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  • The Sign Language Interpreted Performance: A Failure of Access Provision for Deaf Spectators
  • Michael Richardson (bio)


Sign language interpreted performances (SLIPs) are performances of spoken-language theatre rendered simultaneously to Deaf spectators through a single interpreter using sign language (Gebron; Rocks 2015) rather than other access tools, such as supertitles or captions. Initially requested from within the Deaf community, nowadays the demand for SLIPs is driven more by audience-development goals and access requirements (Simpson), and significant time and money are invested in their provision in the UK by both producing and receiving theatres. Despite this, the number of Deaf people attending is lower than expected (Lee), and Deaf theatre-makers suggest that SLIPs do not offer genuine accessibility (Bangs; Conley).

My fieldwork, undertaken with audiences and theatre managers at SLIPs, as well as my interview with a practicing interpreter, joins a growing body of research that strongly suggests that SLIPs are not effective for Deaf spectators, demonstrably failing on three levels: failure to appropriately capitalize the theatrical space; failure to conceptualize the interpreter as performer; and failure to create a meaningful translation. “I feel I picked up half the performance and half the interpreter, but I had to take that and create something myself. It’s not good. It wasn’t clear.” This assessment, echoed in some form by all of the Deaf respondents, suggests that their ability to understand the play is compromised by the way the performance is delivered. If we consider theatre not as “stage art” but “communicative event” (Sauter), it becomes clear how and to what degree SLIPs by their very nature impede the participation of Deaf spectators.

The data are not, however, all negative; opportunities to consolidate existing provision, improve it, or replace it with something better are also identified. Hence this essay argues that SLIPs as currently delivered are not effective in providing accessibility for Deaf spectators; instead, they represent a failed technique of theatre-making that has been largely abandoned by the Deaf community. However, if theatre-makers who are currently committed to maintaining the status quo are willing and able to recognize that SLIPs are a failed technique and to consider more creative uses of the financial investment in them, then it may be possible to develop genuinely accessible ways of engaging Deaf spectators.

Researcher Positionality

I am a hearing theatre director who has worked in opera, musical theatre, and most significantly, youth theatre (Richardson 2015). I began my engagement with the Deaf community over ten years ago while running a youth arts organization: a residential Deaf school relocated to the area in which my organization worked, bringing Deaf young people to rehearsals and Deaf adults to performances. Following convention, I initially used SLIPs in an attempt to provide accessibility, but [End Page 63] my instincts were that, in the standard model, these were ineffective. In response to those instincts I undertook several practice-based projects with the aim of improving accessibility, experimenting with the placement of the interpreter onstage, and (in a production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd) having lead roles simultaneously characterized by two actors, one signing and one singing, and using sign language in place of choreography for the chorus. This recent study follows in part from my realization that, during these projects, my exploration of the participation of Deaf people in theatre was conducted entirely from my perspective as a hearing person.

Despite not working directly with Deaf people in theatre, I have made other efforts to engage with the Deaf community. I have learned British Sign Language (BSL) and subsequently developed friendships within my local Deaf community, and have worked with Deaf people in other capacities. These competences supported my efforts to recruit Deaf participants for this study, to generate data with them in their own language without relying upon an interpreter, and to translate that data into written English. All the quotes given in this essay, unless stated otherwise, are my own English translations of data generated in BSL from Deaf respondents.

The Meaning of Deaf

The term deaf means different things to different people. It signifies both audiological deficiency and a sense of cultural identity, the latter usually referenced in academic practice by...


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