Day Two at Tyst Teater: Languages Flying Around the Room
Posted by admin in November 6, 2013

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Languages are flying around the room in rehearsal of “To A Flame” this week.  People often ask me if sign languages differ from country to country. They do, and this makes for very interesting theatre rehearsals, especially in Scandinavia. Dawn Jani Birley, our actress from Finland, grew up in Canada signing American Sign Language (ASL). She now works at Teater Totti, the National Deaf Theatre of Finland. As a basic human right in Finland, she gets to bring an interpreter with her any time she travels abroad for work. Virpi Thurén, the fantastic interpreter from Helsinki that accompanied Dawn to Canada on two previous workshops, arrived yesterday morning to join us on this next leg. We were very happy to see her, because finding an interpreter who can deal with the nuances of a theatre rehearsal, of 19th century poetic language, who can deal with a dark and sometimes twisted subject matter of Gothic horror, and who can translate an English rehearsal process into Finnish Sign Language (FSL) is rare.

Adding to the language complications is the fact that we are working in ASL on an English text, and Josette Bushell-Mingo, our director and the Artistic Director of our host Tyst Teatern, directs partly in English and partly in Swedish Sign Language (SSL). So Dawn is translating Josette’s SSL, Virpi’s FSL, and the play’s English, into ASL. At one point today, we had an in-house interpreter from Tyst translating the conversation into SSL, Virpi translating into FSL, and Dawn working in all three languages. I can’t believe Dawn doesn’t go cross-eyed by the end of the day, but she’s a bit of a wonder woman.

It’s rare that we get exposed to new versions of Gothic writing, and it’s exciting to work on the muscular and visceral text that Erin Shields has created. It poses a challenge for Dawn to translate into ASL, where the sentence structure is often completely reversed and where three words or images in sign can take the place of a whole sentence in English. It poses a challenge for Lisa Karen Cox and me to lift it off the page, as classical text demands a heightened performance. Then, when it comes time for Lisa and me to learn the sections of text we are performing in ASL, there’s a whole other level of challenge. Let alone the process of translation from English into ASL.

In parts of the play, Dawn and Erin are also collaborating on a new form of sign language performance, called “V.V.”, which is perhaps translated into “visual vocabulary.” As I understand it, this is where the body tells the story, where sentences and words are dispensed with in favour of imagery, where it’s a hybrid between a dance and a poem. This form is perhaps the most accessible to hearing audiences when they watch the sign language segments, as it is so physical.

Our main challenge is to find a way to make the play accessible to all audience members, whether they are hearing or Deaf, in a new way that doesn’t involve subtitles or outside interpretation. We’re adamant that the translation is necessary to the drama of the story, not as an addendum. We’re also adamant that each audience member has the privilege of understanding the story simultaneously. This is one of the places where the politics of the piece come in. We’ve solved a lot of these problems through repeated poetic text, and through characters repeating text in ASL and spoken English, as one does in a normal conversation. We’ve also some got other ideas up our sleeves.  But, you’ll just have to see the show to find out what we come up with!

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Dramaturg and Assistant Director Birgit Schreyer-Duarte and actor Dawn Jani Birley problem solve during workshops of “To A Flame.”

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