Why I believe sign singing is not the same as Interpreting… 

I had a pretty awesome sign singing job this month. I was booked by Sky 1 to sign 24 songs for a new televised contest called Sing: Ultimate a Capella.

The contest shows a Capella groups from across the country competing to win the chance to record an album at London’s Abbey Road studios and release a single in time for Christmas.

Sky 1’s social team had previously seen sign performers translating songs for Snoop Dogg and Ed Sheeran and wanted to give their viewers the chance to see some of the songs in sign language too.

And that’s where I came in.

Usually when I get asked to work on signed songs, there’s lots of time for rehearsals and normally there’s just one song to study. Unless it’s for a live show then I usuallly have a clear set list and opportunities for sound checks, dress runs and lots of practice.

But seeing as this was a live show, with one episode being recorded per day, this was faaaar from the average sign song job.

The 24 songs were given to me the day before the first episode was set to shoot. None of the songs could be finalised or a set list given because it all depended on which singing group got through to each round. Each episode also had a guest act and several of these artists would not confirm their song or the actual lyrics until it was their sound check an hour before show time. Cue manic studying from me!

A few of the songs I was given weren’t really suited to BSL, and a lot of them were in the form of medleys which meant there were several songs all fused together with differing rhythms and varying sounds.
It was an unpredictable, highly challenging job but an exhilarating one at that.

Not only did I get to sign for the talented groups that were competing but also for the artists JP Cooper, Midge Ure, The Vamps, Gregory Porter and Imelda May. I felt honoured and humbled.

(Mid rehearsal above) 

Despite being deaf,  music is in my blood and I felt privileged to be sharing songs with some incredible voices. They sang, I signed.

The fact that Sky 1 recognised sign song enough to employ me to work for them is immensely encouraging. For too long sign song has been viewed as just a “fun thing to put on you tube” and it hasn’t been valued as the art form it really is.

I was asked during my work if I was a sign language interpreter, with several audience members who came to watch the contest coming over to me and attempting to speak in my ear. It was a surprise for them to discover that I’m actually deaf. And not a sign language interpreter.

I then had an interesting discussion with another artist regarding the difference between an interpreter and a sign singer. You need to be able to hear to be a formally qualified interpreter but to be a sign singer hearing is irrelevant.

If I was hearing, maybe my job at Sky 1 would have been processed differently. Perhaps when we weren’t given a set list, I could have simply listened to the artist when they began singing and translated as I heard the lyrics. It would have been a great back up plan if nothing else.

Instead, I had to memorise the entire songs beforehand (with the little time I had) and scrutinise the artists’ sound checks, using a communicator to work out if any changes had been made. I didn’t have a back up plan and as a deaf sign singer you never do. You have to study the songs and trust yourself, reacting to what you can feel, see and/or hear if anything.

There’s a vulnerability to being a sign singer, especially if you can’t hear what’s around you. And this is what makes it different to Interpreting. In my case, I work with a hearing communicator who acts as my visual cue for the music and keeps me in time.

Being deaf also means I am less stimulated by outside influence, so my relationship with the songs is intimate, personal and born from me. Hence why all sign singers have different approaches to a song.
Whether interpreters regard sign song as an art form or not, it is my belief that the best sign singers are not always those who are most proficient in the BSL language, but are those who have an innate connection to music and lyrics, and a desire to personify these. Whether they can hear or not is irrelevant.

(Above: all of the songs studied and performed)

This is why I regard my work with Sky1 as a sign performing job and not an Interpreting job. The nuances involved in sign singing are incredibly detailed and I suspect are not included in a regular BSL qualification anyhow.

With Interpreting there is usually a right way and a wrong to convey an idea. In sign singing, you have an artistic freedom to express lyrics while respecting the rhythmical placement of the words. It is not pure BSL because it’s being fused with music. But it’s this fusion that I find especially beautiful.

You can watch the sign performances online when the series is aired in mid September. And if you want to see more sign singing by deaf artists, why not make a trip to Derby on September 9th to see Caroline Parker, Colin Thomson and myself for an evening of sign song.  Email hello@sarahgatford.co.uk for ticket info

And now cue the compulsory fan pic (it’s me and with The Vamps!!! 😃)


Genetic testing for deafness, my view. 

The cause of my deafness has never been something that has bothered me. I have a sister who is deaf, but aside from her everyone in my family is hearing.

Growing up with my sister, neither of us dwelled on the reasons for our deafness, we just took it in our stride. I don’t even recall us having any memorable conversations about our hearing; we just plodded on, going to audiology, speech therapy trips together and taking it all as being part of our “normal” existence.

So when our parents took us to a centre in Nottingham for genetic counselling, this felt like just another mundane test that we had to do.

I remember the specialists looking at my hands, my hair, my eyes. And I remember feeling overwhelmed when I was asked if I wanted a cochlear implant and bursting into tears.

