Opera Australia Blog

Shadow interpreters bring opera to deaf audiences

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Making opera accessible to deaf children was always going to be a challenge, but it’s one that Oz Opera has embraced with open arms. Maxine Buxton has spent seven years working with Oz Opera interpreting shows for children. A few years ago, she came to the company with an intriguing idea: instead of standing side of stage, why couldn’t the interpreters be part of the action?

Shadow-interpreting was becoming popular overseas, but hadn’t really been tried in Australia. Buxton wanted to try this new model at Oz Opera, believing it would deliver a richer experience for deaf children.

“Ordinarily when a show is interpreted into Auslan, the interpreters stand on the side of stage and wear black clothing, and they’ll have little to no interaction with the cast,” she explains.

“Shadow-interpreting means the interpreters are on the stage, in a costume that is in keeping with the theme and colour of the show. The director blocks us onto the stage: we have movements and choreography, and it makes for a much more meaningful experience for a deaf audience.”

“Ordinarily when a show is interpreted into Auslan, the interpreters stand on the side of stage and wear black clothing, and they’ll have little to no interaction with the cast,” she explains.

 “Shadow-interpreting means the interpreters are on the stage, in a costume that is in keeping with the theme and colour of the show. The director blocks us onto the stage: we have movements and choreography, and it makes for a much more meaningful experience for a deaf audience.”

It’s particularly important for young deaf children, who may not yet have learned to switch quickly from the interpreters to the side of stage to where the action happens, she says.

 So for the past three years, Oz Opera shows have incorporated shadow-interpreters. The difference in audience engagement has been astonishing, Buxton says.

“In the past, a deaf child might ignore the interpreters and watch whoever on stage was doing something interesting – falling over for example,” she says. “We would rarely get a question after the show. Now, the kids rush straight up to us and ask us questions and talk about what they found funny or strange. They’re more engaged, they’re really following exactly what the action is and what is happening.”

It’s not simply a matter of putting fluent signers on stage with the singers, Maxine says. “We have to try and pitch our interpretation at a child’s level. When we’re translating, we have to think about how to make the Auslan accessible to kids who come from a signing household right through to those kids who may have only met one signing deaf person before. They have to be able to connect to it.”

Buxton and fellow interpreter Cara Due experience strong support from the cast and creatives involved with the Oz Opera shows. “The directors have listened to what we need and worked hard to incorporate it into shows. The cast have learned how to finger-spell their names. Where appropriate, we’ve added in signs for the cast in parts of the show. It’s as close to a fully integrated show as it could be.”

Buxton started signing out of personal interest – she was just fascinated by the language. She says an added benefit of the shadow-interpreting is putting Auslan front and centre in front of children who may never have seen it before.

“I never had access to signing when I was a kid, but I would have loved to see interpreters at work. It’s great for deaf kids, it’s great for their parents, teachers of the deaf and interpreters to watch and learn from it, but it’s also great for the general community.”

 

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