Michelle Terry & Nadia Nadarajah in conversation
As the Globe Ensemble’s Hamlet and As You Like It continue to delight audiences on stage, Nadia Nadarajah and Michelle Terry found time to speak to each other about Nadia’s role in the Ensemble and experiences so far.
Michelle: Can you tell me how it’s been for you as the only Deaf person in the Globe Ensemble? How has this experience been for you?
Nadia: At the beginning, it was very nerve-wracking. Before we started, I was thinking is it worth it? What’s it going to be like? And it’s such a long commitment with the contract. But, I’m quite a strong, determined person and I wanted to be part of that ensemble. I had performed at the Globe before with some other Deaf performers, so I wanted to see how it would be to bring Deaf culture and sign language into the play. I thought that the Deaf awareness session on the first day, when the ensemble all came together, that was always really helpful to do. It helped everybody know where they stand, and it enabled a more direct interaction. That sort of thing needs to happen to establish good relationships. We had a team of eight interpreters working together throughout the rehearsal process. I felt we became one big family, I never felt left out, I never felt that I was ignored or not listened to. The questions I had were the same as any other questions any performer might have. I never felt that anybody was changing in a negative or patronising way for me. I think everybody’s learnt a lot, I’ve learnt about the hearing world and the culture of hearing people. Thinking about Shakespeare in particular, and his place within the culture, about tone, and Shakespearean language — before, I was working with a group who were all Deaf performers and we had a two-week process of translating the script prior to rehearsals and I think we didn’t have that process with these two productions and there are things to be learnt from that about the need for the language to be worked on.
About two or three years ago I wrote an article for a website that a lot of Deaf people visit called Limping Chicken, about the importance of the dramaturgical and aesthetic underpinning for the use of sign language. It’s important that the emphasis must be on it always being art and not on being access. Because I get so fed up of this idea of access being conflated with art and that sign language actors are access not art — they can be, but it depends on the skill. I get such a limited access to go and see productions and go and see theatre. I know Federay and Elle (the directors) read that article and it helped them understand a bit more about what my approach might be and how we might approach the work together. I think that’s been successful.
Michelle: Looking to the future, what would we all collectively need to do to respect you further as an artist? What could we learn about how to integrate more of Deaf culture into Hearing culture — what lessons have we still got to learn?
Nadia: Of course, it would have been nice to have other people in the company, I was the only Deaf person in the room, and it would have been good to be able to have that chat, and that perspective of being able to talk about what was happening. To have a collaborator there, who was also a fluent user of sign language, Deaf actors and not just the interpreter. Then you can have the same thing that hearing actors have, with the chat about their interpretation of character and their tone is, investigating what they are saying. It would have been nice to have somebody there who I could have done that with directly and to have talked about it with them. I think it’s interesting because I don’t feel disabled at all, and I wouldn’t use that word for myself. It’s an interesting thing to think about where the disability locates itself. I don’t feel disabled and I have interpreters, but it’s about all of us saying in different ways we are disabled. For me there’s just one thing, which is that I can’t hear, but if there’s communication in place then there’s no problem. If we can’t do that then there’s a shared disability, it is not just located with me. I think if there were other Deaf people, or sign language users in the company, then we would have been able to bounce off each other a bit more. I would have had someone to be a mirror, to have those sorts of conversations in sign language as you’re trying to come to terms with creating a character or creating a part. I think that would have helped in terms of conversation and communication with directors, and thinking about that artistic vision of the work, and to just have another person there to say what do we think this means? Like with Hamlet, I believe two Deaf people came to watch the performance and you were using sign language as Hamlet in a way that they completely understood. Hamlet was in some disorder and that affected how he was using sign language — the grammatical structure and syntax wouldn’t have been so intact. And so, what they witnessed was you using sign language to help elaborate what was happening to your character, in the same way you would in terms of your intonation. To react and to respond and to use the embedded sign language to help bring about what was happening on the stage. The more you’ve got people in, the better that can be.
Michelle: So, as an artist, how do you feel about your place and your character within these productions? Now that we’ve had time to run them, the sign language is developing all the time between all of us — I watch you and Jack (Laskey) using different signs all the time, you and I use different signs all the time in Hamlet — do you see that as an evolving process? And how do you feel as an artist in that process?
Nadia: It’s definitely still evolving. The linguistics and the character are meeting what is happening on stage that night. For example, the idea of the sign for ‘forest’, of how that is signed, you could have that as you’re moving through it or that it is over there, but it depends on your tone. Hearing people make noises to say something differently, and I want to sign something differently depending on what’s happening on the stage. I really love play. I love the sort of risk of saying ‘we’re not fixed, we don’t know what’s going to happen’, and we too can have that with the fluidity of language. Glynn MacDonald was talking about the behaviour with costumes for example, about how in Shakespeare’s time the women in high-class wouldn’t have touched their dress and make-up. As a sign language user, to walk and sign at the same time culturally doesn’t happen very often. We often walk and then stop to sign. Those tiny influences of ‘where would your hands be?’, if you’re in a big crinoline skirt, those things are influenced by what’s happening in the play…
The ensemble works so well together, we’ve had time to get to know each other. One negative, is that we didn’t have time to do preparation pre-rehearsal, and so I felt I was often in a room downstairs making a translation and missing out on some of the things that were naturally evolving every day.
Michelle: That’s a big lesson that we’ve learnt.
Nadia: It did make me feel a bit like how it was at school, when everyone would be in a lesson and I would have to be out doing speech therapy.
Michelle: Interestingly, Jack felt it too, and I felt it as Hamlet and Artistic Director — I would be out of the room. Even being out of the room for just a bit of time, you kind of feel it’s hard to get back in. I think it’s a lesson for all of us — we have to be all together all the time next time. It’s a big lesson!
Nadia: Yes, we’ve all learnt haven’t we? We’ve all learnt how we work together, finding the right people to be in the room…I think my question to you Michelle is do you feel like you can trust me as a Deaf Artist in the room?
Michelle: I would trust you with my life. You’re an artist and you’re so inspiring…Deaf or not Deaf, you’re an artist and incredible. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for being part of this. So, I would like one final question for you: what could we do now? Is there anything that we could do you for you now to make this experience better or easier today, right now?
Nadia: For everybody to be fluent in at least basic sign language. To have that understanding of the language operating with the culture and the community…to have Deaf Actors to come and act and to have their sign language influence the whole.
Michelle: BSL is one thing, but your culture is something completely different, and I think we haven’t begun to scratch the surface of Deaf culture, with how we integrate that into the world…step by step isn’t it!
Nadia: Yes, indeed, indeed! Thank you.
Michelle: Thank you!
Nadia Nadarajah plays Celia in As You Like It and Guildenstern in Hamlet. Michelle Terry plays Hamlet in Hamlet and Adam in As You Like It.