It turns out my parents were told it was down to a faulty gene that they both carried which produced deafness in myself and my sister.

No blood tests were taken, so no exact gene was named as the cause of this but I do remember being told “if you marry a hearing man, you’ll be more likely to have hearing children…”

Fast forward twenty something years and I am married to a deaf man and I have a son who is hearing and a daughter who is deaf. Both my husband and I knew that there would be a chance our children may be deaf, but this was never a huge concern to us. We are who we are and our children will be who they are born to be.

So earlier this week when I was asked by my daughters audiologist if they could have our permission to send her for genetic testing, my immediate response was “why?”

I was told that the test would (probably) tell us the exact cause for her deafness and also work out the chances of her passing deafness onto her children. She’s two years old and we’re thinking of her children already?! 

They then mentioned something about her hearing brother possibly being a carrier if the deafness is a genetic cause, and said how he could be tested in future too.

Now, I completely and utterly understand why parents may want to screen for health conditions / illnesses, but I do not feel that deafness is one of them. I am deaf, so my views on having a deaf child may be entirely different to a hearing parent who is faced with something completely new and unfamiliar.

But deafness is my familiar. And for all those involved in my immediate family, it’s our familiar too. So I do not see any real reason or benefit for finding out the medical reason for my daughters deafness. Her deafness will still remain unchanged. And whether she has deaf or hearing children, they will be accepted.

Browsing literature online, I noticed that I’m not alone in these feelings. The American Journal of Human Genetics surveyed parental attitudes towards genetic testing for paediatric deafness and stated,

“Deaf adults had a predominately negative attitude towards genetic testing for deafness, with the majority stating that such tests would do more harm than good.”

It reasoned that as the majority of deaf children were born to hearing parents, it was understandable that these parents were searching for a reason for this unexpected event. Just like my parents were.

That is not to say that deaf parents don’t participate in genetic testing (they do!) but more often than not the reasons for doing so stem more from curiosity than anything else.

One of my concerns about genetic testing was how the results would be received by hearing parents.  Some of the parents surveyed stated that the results of the genetic testing would impact their decision to have further children, with adoption being an option rather than

 “risk having a child who is deaf.”

This concern was echoed in the article by reports from the deaf community expressing their fear that an increase in genetic testing would lead to a decrease in the number of  congenitally deaf children.

Action on Hearing Loss actually completed a genetics testing project in 2012 with the results being published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics. They stated that;

“The project will help to determine the deafness genes that are the most common cause of deafness in Europeans. This knowledge is currently lacking and will also aid the development of treatments in future.”

A new idea I also came across was how most (62%) of the parents surveyed wanted prenatal screening for deafness to be offered. This would (apparently) enable an expectant parent to be better prepared by learning sign language or researching hearing loss.
But wouldn’t a prenatal screening also carry a risk of affected pregnancies being terminated?

It’s a deep and complicated topic and the concept of eugenics, of manipulating a “perfect” human race is one that makes me feel highly uncomfortable.

As a culturally Deaf person, I don’t wish to make my daughter or any deaf child feel that they have less of a right to be here than a hearing child. I believe very strongly in the social model of deafness as opposed to the medical model which tells me I’m broken and need fixing.

Even the NHS website states that it offers genetic counselling to couples where both individuals have a “hearing impairment.” This is in order to determine whether they will have a “hearing impaired child.” Are we going back to the time where deaf people were discouraged to marry for fear of continuing a deaf race?

I suppose I hadn’t realised how deeply ingrained my Deaf identity was until I came across this subject. And it’s clear that there are mixed views about the testing being carried out.

But this is my view. And I do not want my daughter being poked and prodded at the age of 2 for a cause that I’m not sure I even approve of.

Genetic testing for deafness; for who’s benefit?

You can read the quoted article here:


My first year as a ‘deaf playground Mum’

When my son started nursery last September I dreaded the compulsory ‘standing in the playground with other parents.’ Not because I dislike people, of course. It was the fact that I’d be expected to chat to / get to know the parents of my sons classmates for the remainder of the school year. 

Talk about being out of my comfort zone. To begin with I remember feeling self conscious, quiet and not really myself. 
To most parents making small talk and general chatter in the playground is fun, laidback and an enjoyable rite of passage. It’s a chance to speak to another adult for a fraction of your day and find some solace in the stresses of parenthood. 

But for me, it’s exhausting. Having to lipread, notice what’s happening around me AND keep track of a 2 year old and 4 year old leaves me feeling hyper vigilant and on edge. 

But verrrrry gradually I got the hang of it. As time went on I came out of my shell and began to feel comfortable with being surrounded by non-signers on a daily basis. 

I’ve done a lot in a school year. I’ve learnt most of my sons school friends names, conversed with several parents, attended kids’ birthday parties and struck up friendships with a few ladies too. Not bad for the only deaf mum in the playground…

Looking back, though, there was a pivotal moment that changed things for sure. It was the first time the other parents saw me with a sign language interpreter. 

