Tag Archives: BSL

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

Making language visual

Turning written text into visual, physical language – transforming words on the page into signs and gestures that take flight….  I love working with Jean St Clair. In her London apartment this week, I worked with her and Sophie Stone, transforming written text from my new play Woman of Flowers into flowing, beautiful visual language.

Jean St Clair's encouraging feedback

Jean St Clair’s encouraging feedback

Although I’ve been working with Jean now for a dozen years on translation and recreating English text into theatricalised sign, I always feel very privileged to be part of the process. We last worked together on Forest Forge’s production of my play peeling, also directed by Kirstie Davis. It’s wonderful to have Jean as our creative sign director.

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I send her the speeches from my play which we want physicalised in advance and then Jean asks me questions about my meaning, intention, and preferred aesthetic via email or text. When we gather, she will have already explored possibilities, but will always be led by the performer – in this case Sophie Stone, who will be performing the part in the Forest Forge production when Woman of Flowers tours the UK in the Autumn.

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Woman of Flowers is a new play, inspired by elements of the ancient Welsh treasure, The Mabinogion. I’ve been obsessed by the story of Bloudewydd for many years, since I moved to Wales to live.

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The story tells of a female ostensibly made from the flowers of the oak and trees in the forest to be companion to a young man cursed by his mother never to have ‘a woman of our race.’ Quite what this ‘ideal’ woman might be has enthralled and perplexed me for years. I explored the notion of  computer generated avatars in Perfect, a piece I made with John McGrath and Paul Clay ten years ago at Contact Theatre, and which won the Manchester Evening News best play of 2004.

Jean St Clair and Sophie Stone working on 'Woman of Flowers'

Jean St Clair and Sophie Stone working on ‘Woman of Flowers’

Woman of Flowers, commissioned by Forest Forge and directed by Kirstie Davis, will be very different. A mixture of prosaic everyday dialogue in spoken English, and the poetic inner thoughts of Rose (played by Sophie) using theatricalised sign, will hopefully be visually stunning and emotionally effecting.

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Our rehearsed reading at Salisbury Playhouse earlier in the month left some of the invited audience in tears. Many spoke afterwards of the lyrical nature of Sophie’s spoken and signed language, mentored and polished by Jean’s experienced eye.

I have asked Jean and Sophie if they will guest blog about their process, working between spoken and signed language, between Deaf and hearing cultures. They have agreed, and I can’t wait to share more of this part of the creative process, which is often invisible, hidden from view.

Tour details: http://www.forestforge.co.uk/shows/woman-of-flowers 

Spoken language, Visual language – Woman of Flowers with Forest Forge

Sophie Stone signing, not singing.

Sophie Stone signing, not singing.

I’m in a small sound studio in Camden, watching Sophie Stone transform my written text into three dimensions. She has been working with my long term collaborator Jean St Clair on translating sections of Woman of Flowers, my commission from Forest Forge Theatre, into theatricalised British Sign Language (BSL) or visual language. I was unable to make these earlier sessions as I was at the Cork Midsummer festival, so Sophie and I are refining the work, preparing for a rehearsed reading of the script at Salisbury Playhouse in front of an invited audience.

This project is something of a dream one. Kirstie Davis, the artistic director of Forest Forge, came to see the National Theatre Wales production of my performance text In Water I’m Weightless in 2012, and fell under the spell of Sophie Stone, one of the performers. Kirstie and I sat together in the cafe after the show, scheming, plotting, dreaming up a way of working together again, and including Sophie. ‘If you were do something original for Forest Forge, what would it be?’ she asked, and I told her of a contemporary retelling of an ancient myth, filled with transformations and magic, desire and murder – a world where nothing is quite as it seems. ‘Oooh, yes, we’ll do it!’ Kirstie said as our imaginations entwined, and we clapped our hands and jumped up and down in our seats, laughing.

Laughter is continuous when working with Kirstie Davis. Her rehearsal rooms are joyful and creative places, filled with possibilities. Even in these austerity times, when funding is increasingly difficult, the arts given less and less value and projects are constantly under threat, Kirstie and her team at Forest Forge still make things happen, and with smiles on their faces. Sadly, it is so easy to be negative about the future of the arts in the current climate, but Kirstie and Forest Forge are resilient, inventive, and optimistic. They have a loyal and supportive following, too, which buoys the company up and is massively appreciated. A fundraising drive earlier in the year saved this production of Woman of Flowers and I’m grateful to all who supported the company, for the opportunity of making this work, which I hope will be inventive, emotionally engaging, and with resonance for our times.

Actors Sophie Stone, Andrew Wheaton, Liam Gerrard and choreographer  Junior Jones

Actors Sophie Stone, Andrew Wheaton, Liam Gerrard and choreographer Junior Jones

Woman of Flowers uses a mixture of spoken and visual languages, and will be surtitled throughout. I will write of the content more in a future blog. It will also incorporate movement, choreography, video, live music and an original score by Rebecca Applin. When we gathered at Salisbury Playhouse to read the script aloud for the first time, designer David Haworth was also there, presenting his model box design for the production.

Designer David Applin presents 'Woman of Flowers' design to the cast of the rehearsed reading, Salisbury Playhouse.

Designer David Applin presents ‘Woman of Flowers’ design to the cast of the rehearsed reading, Salisbury Playhouse.

After just five hours of rehearsal, we presented the work to an invited audience. As a playwright, it is always magical hearing the words you have written outside your own head that first time. The choices the performers make are often surprising, and enriching – their questions stimulating and often challenging. I strive to give a lot of space to my collaborators, especially when working with this kind of material, shape-shifting and poetic, where nothing is quite what it seems. Some of my answers to specific questions are ‘open’ – ‘yes, it could be she is lying; but then again, she might be telling the truth.’ I’m sure such apparent evasiveness can be frustrating to an actor who seeks a strong foundation to build their performance on, but it’s easy to give definite answers and for me, that is a closing down of possibilities rather than an opening up. Once in rehearsals, there will be three weeks of exploration and discovery, and so I always endeavour to leave space for the director and actor to make their work, and, invariably, surprise me with their interpretations and discoveries.

This issue was taken up in the Q&A after the reading, and both Kirstie and I spoke of the necessity of trust. I am fortunate to have worked with her before, on a production of my play peeling in 2011, and a strong, mutually-respectful relationship was built then. I find Kirstie a wonderful collaborator. Apart from her imaginative and inventive productions, she has a wonderful regard for the audience and awareness of that dynamic between the spectacle and the spectator. That focus brings an immediacy to her direction and alongside the excellent performers she casts, it creates a strong connection with the audience.

I was shaken to see members of our invited audience in tears after the reading, and several spoke generously about the emotional impact the work had and how excited they were by the content and the presentation. This was immensely gratifying for us to know – a large part of a rehearsed reading is to test the script and see if it is working – and the emotional response reflects the commitment and skills Kirstie and the actors brought to our short rehearsal process.

Given the response to this early part of the process, I can’t wait to see what happens when we are deep in it.