Making language visual: an interview with Jean St Clair

British Sign Language (BSL)  creative consultant and performer Jean St Clair has been a close friend and collaborator for a dozen years. She has worked with me on many productions – advising on translation/reinvention from spoken/written language into visual language with National Theatre Wales (‘In Water I’m Weightless’, 2012), Graeae (‘peeling’ 2002) and now for a second time with Forest Forge Theatre company (‘peeling’ 2011, ‘Woman of Flowers’ 2014). We have also collaborated on our own production with Jeni Draper as The Fingersmths Ltd in 2006.

Jean St Clair's encouraging feedback to Sophie Sone of 'Woman of Flowers' early rehearsals

Jean St Clair’s encouraging feedback to Sophie Sone of ‘Woman of Flowers’ early rehearsals

I have been working again recently with Jean on Woman of Flowers, my latest script and a reinvention of the Bloudewydd myth from The Mabinogion for Forest Forge Theatre Company. We are in the final stages of rehearsals before a national tour 18 Sept – 1st Nov, and of course Jean has been involved, as central to the production in aesthetic and concept are sections of theatricalised sign and visual language.

I’ve written academically about our collaborative process in translation from written English to visual as Fellow of the International research Centre ‘Interweaving Performance Cultures’, Freie Universitat, Berlin. It is endlessly fascinating for me, how concepts and ideas I have shaped in printed words and English become visual and are moulded into something else. There has also been increasing interest in this process, and I’m delighted Jean took some time in the midst of rehearsals to answer some basic questions I asked her about her work and this alchemic transformation:

Jean in poster design for 'Frozen' by Bryony Lavery, Fingersmiths last production.

Jean in poster design for ‘Frozen’ by Bryony Lavery, Fingersmiths last production.

I trained with British Theatre of the Deaf, run by Pat Keysell. She was trained in Mime so the language we conveyed was called Sign Mime. A combination of mime and stylised signs. It was not the everyday language deaf people were using. It was pretty much the same when I worked with National Theatre of the Deaf in USA where the ASL (American Sign Language) on stage was delivered in a poetic style.

When I did Hearing at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, a play with all hearing cast, the language I used was the natural language of BSL. It was the same when I did Children of a Lesser God (nb. Jean toured internationally and to London’s West End in this groundbreaking play).

When fingersmiths was set up by Kaite OReilly, Jeni Draper and myself, we were looking into Equality in both languages, English and BSL. It was where we experimented with a variety of styles such as where Jeni would speak English and I would sign BSL but independently of each other as opposed to have Jeni interpreting for me. One style was Visual Vernacular (V.V.) which was not based on English. It came from the concept of looking at the world in a visual way and to capture the images by using facial expressions, hand movements and body language without using either English or BSL. There are some iconic signs such as plane, bird and baby which we could incorporate in V.V.

– Can you explain the difference between eg sign interpreted performances, theatricalised BSL, sign performance and  visual language?

Sign interpreted performances is where a Sign Language interpreter standing at the side of the stage signs what is being spoken on stage or it could be integrated in the performances. Theatricalised BSL is based on BSL but taking on the visuality and expanding on it. Visual Vernacular is independent of English and BSL, apart from using iconic BSL signs.

If you look up the dictionary for Vernacular, it will come up with ‘A vernacular or vernacular language is the native language or native dialect of a specific population, especially as distinguished from a literary, national or standard language, or a lingua franca used in the region or state inhabited by that population.’ Visual Vernacular can be used world wide, it does not matter which sign language you use, BSL, ASL, or Japan Sign Language, the V.V. is invariably similar due to the way it is presented visually.

 When you are working with English text, what is your process when transforming that into a) BSL and then b) visual language?

Both are slightly different. But the basic rule is to understand the text, the meaning, and also to explore whether there is an underlying meaning ‘between the lines’ or whether it is presented in an ambiguous way, then the BSL would need to reflect this. There is no point in signing word for word otherwise the meaning will be lost. For example if one say, ‘you bring sunshine to my life’. We don’t actually use the sign for ‘sunshine’ in that context but to find the interpretation in a sense that we bring sunshine in that person’s life by finding different signs to match the meaning.

With visual language, the process is similar but we look for the visuality and aim to expand the BSL into a highly stylised form. It helps to find pictures and photos within that text to find shape and form

When you are devising yourself – maybe using V.V. can you describe your process?

As V.V. is not ‘language-based’, the process is much more free. You look at the world within and find iconic BSL signs, gestures, facial expressions and movement to match the context. For example if I am to describe walking along the high road, I would describe the buildings, people walking past and to add human behaviour, little things that people may not notice but it is there. One way to use a comparison to V.V. is to watch cartoons, the set up is similar. Wide, medium and close up shots of particular objects or a bird. For the close up, I would describe or act like a bird with facial expression, with the medium close up, I would use my arms to move like wings and for the wide shot, I would use my hand to show the bird flying away into nothingness.

Further discussion of Jean St Clair’s process will follow in a later post.

Dates and venues for ‘Woman of Flowers’ can be found at: http://www.forestforge.co.uk/shows/woman-of-flowers

A taster of Sophie Stone signing the opening speech early in the rehearsal process can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fdGdwDWVm9M

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