We (the parents) were invited to a meeting about phonics and the school had booked an interpreter so I’d be able to participate in the talk. The look on the parents faces when I walked into the room, sat opposite the interpreter and began signing, was priceless. 

Oh, she’s deaaaaaaaf. I could almost feel the pennies dropping. 

I reckon some people had their suspicions beforehand, a few already knew (but hadn’t seen me sign) but most were clueless. 

There were a few friendly smiles, some stares and a couple of flummoxed faces. The following day, one of the Dads (who had previously never spoken to me) came up and started signing, “I heard you’re deaf. My uncle is deaf so I learnt to sign for him.”

Woweee. I thought. Finally I can sign to somebody!!! 

Admittedly, there were a couple of parents who began to avoid me, not wishing to make eye contact and generally acting frostily around me. No more hello’s from them, I noticed. 

And then on the opposite scale were the ones who overcompensated, rubbing my arm before speaking to me and slowing down their speech to aaaan extreeeemely diffficcculllt speeeeed toooo liiiipreeeeead. Bless ’em. 

But generally speaking, once it was ‘out’ that I was deaf AND a signer, it felt a whole lot easier to be myself. I seemed to attract the right people to talk to, some who knew sign, some who didn’t; but overall the good eggs who were happy to get to know somebody who was a bit different.

You know, making new friends as an adult is hard. And I find it even harder being deaf. I know there’s no rule that says you have to be friends with the other parents at school but it isn’t a nice feeling to be standing on your lonesome while others chat around you. 

And as my son begins a new school this September I face the prospect of starting all over again. Meeting new people, explaining I’m deaf, asking their names – several times – and still getting it wrong. 

I found out last week I’d been calling a girl ‘Millie’ for the whole school year when her actual name is Amelia. I’d called another Mum Sara instead of Sandra and I’m still not sure what my sons teaching assistant is called… (Mrs Dutsvord, Mrs Tutsford, Mrs Tuxford?!) so I’ll have to do my research before writing the end of year thank you cards… 😉

I’ve had whistling hearing aids, moments of completely misunderstanding people, and I’ve also had days where I’ve buried my head in my phone because I was too tired for strained interactions. 

But it hasn’t been all bad. I’ve met some really lovely people who I wouldn’t have known otherwise and my confidence has definitely grown. 

Because I’m so used to being around deaf people it’s been extremely insightful and such a learning curve to find myself interacting with hearing folk every day. 

I’ve realised that despite not always feeling 100% comfortable, I can do it. I can hold conversations with others (however brief or stilted,) I can say or wave hello and more importantly I can just be who I am, lip reading stumbles and all. I don’t wanna be friends with the prejudiced bad eggs anyway. 

And that’s the attitude I’m going to need in September when I begin this journey all over again. 

Wish me luck! 

Why being resilient is so important if you’re deaf…  

I do believe that having a dis-ability of any kind means that you’re either born with or develop a set of innate skills to get you through life’s inevitable challenges. 

I’ve always said a sense of humour seems to go hand in hand with deafness. That and a whooooole lot of patience. 

But the quality that I’m thinking of that’s the most relevant here is resilience. The actual definition of it is 

“The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” 

Becoming aware of my own resilience is not something that I was spoken to about as a child. But the notion of having to bounce back from let downs and overcome problems became a familiar one from a young age. 

Getting through the insecurity of deafness when with hearing peers, dealing with bullies, struggling with communication and social interactions; these are all common scenarios for deaf children. 

But like they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger right? 

Ha. I don’t feel strong at the moment. I’ve had a stressful week and I feel far from resilient right now. All I’ve been hearing/seeing is the word NO. 

“No, your daughter can’t have support from a teacher of the deaf; no, we can’t repair your hearing aid as you need to be reassessed and NO we will not renew your access to work support.”

Give me a break. 

I know that dealing with difficulties means breaking problems down, prioritising and making a plan of action. But when you’re being told no so many times and there’s no room for negotiation, there’s only so much positivity you can muster. 

Which is why I’ve been biding my time, gathering my energy and becoming objective about the situations I’m in. Resilience isn’t all about go go go and do do do, sometimes it’s pausing and breathing so that you feel strong enough to try again. 

I’m trying again with Access to Work but I’m in limbo land at the moment. I’ve been told my renewal for support has been rejected so I’ve sent it to be reconsidered and I’m awaiting a decision on that. If it’s another no, I need to go higher and speak to my local MP perhaps about how I can be supported if access to work are not willing to help.

It’s ironic that given how hard it is for deaf people to find good work, you’d expect support to be put on place immediately without a hitch. But nope. There’s a whole bunch of rules and points and a criteria that the advisors have to meet. 

