Edinburgh Fringe People

The Signed Show: Dean Penn from Hit The Mark Theatre

Published on Sunday 5 August 2018

We’re talking to people who perform or work at the Edinburgh Festival each year to get their perspectives on what performing or producing at the world’s biggest cultural event involves, and top tips on how to get the most out of the experience. This time, we talk to Hit The Mark Theatre’s Dean Penn about his company’s incredible efforts to make their show as accessible to all as possible.

With songs written by Al Sharland and Sam Swallow from The Hoosiers, ‘AnimAlphabet: The Musical’ is a high-energy show in the Fringe’s children’s programme which invites audience members to “join Colin The Country Cockatoo, Hip-Hop Donkey and Geoff The Geordie Jazz Giraffe on a fantastic family musical adventure”.

But at this year’s Fringe there is an added dimension, in that every performance is also accompanied by British Sign Language interpretation on a video screen at the side of the stage. Hit The Mark had worked with interpreter Stacey Stockwell to offer live BSL interpretation at past performances of their musical. But this year they decided to investigate the idea of filming her signing the show, so that they could offer interpretation at every single performance. And that’s what they have now done.

TW: Tell us a little about the show.
DP: ‘AnimAlphabet’ is a musical about music. A story about our hero Colin The Country Cockatoo and his mission to save sound from a dastardly duck called Calando. Cockatoo is helped by six friends, who each represent a note on the musical scale, from the A of Alligator to the G of Giraffe – that’s Geoff The Geordie Jazz Giraffe – and every note in between. With fun catchy pop music by Al and Sam of the platinum-selling pop band the Hoosiers, it’s sometimes difficult to know who enjoys ‘AnimAlphabet’ more, the children or the grown ups who accompany them.

TW: Tell us a little Hit The Mark Theatre.
DP: Hit The Mark Theatre was formed in 2016 with the goal of creating high quality accessible theatre. With previous experience in children’s theatre, education and working with children in care, we felt we were in a good place to create a brand new educational musical for children based on the songs and characters dreamed up by Al and Sam.

TW: What first motivated you to offer performances of ‘AnimAlphabet’ with BSL interpretation?
DP: We were keen that ‘AnimAlphabet’ was accessible from the start and were fortunate to have friends who were experts in the areas of accessibility, disability and autism. Carly Jones MBE gave us advice regarding children with autism and relaxed performances. And Stacey Stockwell enabled us to provide accessible performances for deaf and hard of hearing audiences. In addition to the interpretation, we have two relaxed performances and a touch tour for visually impaired audience members during the Fringe, on the 6 and 20 August.

TW: What does having your show signed involved? What does it cost?
DP: Interpreting a show isn’t easy. Stacey had to learn the entire show, including all the lines of all the actors. As you can imagine, it takes the interpreter a lot of time to fully learn a whole show. They then spend time in rehearsal with the cast running through everything before the performance. I can only imagine that creating all this would normally be very expensive indeed, but Stacey’s passion about accessibility and her belief that ‘AnimAlphabet’ is a very special show meant she worked at what can only be described as ‘not even mate’s rates’! We owe Stacey numerous large wines when we get back from Edinburgh – she is truly marvellous and we are very fortunate to know her.

TW: How does the nature of the piece impact on what is involved in interpreting the show?
DP: ‘AnimAlphabet’ is clearly a family production and many of the audience will be younger in years, so up to about age ten. In order for the story to be understood Stacey uses a range of communication techniques, including British Sign Language, Sign Supported English, body language and expression. As it’s a show for children she uses larger movement than she might ordinarily employ to help tell the story.

TW: Initially Stacey’s interpretation was done live, yes?
DP: Yes. Though obviously when a performance is signed live, we are constrained by the cost and Stacey’s availability. I think out of 80 performances of ‘AnimAlphabet’, about six of them were signed. That’s OK, and better than many other shows, but it wasn’t quite what we had our minds on achieving at the outset. We wanted to go much further and make every ‘AnimAlphabet’ show accessible.

TW: Hence the move to offering video interpretation?
DP: Yes! Video interpretation enables us to offer interpretation at 100% of our shows, which is amazing. Every ‘AnimAlphabet’ show is now accessible to deaf and hard of hearing audiences. And in addition to the interpretation, we also use surtitles for all the songs to further increase accessibility.

