.