And fortunately after pestering (what feels like) a hundred people, I’ve finally secured a Teacher of the Deaf & specialist support for my daughter. Even when so called professionals told me that she “didn’t meet the criteria for support.” This will be the first battle of many, I’m sure, but I’ll be ready. 

I am tired of fighting but I refuse to give up. Activists of any type are bound to experience despair and anger but they don’t lose sight of what they’re trying to achieve. Even if it means taking a few days off from it all to regain some perspective.

That type of wise resilience; of knowing when to pause and when to pounce, is something I really hope I can pass onto my children. Because with all the challenges, closed doors and NO’s in this world, I think they’re going to need it.  

The Boat and the Blue by Sinfonia Viva: an accessible show for the family 

I was recently invited along to an accessible showing of a performance called The Boat and the Blue, which with its live music by Sinfonia Viva orchestra has won an award for the ‘Best Family Event’ at the Family Arts Festival in 2016. 

It’s a storytelling adventure with live music, games and visuals and by attending the show you also get a CD and the book of the story to take home.

Being a mum to two children under four, I was keen to see how having a BSL interpreter would ensure deaf children could participate and enjoy the show as much as their hearing peers.  

The interpreter, Sarah Gatford, was stood on the far left of the stage, next to the screen where the live visual images by artist Eleanor Meredith appeared throughout the tale. This placement was ideal to see both the BSL translation and the live drawings on the screen. 

Across the stage were the musicians with their flute, cello, violin and bass drum. The storyteller and writer, Jack Ross, was centre stage. He spoke calmly and clearly to the audience  and was especially clear for me to lipread. 

The production told the tale of a little girl who takes a journey to the deep blue sea, meeting frogs, ducks and whales. Both Jack – the narrator – and Sarah – the interpreter – used the same actions for the animals the story introduces. 

All of the songs had actions too! I found myself ribbet-ing like a frog, climbing up sails of a boat, heaving a rope and pulling silly faces. The movements were all enhanced by melodic tunes and great rhymes. 

The sound for the show was amplified by speakers that faced out to the audience, and with it being such an intimate setting the music was clear for me both audibly and physically. I was interested to know that Sinfonia Viva are actually the East Midlands only professional orchestra and have even been nominated for a Grammy. 

The translation of the musical score was outstanding, with the rhythm of each song personified perfectly by the interpreter. There were no delays, no stumbles, it was flawlessly in sync with the singer and dynamic to watch. 

At one point the interpreter had to translate the overlapping strings of a violin, depicting the tale of a sad swan. Her body language, expression and soft fluid movements captured this beautifully, even demonstrating through sign the high tones that I cannot hear. 

Noticing how mesmerised the children in the audience were and how delighted the grown ups looked (myself included) I cannot rate this show & its accessibility high enough. 

I usually find shows are either mainstream with an interpreter that doesn’t quite gel or very deaf-centred but without the sound quality for hearing people to enjoy it. But with The Boat and the Blue the interpreter became an another visual element that enhanced the whole show, and fitted in seamlessly. 

Hearing audience members also commented on how much they enjoyed the BSL translation, and I noticed the children’s gazes fixed intently on the signing too. 

When the production ended I found myself humming tunes, along with their action signs and wishing there were more shows like this I could take my children to. 

I spoke to the head of the orchestra and found that although they don’t have any other BSL shows planned, if there were any I wanted to attend I could simply email them and they’d find an interpreter for me. 

I never knew that was an option! I assumed that accessible shows only appeared on the access page of theatre brochures. But it seems that some programmers are willing to respond to requests. It’s possibly not the same for all theatres but if in doubt, ask anyway. 

To find a truly accessible family show is a rarity and to see one that is of the quality of The Boat and the Blue is even more special. 

Check out http://www.vivaorch.co.uk and see what else they’re up to. And if there’s anything else you like the look of, find out if they can provide access too. 

You never know till you ask. 

Sencity London 2017: a reflection 

It was such a surreal moment.

The heat of the lights, the wires threatening to tangle my feet, the gaze from the singer as he altered his microphone so I could see his lips. As my smile met his I began to sign as he sang. 

There’s no denying, it was the hardest gig I’ve ever done. And I’ve performed at a lot of venues; theatres, concert halls, outdoor festivals, community centres… But this was the first time I’d worked with a live band. And a real life, spontaneous-moving-in-the-moment singer. 

I’m used to pre recorded music, shooting videos and working solo on stage. But this was waaaay out of my comfort zone. So when Sencity asked if I’d be a ‘sign dancer’ for Balkan style band Gypsy Hill, I was excited but terrified too. 

Sencity is a multi sensory music gig, set up in 2003 originally for the deaf community but now prides itself on being a mainstream event that incorporates sensory experiences such as an aroma disc jockey, illuminated floors and sign dancers such as moi. 

The event itself was part of the Open Senses festival, attracting both a hearing and deaf audience with two bands including Gypsy Hill playing on the night. (The other was New Town Kings.) 

