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BSL interpreter profile: Clare Edwards

How did you get into interpreting for theatre?

I’ve always had a passion for drama and musical theatre (my degree was in Drama and Music) but when I first saw Peter Llewellyn-Jones interpret at Nottingham Playhouse I knew that was what I wanted to do.

In fact, even during my Stage I examination that was exactly what I told the examiner my aspiration was.

It was about 8 years later, in 1999, that my stage interpreting career actually began, however. The interpreters at my local theatre, the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, were having a change-around and I was in the right place at the right time to take up the opportunity.

Thirteen years on, alongside my ‘day job’ as a community sign language interpreter, my stage work has expanded to theatre and arena shows nationwide – for me, it’s the perfect combination.

What kind of work do you do to prepare for a show?

In an ideal world I start my preparation for a new show well in advance of my first signed performance. My approach has several elements to it:

  • To start with, I have a copy of the script – which ends up absolutely covered in notes, of course!
  • If the show is a musical, I’ll often buy a copy of the CD early on so I can get to work on the songs
  •  I’ll need to actually see the show
  •  Finally the most important piece is a recording of the show from the theatre on DVD so I can remind myself of the staging, or a just CD of the live audio.

In terms of the actual process, I’ll begin by listening through the whole show three or four times to familiarise myself with it and get a sense of the overall structure and flow. I’ll often do this with the script in hand.

If it’s a musical, I’ll then concentrate on the songs. With songs in particular, I find it’s essential to not only translate the lyrics, but to actually learn them by heart. When I interpret them on stage I want to stay with the singers, both emotionally and in terms of phrasing and timing. When those big notes hit at the end of a song, for example, I want to be right there with them.

Once I have the songs under my belt, I then integrate them with the show as a whole, doing full run throughs along with the recordings I have.

The final piece is a lot of work on characterisation – trying to make every character distinct; trying to capture their voice and mannerisms in sign so that it’s easy for a Deaf audience to know who’s talking at any moment.

Apart from that, I basically eat, sleep and drink the show until I step on stage.

If I’ve got a show coming up that I’ve done before, I’ll typically take two days beforehand to refresh and re-familiarise myself with it. I’d never go to a show without practice – aside from wanting to stay sharp, I find that I often notice all sorts of adjustments and improvements I can make over previous performances.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced during a performance or when preparing for a performance?

There are all sorts of practical challenges to face now and then – finding the venue, finding somewhere to park, having to get changed for the show in a toilet cubicle – but the greatest challenge before a show is simply in not having the preparation material soon enough.

This is especially true for the recording. A script alone isn’t enough to prepare from – there’s no emotion or performance on the printed page; there’s no timing, you can’t tell where anyone will be standing on the stage. So that’s the biggest challenge of them all, I think.

Once I’m actually on stage there are a whole set of other challenges. Not being able to hear the show properly isn’t that uncommon, which is why all that preparation is so vital.

I’ve been positioned in plenty of strange places – under a flight of stairs; on a wobbly box; on the floor in front of the stage, face-to-face with the audience… Lighting is often fun, too – I’ve found myself signing away in semi-darkness at times, or standing there like a fool on my own in a bright spotlight during fifteen-seconds of silent blackout.

Some of the funniest challenges come from the actors themselves, of course. Panto is always good value; being shot in the ear with a water pistol or being asked to hold things in the middle of a scene is always fun.

Perhaps my most challenging moment so far has been during a performance of “Oh What A Night!” when one of the cast decided that his particularly raunchy song required some ‘interpreter participation’. Imagine me being manhandled onto the floor and very racily gyrated against for three minutes…signing like a trooper all the while!

What would make your job easier?

You mean apart from never having to do any other work except preparing for shows..?!

Always having a good quality recording of the show at least two weeks in advance would make my life so much less stressful than it sometimes is.

Related to that, one of the reasons why availability of materials can sometimes be delayed comes from various fears and concerns regarding copyright.

Producers are understandably wary to release scripts and recordings to just anyone, but interpreters should definitely be considered as much a part of the company as any other technical or performance role and be trusted accordingly.

Theatre interpreters are professionals, and can absolutely be relied upon not to abuse any material released to them for the purpose of their job.

On a lighter note it might also be nice, in an ideal world, if everyone could somehow just magically understand what a theatre interpreter does. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been standing in the wings about to go on stage and been asked “So have you seen the show yet..?”

Of the shows you’ve made accessible, which was your favourite and why?

My favourites often change with each new show I do but I do love a musical, and my all time favourite is undoubtedly the Queen musical “We Will Rock You.” I’m a lifelong Queen fan and to stand on stage interpreting such great songs, performed by such a talented cast was simply a dream come true.

If I’m allowed a second favourite, it would have to be “Sister Act”. The music is really to my taste, the show is slick and funny, the songs are wonderful, and the performances are just superb. As an interpreter and a lover of theatre I couldn’t ask for more.

What is the most satisfying thing about interpreting a play?

Well, I’m very tempted to just quote Sister Act: “Glitter! Glamour! Gay-boys!”

As true as that might be, on a personal level getting to the end of a show when everything has gone perfectly – the prep was done, the songs have been tight, the performance has been on the money – you just can’t beat that feeling.

If the hands of a Deaf audience go up at the curtain call, if you see people getting the jokes and feeling the emotion during the show, then you know they’ve probably enjoyed the evening. That’s a pretty good feeling.

I sometimes spot Deaf people chatting afterwards about how great the show they’ve just seen was – not talking about the interpreting, but about the show – and that’s when you know the job’s probably been done OK!

Now go to: Interpreter positioning on stage