British Sign Language for Stage Management
This guide is a combination of my own experiences and tips shared by other stage managers who have worked with performers using British Sign Language. While this document is mainly aiming to provide guidance for those working in stage management, this guide can be helpful for the technical stage department, lighting, sound and video/projection too. Before applying any of these tips, please speak to the relevant performer and ask if they agree with these practices or if they have different preferences.
In the beginning of the rehearsal process, a discussion of access needs and preferred ways of communication by cast, creatives and crew has to happen. Other ways of getting that information are GDPR forms or by asking the course leader or performers themselves.
Any information must be given to D/deaf and hearing performers at the same time to make sure everyone feels included. It is helpful to explain and talk through written information first, before handing out the documents, so the focus can be on and with you, before everyone starts reading.
For many D/deaf performers English is not their first language, and the English grammar structure is different from BSL one, so using easy English in the callsheets sent out by the deputy stage manager is advised. Theatrical words and systems such as a quick-change or the dress rehearsal might need further explaining.
Generally, more time for communication has to be allowed, and the speaker/signer has to make sure they have the attention of the whole room before proceeding to communicate.
If there is an interpreter in the rehearsal room, the speaker should stand next to them. This helps the BSL users associate what the interpreter is signing with what you are saying. Pauses in speech allow for the interpreter to catch up. While the deputy stage manager usually sits next to the director, is has proven helpful to have the interpreter close by too.
Learning some basic BSL signs, the alphabet and sign names for cast and characters in the play is essential. This can be done through the app or website "Sign BSL" or by asking the interpreter and D/deaf performers to sign. Often there are multiple signs per word.
To get the attention of the performers, you can stomp your feet on the floor, wave your hands, flick the lights on and off or tap them on the shoulder. This technique can be used, for example, to show the start or end of a break. Please make sure the performers are happy with this before you touch them.
Other ways of communication can be through email or WhatsApp group as this can be used for visual communication with written text and filmed videos.
The performers often have to translate written English into BSL before performing a scene. Filming is an excellent way to help the performers remember their scenes and the blocking, including entrances and exits; this is because of the visual nature of BSL. Videos are also a convenient way to look back at specific signs yourself. Having someone in the room to assist with this is helpful. The videos can then be uploaded to OneDrive and shared amongst cast and creatives alike.
Before the D/deaf performers are off book and know their lines, having a big screen with the script to scroll (autocue) has proven to be a practical solution. There should be someone in the rehearsal room to assist the deputy stage manager with that. Different departments can rotate this task between them with the help of the interpreter.
During technical rehearsals, it is helpful to have a spotlight for the interpreter to create an "interpretation station" on stage to allow for better visibility of the interpreter when communicating notes or directions between cast and creatives. The D/deaf performers and the interpreter should select this position together. This spotlight can be used for the stage manager, when they are calling the standby or start of a scene.
Generally, clear visual lines are required, the view from the auditorium needs to be unobstructed.
For the dressing room calls, the stage manager or assistant stage manager might go into the dressing room to announce the calls. If a hearing actor, who is also a signer, is present, they might agree to take on this role. An option other companies have used is a flashing doorbell or colour changing lights. Cuelights are a solution to give cues for entrances and exits from outside of the venue.