Gypsy Hill mostly play songs without lyrics but they had three pieces in their hour long set that had words. My task was to translate these into sign language / movement. 

The songs themselves were beautiful but each one very different in style, rhythm and sound. I couldn’t hear the music at home at all so I asked my friend/communicator to film herself lip syncing and beating the pace of the whole song. I used this to rehearse with.

Visually the rhythms came to life and I could imagine how the songs may sound. Lyric wise, there were a lot of puns, plays on words and lengthy English grammar that meant I had to write out the whole songs again in a visual/BSL structure which would hopefully make more sense to a live audience. 

(My beloved music stand and lyrics below)

Rehearsing at home was one thing, the sound check was another. I met the band without an interpreter (eek!) and discovered they had never worked with a signer before so this was a new experience for both of us. However, they were warm and approachable and our shared passion for music made me feel connected despite me using my hands instead of my voice. 

Sound checks are notoriously hurried when there’s more than one band and time is pressing. So I was able to go just through two songs and get a sense for how they felt on stage. With speakers and live instruments beside me I felt bombarded with vibrations and noise; but on the slowest songs I could pick out the lulling voice of the singer which I loved the most. 

The band were so enthralled to have a signer on stage that they asked me if I could sign another song which I was unprepared for. “It’s only three verses” they said 😊

Trying not to panic as there was only 30 minutes till showtime (how could I possibly squeeze another song in my head?!) the stage manager suggested I have the lyrics on stage as a back up and given how gorgeously thought-provoking the lyrics were, I agreed. 

(Rehearsing Everybody Knows)

There was an interpreter present for the sound check but for everything else on the night I was going in alone. It was just me and the band. The lead singer was aware of how I would be following his lips and he was considerate to remember this throughout his performance. 

Still, it was scary. It felt like free falling through a song, I was never sure where the singer may ad lib, slow down or add in extra words (they always do – they’re in the moment!)

That’s the risk when anything is live –  the unpredictability. And as a deaf performer I usually rehearse music to the death to ensure I’ve absorbed the song and it’s intricacies.  

Here, I was vulnerable. But gosh, was it thrilling. 

Performing Everybody Knows)

Not knowing when to enter and exit the stage for my songs, The DJ of the band DJ Kobayashi was my cue. He knew I wouldn’t hear him announcing me so each time he would turn to where I was in the wings and let me know when my spot was coming up. For all of my songs apart from the newest one I was centre stage, signing whilst simultaneously trying not to knock the guitarist or get hit by the jumping trombonist. 

The audience were able to feel the music too given the unique vibrating dancefloor. It pounded out the rhythms like you wouldn’t believe. Excellent fun but not so much if you’re holding a drink… 

Overall, it was a great experience and has given me a lot of encouragement when it comes to pursuing more work with live musicians and at mainstream events. Sure, I can’t hear music. But I can darn well feel it and I adore expressing it. 

So let’s have more sign performers onstage and normalise the experience of seeing a signer with a band. Hearing, deaf – it doesn’t matter. We are all artists after all, free falling in one way or another 😉

Why mocking sign language is never acceptable…

I have a good sense of humour, I can assure you. My friends will all tell you how I like a laugh – like most people. But some jokes cross boundaries.  And for me, mocking sign language is one of them.

So when Twitter fans complained to deaf model & TV star Nyle DiMarco that he needed to “learn to take a joke” when he spoke out about an actor making fun of sign language on live TV, I couldn’t have felt more enraged. 

Actor Jamie Foxx had appeared on Fallon Tonight and was shown signing gibberish in an attempt to impersonate either an interpreter or a deaf person.

This appearance sparked a shocked response from Nyle DiMarco who is a deaf sign language user and winner of America’s Next Top Model and Dancing With the Stars. He stated online;

Nyle’s message has received enormous support from the deaf community but he has also been subject to complaints of being “overly sensitive.”

I believe Nyle’s response was completely reasonable. A language that has been oppressed, argued against and denied for so many years and is hardly ever seen authentically on television does not deserve to belittled. 

It reminded me of the Nelson Mandela funeral “fake interpreter” – that same sense of having our language torn apart and insulted. 

Of course Jamie Foxx and Jimmy Fallon wouldn’t understand. They probably didn’t grow up being told not to sign because it’s “embarassing.” They didn’t get kids telling them they spoke “weird.” They didn’t have to fight for a language they feel most comfortable using.

They probably didn’t have to put up with school peers jeering at them in fake sign language. 

They didn’t perform (like I did the following night) to a live audience and have three people in the crowd laughing and pretending to sign before they were told to leave. 

These kind of people don’t know the struggle for sign language access. To ‘them’, signing just looks funny. Our language is amusing. 

Did I miss the joke? 

Because to me, to belittle another language is a sneaky way of playing the superior card. It’s almost like saying “you’re not normal, you’re the minority and so it’s okay to make fun of you.” And then all the sheep will think that’s okay and laugh along. 

