Tag Archives: Jean St Clair

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.


The Mrs Malaprop of British Sign Language.






Translation of photo: Jean St Clair calls ‘time’ on Kaite O’Reilly’s ‘weird’ signing. 

I first met Jean St Clair ten years ago, when she was working as the BSL (British Sign Language) advisor on a production of one of my plays in London. I was immediately drawn to her skills, knowledge, and ingenuity as a linguist, expert in Sign performance, and superb performer in her own right.

In the 1980’s Jean toured internationally and appeared in the West End in Mark Medoff”s Children of a Lesser God. Together with Jeni Draper, we formed The Fingersmiths Ltd in 2006, exploring bilingual performance, aspiring for equality of BSL and English, Deaf culture and hearing culture, on stage.

Jean and I are a fabulous conundrum – she a profoundly Deaf signing practitioner who doesn’t use voice, me a speaking, hearing viz imp writer who signs enthusiastically but eccentrically. I’m the Mrs Malaprop of the bilingual world. Some signs have similar elements, but differ according to a particular hand shape, placement, or movement, and so our conversations are littered with my errors over many years, which have become part of our shared vocabulary. Instead of ‘let’s video that section as a memory aid’, we’ll say/sign ‘let’s Liverpool lesbian that’. I confused ‘politics’ with ‘milk’ six years ago, so now Jean signs ‘do I want milky politics?’ when she makes me a cup of tea. It’s a wonderfully humorous engagement, generous and good natured, embracing the potential creativity and comedy of linguistic mistakes.

Jean came into rehearsals this week for National Theatre Wales’s In Water I’m Weightless, my Unlimited commission for the Cultural Olympiad. We worked with performer Sophie Stone and super ‘terps Julie Hornsby and Jo Ross (Sign Language Interpreters extraordinaire), reworking excerpts of my English language text into BSL and sign performance. I try not to use the term ‘translation’, as I agree with playwright/linguist Colin Teevan’s assertion that there’s no direct correlation between languages – and especially between spoken and  signed languages, which are experientially different, even using different language centres in the brain.

It’s an exciting and complicated process. Put briefly, Jean and I discuss the text, ensuring we have a shared understanding of the content, and also my intentions. Depending then on the context, Jean will either work a theatricalised BSL version of the English, or create a more visual version, using what she calls the Visual Vernacular – a mingling of movement, gesture, and mime, informed by BSL. This is just the preliminary work, done before going into the rehearsal space and working alongside Sophie, Jo, and Julie.

I will be writing further about these elements at play in the production as the rehearsals continue – ‘access tools’ used creatively – integrated into the wider performance.