Written by Estelle Savesta, Going Through is written for deaf and hearing actors.Tom Ward spoke with director Omar Elerian about this accessible production:

Going Through is a French play by theatre maker Estelle Savesta. Written for both a deaf actress and a hearing actress, it tells the story of a young woman in an unspecified country that is presumably ravaged by war. She is taken care of by the deaf women, and at one point has to embark on a journey to find her mother who has left to find a better life in an unspecified western country. I spoke with director Omar Elerian about the journey to make this an accessible production:

Omar Elerian & Nadia Nadarajah (image courtesy of Becky Bailey)

How did you come to be involved with Going Through?

Omar: “I found it because I’m part of the Cross Channel reading group, which is set up by the French Institute in order to scout for new French plays that could be translated and brought to the UK. Around three years ago this play was shortlisted, and we did a reading at the Soho Theatre and then in Edinburgh. I had worked with Nadia Nadarajah (one of the two main characters in the play) and other deaf practitioners before, and I also knew Charmaine Wombwell (who plays the other central character) really well so it fell into all nicely fell into place.”

Going Through Bush Theatre

Charmaine Wombwell & Nadia Nadarajah (image courtesy of Ali Wright)

What was the process like of translating a text not only from French, but that is also written for someone who is deaf?

Omar: “The bulk of the work was to take that text and not only to translate the language, but to adapt it so that we could effectively do our work backwards. Because of course, one cannot write sign language.

“We were also very interested in translating it into something other than a standard BSL [British Sign Language] because there are isolated signs that would not fit with the text. So it was important for the cast to almost find their own language.

“I think for deaf and BSL users it will not look exactly like sign language but will look very familiar. It’s a language that is developed and owned by these two characters. We spent a lot of time understanding the text to figure out what these written words would look like.”

Going Through Bush Theatre

Charmaine Wombwell (image courtesy of Ali Wright)

How has the text challenged yourself as a theatremaker?

Omar: “The challenge of how these different languages are combined on stage was really present and also to respect that the timings of these are all slightly different.

“At some point, as hearing people we are dipped in the play into silence. And this makes us feel uncomfortable because hearing people are used to being over stimulated by sound. Those silences in the play are great because it gives those people the chance to focus of the actors’ faces and hands. This, I hope, is a new experience for hearing people. I didn’t, therefore, want to diminish this by filling those moments with something.

“How much do we trust an audience to extract meaning, and to want to understand?

“That is one of the main barriers that deaf practitioners have when making work. As hearing people, we are used to receiving very definite signs of communication. We often look for shortcuts in order to understand people who use a different language to us, but actually it is important to allow people to make an effort to understand.

“That also reflects the wider theme of the play, which is migration and refugee crisis. How much time as a rich, western society are we giving to these stories? It is telling that those people have gone through such hardship and terror just to arrive at the European boarder and be turned into statistics.”

Going Through Bush Theatre

Charmaine Wombwell (image courtesy of Ali Wright)

How do you hope that hearing audiences will respond to this kind of work?

Omar: “It’s an interesting question – what we didn’t want to do was just an exercise in access, or to make sure that everyone can understand everything because that’s not how life works, especially when communicating between hearing and non-hearing people.

“What we were looking for was to put all the languages on the same level, and then to weave them in a complimentary way. So there are moments where the captions, the spoken word, and the signing are in sync, and other times where they are isolated. There are moments where the hearing audience will have to lean in and try to understand what is happening, but the piece also relies heavily of visuals and projections, so there is a lot that can be extracted from context and setting.”

Going Through Bush Theatre

Nadia Nadarajah & Charmaine Wombwell (image courtesy of Ali Wright)

How do you think that British audience will react to this text compared with audiences in Spain and French-speaking Canada, where the play has previously run?

Omar: “The dynamics that the play speaks about are, unfortunately understood uni-laterally. We could have set it anywhere, on the North American/ Mexican border, or on the border between Afghanistan and Iran for example.

“This makes the text accessible for everybody. That was the intention of Estelle originally because the characters are not assigned any specific nationality or coming necessarily to France – or in this version to the UK. They are just coming to a Western country, a place where democracy and documents are more important than humans.”

Going Through Bush Theatre

Charmaine Wombwell & Nadia Nadarajah (image courtesy of Ali Wright)

Your own work has travelled internationally and your background includes studying at the Lecoq Institute in Paris. How do you think Brexit will affect the exchange of art in and out of this country?

Omar: “I think right now we can only feel the psychological effect that Brexit is having, at least in the Arts. In an industry that is always pressured because of the cuts and competition with other medias, this is just another curveball.

“Is it going to affect risk taking? Is it going to flatten the opportunities to receive work and be on the lookout for new work in Europe and further out?

“I’m a ‘European Director’, whatever that means, and I always felt that the focus on British work was my more censored within the English speaking world. So I don’t feel like we were that much in partnership with Europe to begin with in that regard.

“The only real thing that I’m particularly worried about is the potential for freedom of movement to end. That will have a huge impact. That will affect those people who have come here and started making work and contributing stylistically to the British cannon. And will also affect the ability for those people wanting to study abroad at, say, the Goethe Institute.

“We wouldn’t have had people like Simon McBurney at Complicité, for example.”

Going Through Bush Theatre

Charmaine Wombwell (image courtesy of Ali Wright)

Can you talk a bit more about the elements that the Bush have put in place in order to make the production more accessible for your desired audience?

Omar: “The text provides a really great challenge to the Bush as they had never worked with a deaf actor in a main house production before.

“We have worked with an associate company, Deafinitely Theatre, who are leading in making work with, about and for deaf and hard of hearing people and other similar companies. As a result we have fitted fire alarms for deaf people, basic BSL training for the front of house staff so that they can at least say hello and thank you to visitors. The marketing team will also be supplying signed marketing videos to those who require access to them. We will have volunteer interpreters throughout the run. So we are very excited to be able to allow deaf people to experience the show throughout the run, not just on allocated caption nights. There is a real drive to make this a constant within our programming and not just a one-off special. We don’t want to drop the ball!

“I think a lot of the time access is something that gets placed on top of productions. It’s taken a few years for us to develop our understanding so that we can supply the highest form of access not only to the audience, but also creatively. This show then felt like the perfect opportunity to have in the main house in order to raise the standards of access throughout our building.

“There is still a long way to go to make as many productions as accessible as possible. But I hope that this show is a good catalyst for a great conversation both inside and outside the building. This will hopefully open up conversation about how other communities can access our theatre.”

Going Through plays at the Bush Theatre until 27 April 2019. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit the venue website.