But it’s not okay. 

A language that has been a sensitive topic of controversy for years and underrepresented in the media deserves more respect. 

Get some real deaf stars on your show, Jimmy Fallon. And do us a favour, Jamie Foxx, learn some proper ASL and use that on live TV next time. 

You can read more about the incident here:


The Who’s Tommy: a review 

It was early this year that a good friend of mine and fellow actress, Donna Mullings, came over to my house with a favour to ask. She had a video audition to send off to a casting director and she needed it filmed urgently. 
Armed with only an iPhone, laptop and floor lamp we shot her audition piece in my dining room. The song was Pinball Wizard and the show that she landed a role in was The Who’s Tommy. 

I was thrilled for her. I knew that the musical was based on the 1969 concept album by The Who so there would be some juicy rock songs to enjoy and I also knew that the production of Tommy was a groundbreaking opportunity, part of a 6 year programme of work to initiate change in the mainstream theatre world. 

Tommy is led by New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich in association with Ramps on the Moon; a consortium of theatres across the country who have committed themselves to accessibility and inclusivity. Each theatre has agreed to commit to several things including integrating both disabled and non disabled artists and prioritising accessibility in their productions. 

They state that their shows must have an equal mix of disabled and non disabled artists; that the creative team must also be a 50/50 split between disabled and non disabled practitioners and also that accessibility must be embedded within the production. 

Tommy meets all of those points with its diverse cast of 22, captions, British Sign Language and audio description. So when the show came to Nottingham’s Playhouse last month I couldn’t wait to see how it all came together. 

The venue itself is gorgeously modern and easy to access. I was also offered a free ticket for a carer/communicator to join me. Entering the theatre, the layout is clear and deaf theatre goers are given seats in the middle area of the stalls – perfect for viewing the captions comfortably. 

The lead role of Tommy is played by William Grint, a deaf actor previously known for award winning short film Chasing Cotton Clouds. As the show opened to a signed song by Tommy, William signed clearly and emotively, evidently confident in his role. 

We then met Donna who played his Mother, Mrs Walker. The show guided us through her journey; the romance of meeting and marrying Captain Walker (Tommy’s Father), her grief when she was told her husband was missing and presumed dead, and her lustful passions with her new lover. It was a great role with varying emotions for Donna to really demonstrate her skills as an actress. 

Returning to the plot, it is when Captain Walker returns alive and well and Tommy witnesses his Mothers lover shoot his Father dead that Tommy locks himself in a “blind, deaf and dumb” world.

We then follow Tommy’s encounters with other people as he grows up and see how his talent for playing pinball despite being blind and deaf brings him fame and success. 

The storyline is unusual and uncomfortable at times especially when Tommy is molested by his Uncle Ernie. But the integration on stage between the artists and the languages was exceptionally interesting. 

Every deaf cast member had a hearing member who acted as their voice, singing whatever they signed. This form of shadowing was very effective and meant the signing cast could lead and participate in a song instead of sitting out the musical numbers.

I was also impressed by the high standard of dancers, notably Hearns Sebuado who is a deaf performer based in London. His technical brilliance stood out during the choreography of Pinball Wizard and his superb timing meant he blended in effortlessly with the group of hearing dancers. 

Acting and movement wise, there was little difference between the deaf and hearing cast. Sure, you could tell which performers were trained dancers and who were not. But overall the energy and power on stage was definitely that of an integrated, tight-knit group. There was no segregation.  

My only bugbear about the show was that in certain places the signing didn’t fuse as naturally as it could have. In the song “it’s a boy” when Mrs Walker gives birth to Tommy, a group of nurses begin singing and signing but the slow pace meant the signs looked unnatural, overly exaggerated and leaning towards the novelty element rather than accessibility.

Likewise in the song Acid Queen when there’s a killer solo by renowned actor Peter Straker he’s accompanied by two sign singers. Here the movement of the sign language was more alike to a dance routine than BSL which meant the meaning was lost. It looked fabulous but without the lyrics above the stage I wouldn’t have had a clue what they were saying.

That said, there were times when the signs and music fused perfectly. Captain Walkers song “See me, feel me” translated his dreamy voice beautifully and “Pinball Wizard” used fantastic dance choreography with sign language to depict the lyrics. The choreography by Mark Smith of Deaf Men Dancing was intricate, clever and catchy. 

I also take my hat off to Alim Jayda, the actor who played Mrs Walker’s lover. A hearing CODA (child of deaf adults,) he fluctuated brilliantly between BSL and spoken English and his talents in dance and acting are undeniable. 

Overall, what I loved about the show the most was how the actors’ disabilities aren’t really showcased as such but they’re simply merged in with everyone else. It makes you think if everyone on stage is different then surely that means we are ultimately all the same? 

