From Glastonbury to Cinderella – our interview with our pantomime signer, Marie

The Elgiva is committed to accessibility; we are delighted to be offering both relaxed and signed performances of our pantomime this year in order to give as many people as possible the chance to experience something magical. Ahead of our first signed performance, we caught up with interpreter Marie Biswell to find out just how she goes about signing something as frenetic as a pantomime!

The Elgiva: How did you get into signing?

Marie: It was something I wanted to do from very, very young! I watched my mum and my brother use sign language when we were all working together at nursery. We had twins, that came over from Poland, that weren’t really getting Polish, weren’t really getting English and needed something extra to give them a capacity for language – and signing seem to do the trick.

I cottoned on to what they were doing and then when I left school and was able to pay for it myself, I wanted to learn something different. It was a real treat and it grew from there! Now I work as interpreter all around Buckinghamshire and as far away as Basingstoke and Reading.

The Elgiva: Presumably interpreting theatre must have different demands from, say, interpreting at a conference?

Marie: Absolutely! When I’m signing it’s almost like I’m taking on an additional character, as well as taking on the characters within this script. And if they’re singing, I need to take on and show how they’re singing it, what they’re doing and where they are on the stage. The audience needs to see me become different characters, so that they know who is talking in a dialogue. I can’t stay in the same place and be both characters – I have to subtly move to on the stage and take on the different characters. So I need some acting skills myself!

The Elgiva: In our pantomime we have characters, Dames, so there is the challenge of the falsetto voice, plus characters taking on different accents – is that something you are able to portray?

Marie: So that’s all done with body language and how I put over the signs. Ideally I would attend some rehearsals, or a show early in the run so I can see the different types of characters. I usually make rough notes on whether characters speak loudly or speak quietly, so I know for myself and so I’m aware of what might happen and when. Then when the production is happening, I follow what’s going on on stage. Obviously it’s panto, so the script changes every time. There’s no need to learn the script, but I have found that the one thing to get a real feel for is the songs, because even though a deaf person won’t be able to hear the song, they’ll still be able to relate to the music and music plays such a big part in the production itself as well.

The Elgiva: So, if a character’s speaking quietly, or in a whisper, does that mean your signs are more controlled? And when they’re loud, the signs are exaggerated?

Marie: Exactly! If they’re quiet, I’ll go a lot smaller with my signs and if they’re loud, then I’ll go ‘loud’ and outspoken in my body language. Even if someone in the audience has never seen sign language before, they can pick up on the differences in the signing and understand the type of speech I’m signing.

The Elgiva: Do you feel that theatre, and the performing arts generally, are becoming more accessible?

Marie: Definitely. There is something called stage text, which is live subtitles, so whatever’s said on the stage, it comes up on a subtitled screen. There are a lot more of those sorts of performances now and there’s also is inclusive theatre as well, which includes a lot more of the interpreter actually within the production… but I’m a bit like: “Nope, not for me!” I don’t mind a bit of acting, but not the full immersion!

And there are still the sort of the productions that have the interpreter at the side of the stage; if you’re in the audience it’s great to have an interpreter, but you might miss some of the action on the stage because you’re looking at the interpreter, but there’s something happening on the other side of the stage. You might not be able to take in the entire stage at same time. It’s all moving in the right direction, though. I’ve been interpreting productions for about six years now, so this year will be my seventh year.

I’ve been doing various productions, some of  Aylesbury Town Council’s public events and music festivals… I even interpreted at Glastonbury this year! Mac DeMarco and The Vaccines were a couple I really enjoyed signing. There’s no set list supplied or anything, you just get given the name of the band and told “Good luck!” so I listen to some tracks first to prepare.

The Elgiva: I guess you are prepared for standard vocab, but if the cast suddenly name-drops “Parthenope” you have to spell it out?

Marie: Yes – and the cast always like to chuck in stuff like “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” In fact, there’s a special sign for that, but there’s a sort of code among interpreters for stuff like that – we’re not allowed to tell each other, we have to find out for ourselves! I’ve spoken to the Ugly Sisters, and yes, they’re going to throw it in. The challenges are part of the fun of panto, like the slapstick scene – one year I got a custard pie in the back of the head!

Having a signed performance means the panto takes on a whole new depth… there’s an entirely new language happening at the side of the stage, the introduction of a whole new culture. There’s a lot of word play and puns in panto that wouldn’t be received by a deaf person. A deaf joke is a far more visual and plays with the signs. It’s a skill in itself; my job is to find something that works equally well and make it as funny as possible! It works well when referencing famous people – Donald Trump, for example, his name is sign language is a sign about his hair going up and down. Cinderella is a signing showing putting on a shoe and Prince Charming is the sign for prince followed by the sign for handsome. Ugly Sisters, of course is the sign for ugly followed by the sign for sisters – the signs follow each other quickly, really becoming one fluid sign. I can’t wait!

Catch Marie interpreting Cinderella on Friday 27th December at 4.30pm. Our traditional family pantomime is at The Elgiva from now until Sunday 5th January.

19th December 2019