Sarah Simpson: Making ‘Jungle Book’ a BSL inclusive family theatre show

This week, 18 – 24 September 2023, marks International Week of Deaf People and Sarah Simpson Artistic Director of Jellyfish Theatre talks us through her learnings as a hearing theatre maker co-directing a British Sign Language inclusive play.

The Jungle Book took over Wandsworth’s public spaces and housing estates in June with 9 free performances as part of Wandsworth Arts Fringe 2023’s Going Places Commissions.

Cast:  Layla Chowdhury, Isabel Horner, Jordan Laidley, Josh Sian Singh, Laide Sonola, Irina Vartopeanu

Photographer: Andreas Lambis

I’m a hearing theatre maker. Arguably, I shouldn’t be writing this blog for the International Week of Deaf People. But I’m here now – so I’ll tell you a bit about our project, and some of the things that I learnt.

In summer 2023 Jellyfish Theatre collaborated with deaf Associate Director Mary-Jayne Russell de Clifford to make a BSL (British Sign Language) inclusive adaptation of Jungle Book. The cast was a mix of Deaf and hearing actors. All of the actors signed. The idea was that all performances of the show (indoor and outdoor) would be accessible to both deaf and hearing audiences

Mary-Jayne is a Deaf theatre maker – workshop leader, director. I’m (as I’ve said) a hearing theatre maker. I make work for family audiences. I’m very interested in how we can make theatre accessible for everyone.

Since 2021 Jellyfish have been incorporating some SSE (Sign Supported English) into our outdoor shows, supported by a team of qualified teachers of the deaf, from a primary school in Newcastle. This is mainly to increase accessibility for children with Additional Communication Needs.

I’d asked Mary-Jayne to meet me to discuss supporting us with integrating SSE into our upcoming production, Jungle Book. We chatted on a Zoom call, with a BSL interpreter. 

By the end of that meeting, I’d realised that we could do more than integrate SSE. With Mary-Jayne as Associate director, and with a mixed deaf and hearing cast, we could make a BSL inclusive show. And that is how this project began.

As part of our tour, we brought the show to Wandsworth Arts Fringe in June – presenting it in indoor and outdoor community venues across the borough.

The process of creating and delivering the project provided a huge developmental experience. Looking back now, pretty much all of the numerous mistakes made along the way were avoidable, but really valuable in terms of learning – so I’ll share a couple of them with you. If you’re reading this and you’re a Deaf theatre practitioner, you’ll probably think I’m a total idiot. 

Firstly, I should have thought more carefully about the audition space. I hired our usual place. Brilliant – a big room. Fabulous location – so central. Atmospheric with some stage lighting. WRONG. Not atmospheric – disastrous for anyone who is reliant on seeing signs across a shadowy room. You can’t see somebody signing in the dark. 

Secondly, having learnt, by not doing this in the audition, that lines should be projected on to a screen. ( It’s pretty obvious really, as you need both your hands to sign, that you can’t hold a script.) We used a projector for rehearsals. Not without issues: the natural light in our rehearsal room was great for seeing signing, but terrible for reading from a screen. Definitely need to bear this in mind next time, and bring music stands for the scripts.

But overall, the biggest learning point has been TIME.

Photographer: Andreas Lambis

We knew that this would be a new way of working, so rehearsals began with “Deaf awareness” training from Mary-Jayne. We learnt that we need to raise our hand if we want to speak, that we need to look at the deaf person and not the interpreter. That only one person can speak at a time. This is practical, and simple. And it’s really really hard to stick to. For a company used to making work collaboratively, with everyone tumbling over each other verbally, chucking in ideas as part of our creative process, this is a hard habit to break. We are still learning on this one. Still have a LONG way to go.

There are moments in Jungle Book where the signing is like a dance, it’s like choreography, mesmerising to watch. And overall, I’d say that the hearing actors who are also trained dancers found it easier to pick up their signing more quickly. But it still takes time.

Over the course of our project we were expertly supported by more than 20 different BSL interpreters.  (Two for each rehearsal day, and one backstage interpreter to facilitate communication between the cast, the venue and the audience for each performance day) The organisation and administration is time-consuming. You need to book well in advance and you can incur cancellation fees. I’d never had to consider this added layer of complexity before. As Mary-Jayne said while she was tearing her hair out booking all the interpreters: “You (hearing people) don’t have to do anything. You just turn up”. Well, I do prepare for meetings and rehearsals. So it’s a bit more than just turning up. But I take the point.

We began with a “working script” which was adapted largely in the room. Mary-Jayne taught the hearing actors the signs as we went along, as well as creating new signs to express parts of the text. It’s not just making a new show, it’s learning a whole new way of working. You are concentrating so hard that you need to take more breaks. You need to allow extra time for that. And there are moments when communication breaks down and you have to stop, and go back. To clarify everything. It takes time. A lot of time. 

Finally – we’ve learnt that establishing Jellyfish as a company that also make BSL inclusive work will not happen overnight. We are right at the beginning of this path, and we need to continue to prove ourselves. I hope that we have helped to increase awareness of BSL. Now our aim is to invest this new knowledge in our future work. I hope that our tour of Jungle Book has started to pave the way for this future, and for further collaboration with Deaf theatre makers and artists. I guess we’ll find out – given enough time!

This project was made possible thanks to funding from Wandsworth Borough Council as well as from other local authorities and Arts Council England.

Irina Vartopeanu deaf Jellyfish Theatre actor talking to Notts TV about the importance of British Sign Language inclusive theatre.