There was a truly lovely feeling of unity that resonated from the cast which reverberated back into the theatre hall. The show ended with a standing ovation and many people, myself included, left the theatre singing/signing 😉

With so many cast members with varied types of disability there might have been a slight risk of the actors feeling like the token “fill-the-blanks” disabled person. But there is no denying that Ramps on the Moon are out to challenge misconceptions about who can be on stage and break barriers for artists nationwide. What a brilliant production to be part of!

Since seeing the show I have noticed casting calls from the same consortium of theatres looking to meet more deaf/disabled actors and also work with more deaf/disabled people on their creative teams. 

So if you’re a deaf or disabled artist or wanting to work in performing arts, check out http://www.rampsonthemoon.co.uk and find out how you can be involved. 

Here’s to many more shows like Tommy! 

Deaffest 2017: a review 

I’ve been attending the festival Deaffest at Wolverhampton for many years now. This year was its 12th festival and boy has it come a long way since it first launched. 

Based on the theme “Discovery” this years festival promised to showcase undiscovered talent from around the globe and it brought over several high profile performers to do just that. 

The MC for both Friday’s opening night and Saturday’s awards ceremony was New York based ASL artist Douglas Ridloff. Charismatic and cheeky, he charmed the audience with his fluid International signs, assisted with both a BSL and American Sign Language interpreter on stage. 

USA rap artist Sean Forbes and his band also performed on both nights and when I wasn’t squealing like a teenage fan I really appreciated being seeing first hand how he fuses ASL/PSE (their version of SSE) with music and lyric videos. It’s unique, brashy and bold. 

Attendees were also able to meet Sean Berdy from the hit American series Switched at Birth and be wooed over by his successful attempt to fingerspell his name in BSL (go Sean!) 

Taiwan First Deaf Dance Group opened both evenings with dance routines that fused classical and modern choreography and Italian born VV maestro Giuseppe Giuranna made a special appearance with UK comedian John Smith. 

The audience were also treated to more British talent with performances by dancer Chris Fonseca, sign singer Colin Thomson and a Cirque VV show by Steve Webb and David Sands. 

They were all varied performances in style and pace, with literally something for everyone. But rather than have the same acts on both nights I think it would have been more effective to have different acts (and different jokes) per night as I had a slight case of Deja Vu on the Saturday… didn’t I see you guys yesterday??

All in all it was a jam packed programme, highly exciting yet a little haphazard when it came to the smooth running of the evening programmes. Highly surprising considering the amount of people involved! 

Anyhow, while Deaffest began as primarily just a film festival it appears to now be much more inclusive of other arts; with VV, comedy and drama workshops, live performances and a sign karaoke too all taking place over the weekend. For only £2 entry during the day you certainly do get a lot for your money! 

Saying that, I do feel that by showing films and holding talks/workshops simultaneously throughout the Saturday, it leaves attendees with a difficult choice regarding how to spend their time. 

Personally I was disappointed that I couldn’t go to the acting workshop AND watch the nominations for best film/television programme. It was also impossible to watch Sean Berdy’s talk and view the nominations for best artistic short film. 

It meant that when the winners were revealed during the awards ceremony, there were a few winning films that I had not even seen. 

The festival definitely drew in a great crowd for the whole weekend  and another highlight for me was Birmingham  based illusionist / magic artist iNfInItY who treated us to some tricks as he weaved his way in and out of the crowds. He dumbfounded us when he took a 20p coin from my husband, rubbed it and bent it before our very eyes! Sheer entertainment indeed. 

Attendees were also introduced to Rachel Shenton, a hearing British actress and Deaffest’s patron who has a short film in production that centres around a profoundly deaf girl. Keep your eyes peeled for The Silent Child when it’s released, featuring an authentic young deaf actress. (Hurrah!) 

Deaf Funny, written and directed by Limping Chicken’s very own Charlie Swinbourne, also premiered at the festival and is released on BSL Zone this week for your own viewing pleasure! 

And without blowing my own trumpet too much, I was fortunate enough to be part of Macbrew, an inclusive piece of theatre based around Shakespeare’s witches from Macbeth. It was a pop up style performance that took place in the venue’s cafe twice on the Saturday and surprised those sipping on their coffees.. Inclusive theatre while you have your lunch – why not?! 

The Sunday’s programme was purely film showings and included a subtitled screening of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. 

On the whole it was an exuberant weekend and really delivered on its promise to show international talent and demonstrate how collaborations can be formed. But let us not lose sight of the real reason we attend Deaffest; to celebrate our deaf films and nurture the talent that creates these. I’d love to see more opportunities for budding directors, editors and writers as it seems that those onstage seem to (ironically) steal the limelight. 

Great job though, Deaffest. You’ve got people talking, facebooking and tweeting about how enjoyable the festival was, even if they’re just swooning over the American stars 😉 anything that brings deaf art together definitely wins my acclaim and that is why I will certainly be returning to see what more delights your festival has on offer for us. 

