‘Being D/deaf in the room’: by Stephanie Back

Updated: Sep 28, 2018

Hi, my name is Steph and I am profoundly Deaf. I play the role of Mary in 2023 and this is my first ever professional acting role in which I am speaking, rather than using British Sign Language (BSL) upon the stage. What I love about playing Mary is that she is so sure of her Deafness and easily asserts herself in the hearing world for her communication needs. She is a really focused and determined soul and a really interesting character to play.

I am the only Deafie in the room and I come with my gorgeous terps (BSL interpreters) who translate all the spoken conversation into BSL for me. If I’m using BSL to express myself, they will also translate this into English for anyone that needs it. They are amazing humans, I love them! I was given the opportunity to lead a brief Deaf awareness session at the start of rehearsals; this was really fab. It has been really lovely to see the cast and crew try to communicate directly with me too such as on our breaks as it really makes me feel welcome within the team. I’ve also created sign names. In Deaf culture we give a person a sign name rather than having to fingerspell out the person’s name every time we talk about them; these could be signs linked to personality, the way someone looks or something that they do a lot. I’ve given these to the whole team who’ve happily accepted them!

When learning lines in previous shows, I have found them quite easy to learn. Once I have worked out the final translation of the script into BSL, the lines typically have managed to stay within my head without much more repetition. I think this is because BSL is such a visual, kinaesthetic language that I find it so easy. Learning spoken lines for me provided more of a challenge. I’d find myself saying the line out loud and then it felt like the speech would just evaporate into thin air. I cannot hear the words that come out of my mouth and I think this is why it took a lot more time to digest them. I found that I had to link the spoken words to visuals in my head or use physical signs alongside the lines until I felt secure enough in script to take these visual aids away.

Tom and Richard are both amazing actors - the loveliest people to work with (just don’t tell them I’ve said this). But I cannot lip-read them to save my life! This is not saying anything about their lip-patterns however, as, try as I might, I cannot lip-read anyone! During the show Mary boasts that she can ‘lip-read for Wales’ and it has been an interesting challenge at times to pick up on cues. The shorter snappier lines are a lot easier to pick up on in comparison to the longer chunks of speech; these we’ve had to break down and add in subtle gestures so I can pick up and follow which points I am meant to be reacting to should I be an avid lip-reader! Alongside this we have been trying to find the balance between how much I have to look at someone’s face to lip-read but yet not making this so closed in (the audience are important too!).

It is lovely to see more and more D/deaf actors upon the stage and it is an absolute joy to be involved, especially when the character is written to be proud of their Deafness and confident of their identity. I feel I have learnt a lot during these past two rehearsal weeks; a speaking role is very different to a signing role and it has been fun learning how to adapt to this new terrain.

We run from the 3rd to the 13th of October at Chapter Arts Centre. Every show is captioned and there is also a BSL interpreted night on the 11th October. I hope to see you all there!