TW: How do you go about creating the video interpretation?
DP: Because we’d been working with Stacey since the very early days of ‘AnimAlphabet’ she already knew the show, which made things much easier. Working from the script and various videos, Stacey then interpreted the show in front of a big green screen on a very hot day in early June on her house boat in Caversham. It took over a day to film and then the raw footage was edited and the background and song surtitles added. The editing took days to complete, after which we took the video into rehearsals and crossed our fingers that it would all work! More tweaking and editing was to follow and then we had our final video, which we tested fully in front of an audience of thousands at Camp Bestival last month.

TW: What impact does the video interpretation have on the way the show is performed?
DP: It doesn’t impact the show at all, that’s the beauty of it. The ‘AnimAlphabet’ show is exactly the same as it was before. The only difference is the show has a video interpretation to the right of the stage. In fact Stacey is such an engaging performer that even in 2D she adds to the ‘AnimAlphabet’ production.

TW: How do you make sure the video is in sync with the live performance?
DP: Timing was our biggest concern. How do you keep time between a live performance and a video for nearly 60 minutes? We were very lucky that Stacey knows the show inside out, so what she was able to create remotely is really close to what happens on stage.

The songs are also performed to a pre-recorded soundtrack and therefore always have the same run time. With twelve songs in total, that meant we were confident that slightly more than half the show would always run to time.

For the remainder of the show we added about 25 places where we can resync the video if anything goes drastically wrong. It hasn’t so far, but we always have that option if we need it. As it is, I sometimes watch the interpretation and can’t quite believe how accurate and in sync it is!

TW: Have you come across other theatre companies using video interpretation in this way?
DP: We have researched this quite a bit, and asked various theatre forums and groups if they have any knowledge of technology being used in this way. We cannot find any examples of where it has been used before. We’re not saying that it definitely is a world first, but from what we can find it’s very possible that it might be.

TW: How does video interpretation compare to live interpretation?
DP: I think our video interpretation compares to live interpretation very well. Obviously we’d rather have the real Stacey at every show, because she’s lots of fun and great to be around. But her performance is so good that even on video she is still incredibly engaging.

When we first talked about using the video approach some people did say “but it’s not the same as live interpretation”. And obviously, it’s not the same. But that doesn’t make it any less incredible. And if I had a choice of taking my deaf child to an ‘AnimAlphabet’ show with no interpretation or to an ‘AnimAlphabet’ show with video interpretation, I know which one I would choose.

Plus, of course, there are deaf parents with hearing children, and now – whatever performance they attend –  they can share a common understanding and enjoyment of the show. I can’t imagine anyone would question the value of that.

TW: How does video interpretation compare to having surtitles?
DP: As I said, we also include surtitles on our videos for the ‘AnimAlphabet’ songs and they are a great addition, but I think having the interpretation is so much better. It really brings the story to life.

TW: What would you say to other companies considering offering BSL interpretation – whether live or in video?
DP: If you can afford to tour with a live interpreter, then definitely do it. We’re not trying to do anyone out of a job with the video approach, but the fact is that most shows offer no interpretation at all. Moving forward, we intend to use a mix of the video combined with live interpretation when and where possible.

TW: And what would you say to persuade other theatre companies to consider offering this option at some or all of their shows?
DP: It will be expensive and there will be challenges. You will need to invest a lot of time and energy into getting it right. But if you believe in it, and can afford it, then do it!

We are yet to see what mark our video interpretations leave on Edinburgh Festival 2018, but whatever happens we all feel very proud that – with the help of Arts Council England – we have pushed the boundaries of what is possible.

If what we have done here improves the ‘AnimAlphabet’ experience of just one child, or one parent, then it has all been worthwhile. And who knows, maybe one day we might not even be having this conversation as accessible performances will just be the norm.

Either way, we are really proud to be offering a BSL signed video interpretation at every single ‘AnimAlphabet’ show at this year’s Fringe.

‘AnimAlphabet: The Musical’ is on at Pleasance Dome until 27 Aug.

LINKS: animalphabetmusic.com