Cue compulsory fan photo! (Me with the legend that is Sean Forbes ☺️)

The first National Sign Choir Competition – a reflection 

Last month the first national signing choir competition took place in Nottingham. Organised by Simon Astill of Harmoneyes, there were four junior choirs and ten senior groups that had travelled across the country to compete. 

As one of three judges I was really looking forward to seeing so many sign song enthusiasts come together. The mayor of Nottingham attended the evening which played to a full house, with coverage from the local media as well as See Hear. The event was also hosted by Stewart Hill, an ex soldier who was part of the Invictus choir led by the BBC’s Gareth Malone. 

As the signing choir competition began it was clear that although the standard differed from group to group, there was great potential for development and artistic success within sign song. 

The winners of the junior group, de Ferrers signing choir, were a passionate choir whose eyes sparkled when they signed. Each performer was confident and their professionalism edged them into the lead for sure. The senior category was won by Dee-Sign of Chester who cleverly fused BSL signs with English lyrics and performed a highly polished Abba medley with intricate choreography. 

Yet there are also a few others that deserve a special mention. Heathlands school had charismatic, charming performers sign What a Wonderful World. Their artistry and sign language skills were astounding and they had me smiling throughout. Being an all deaf group, I felt proud of how beautifully they portrayed the lyrics and still honoured the timing of the song. I feel this strength in BSL performers is where attention must be poured in order for sign song to grow in popularity amongst deaf community. 

Another of my favourites was Vision signing choir from Kent. Their rendition of Phantom of the Opera remained with me for days after. I was only vaguely familiar with the song beforehand but the clarity of their signs transported me to the haunting setting of the Phantoms opera.  The way in which they portrayed the dramatic chord changes using their hands was brilliant and their faces of longing and desire depicted the ambience of the Phantom perfectly. I loved it. 

Another memorable group was Revolution signing choir who performed a funk routine and fused their signs into choreographed movements that helped me feel the beat and made me want to get up and dance.  They were fresh and innovative and I loved seeing the freedom of dance routines within their set. 

All of the choirs mentioned above had unique strengths which distinguished them from the rest with such a variety of performance styles. It was endearing to see so many people enjoying sign song and experimenting with its delivery. 

I’m aware a lot of sign choirs are formed as a practice group for those learning BSL and most perform at fundraising events for charities. They are raising the profile of sign language and deaf awareness. So regardless of how adept or not their signing may be, they clearly have a love for the language. 

Yet there’s an elephant in the room that I have to address. Where were all the deaf people?!

Out of the 14 choirs on the night I saw only one all deaf group and the rest had one or two but mostly zero deaf performers in their group. So what’s going on? After all, wasn’t it the deaf congregations in churches that sign song was born out of? Why are there so few deaf sign singers now? 

Speaking to audience members after the show, I began to get a clearer picture of why this may be. A deaf couple approached me and told me their views, asking me a question that sparked a lot of thought;

“Why do the hearing own signed song?”

Its our language! the couple told me. And yes, it is ours. But it’s ours to share. The real crux of the matter isn’t that hearing people own signed songs but that there is a serious lack of deaf representation when it comes to signing choirs. 

Deaf children don’t grow up watching signed choirs like hearing children do listening to pop groups. Therefore where’s the encouragement to perform going to come from? That’s why the group from Heathlands are especially inspiring because they are paving the way for a fresh take on sign singing, right from the hands of deaf children. 

I feel it’s not about taking ownership of sign song away from hearing people but claiming our stakes in it too. Don’t be afraid to try something just because of a preconception that it’s owned by those who can hear. 

Sure, being deaf means the task of learning a song’s intricate make up is harder. Rhythms have to be memorised or cues used. Beats have to be broken down and dynamics explained. But it’s not impossible. And a hearing person will have a whole other battle to contend with when learning sign song; the translation. 

So at the end of the day when it comes to being a good sign choir – it’s all about artistry. Whether you’re deaf or hearing, in my eyes, is irrelevant. A native user of sign language who embodies a song can be anyone. An all deaf group can do it just as well as a hearing one. 

So perhaps there’s hardly any deaf performers because there’s a preconception that it’s something only hearing people do. Or maybe it’s just because the groups are formed at centres where (predominantly hearing) people go and learn how to sign. Or maybe with so many deaf children dispersing into mainstream schools it’s harder to find them and thus introduce them to a sign choir. 

The possibilities are many but this fact is clear; there is no reason why we can’t have more deaf groups leading the way for sign choirs. It will require a change in viewpoint and it may need some deaf leaders to come forward and initiate a change in how the art form is delivered. As deaf people, we were the original sign singers so rather than seeing it as something only for those who can hear, why not be pioneers for a new way forward? 

The next national sign choir competition will take place in Liverpool in 2018. I think it’s time to get practising, dont you? See you there 🙂