Model lessons in a theatre for the deaf

A production company is planning to hit the road with its drama workshops and shows for the hearing-impaired. Jackie Cosh reports

Jackie Cosh

For the first five minutes of the show, neither Alan Cumming nor the two supporting actors say a word. There is no need. Through their actions, they provide the audience with the beginnings of the story. Mr Cumming is a patient in an old-style psychiatric ward. A swab is taken from his mouth, his clothes removed, and he is given hospital trousers. They show him to his bed and leave him on the stage alone.

Alan Cumming is starring in the National Theatre of Scotland's one-man production of Macbeth where, apart from the occasional interludes with the doctor and nurse, he plays the part of every character in the play. Tonight is the launch of the Deaf Theatre Club at a signed performance at the Tramway theatre in Glasgow.

In terms of taking into consideration deaf theatre-goers, the first five minutes are very important and demonstrate how it is possible to tell a story, or at least part of a story, without using words. For Gillian Garrity, general manager of Solar Bear, this is one technique which the theatre production company hopes will make deaf people feel more included.

"The actions are integrated into the show more and we are using more visual aesthetics, so they can understand," she says. "We have deaf characters acting in such a way that there is no need to sign, and we do a lot of visual work."

Unfortunately, a problem arises when the signer for the night is unable to make it due to sickness, and subtitles have to be used instead. Her absence only highlights the scarcity of people with such skills, and has prompted the company to consider employing an understudy.

Solar Bear has set up Deaf Theatre Club in a bid to boost theatre attendance among members of Scotland's deaf community. It expands on the work it currently does with deaf people.

Recently, the company has been working with Glasgow-based audience development agency Culture Sparks, in order to find out how things are done in venues across Scotland, and what could be done to make theatre more accessible to deaf people.

"This is the first time deaf audiences have had the audience to give feedback and tell us what they like and dislike," explains Ms Garrity. "One thing they told us was that they want productions at the weekend, instead of just midweek. Things could be done better."

With plans to take Deaf Theatre Club around the country, Solar Bear approached Creative Scotland for funding. "They agreed and we approached six venues," says Ms Garrity. "One thing we were keen on was for venue staff to receive training in deaf awareness, so the first part was finding out what they know now and what they could be doing. The second part was having a deaf performance in each venue. The third part was working with the National Deaf Children's Society.

"Currently, we work with young people over the age of 12. We have always been keen to work with younger children, but have never had funding before."

Each venue will have drama workshops for 7-12s, run in partnership with the National Deaf Children's Society, during the day, with a performance in the evening.

"We are keen that these are not one-off events," she says. "What we have said to venues is that we want one person in each area to take ownership and run things locally with our help. In terms of content, they will work with young people to produce a show. Parents will leave, but will be invited back for the last hour."

The work is a logical step in what the company currently does. Solar Bear established Scotland's first Deaf Youth Theatre in January 2008, for young deaf people aged 12-21. This includes hosting drama, theatre and performance workshops covering movement, mime and signed mime, as well as stagecraft and technical training, including lighting and an introduction to stage management.

They have performed at the National Festival of Youth Theatre in Fife, created a short film as part of National Theatre of Scotland's Five Minute Theatre Project, and taken part in Glasgow Life's Inspiration Festival.

As well as launching the Deaf Theatre Skills School, a pilot actor- training programme for deaf students which aims to offer routes for talented young actors into the profession, Solar Bear has been in talks with the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow about more formal training.

"When the young people are too old for Scottish Youth Theatre, there is nowhere for them to go. By then, it is more than a hobby for many. We have been working with Royal Conservatoire and they will soon be launching a BA Acting course for deaf people," says Ms Garrity.

"We hope that the project continues and is picked up by different arts venues. We would like to see lots of little productions like this run across Scotland."

There will be signed performances and workshops running in Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth, Edinburgh, Inverness and Kirkcaldy over the next few months. For more information and to book tickets, email


3,000 - The estimated number of children and young people under the age of 25 with severe to profound deafness in Scotland

6,000 - The estimated number of people in Scotland whose first or preferred language is BSL

1:200 - The estimated ratio of qualified interpreters to Sign Language users in Scotland.

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Jackie Cosh

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