Bee Detective: Creating an accessible play for deaf and hearing children

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Writer and actor Sophie Woolley writes about creating Bee Detective, a totally accessible play for both deaf and hearing children.

When I decided to write an entertaining kids play about disappearing honeybees, I didn’t expect to end up endangered myself. A week before our opening weekend however, I had a traffic accident on the way to rehearsal and broke my shoulder. Fortunately it was my left shoulder that broke, so I could still write. Unfortunately, I was also star of the show.

Bee Detective features fighting, dancing – and sign language. To make the play accessible to both deaf children and hearing children, the actors speak and sign all the dialogue. You need two working arms to be able to sign on stage, so I passed my detective badge, wings and beehive wig to director Gemma Fairlie who deputised until we could recast.

Fortunately we already had British Sign Language (BSL) Monitor, Daryl Jackson, on board to help polish Gemma’s sign language. BSL monitors are so important when acting in sign language. As well as ensuring clear sign “diction”, accuracy and visibility (comparable to projecting your voice), a monitor can also imbue your translation from English into BSL with depth, richness and nuance.

As newcomers to integrated signed theatre, Gemma and I often felt daunted. Acting in two languages simultaneously meant we sometimes felt like we were patting our heads and stroking our tummies at the same time. The signed grammar sometimes ran counter to the English grammar. We used a combination of sign-supported English, BSL, stage sign, and character physicality and gesture. We invented specific bee-like signs such as “aware”, where we adapted the usual sign to become swivelling beady big eyes on the top of the head.

Flexibility was key. If an actor struggled to make a certain line work in both English and sign, I flipped the order of sentences. We picked and chose the best of both worlds. It led to lovely moments such as the drone bee describing how his worker sister bees look after bee babies. He says the lines and then the BSL flies on, with his hands as the nanny bees desperately trying to keep the teeming bee babies under control in the honeycomb as they fly off in all directions.

Bee Detective is funded by Unlimited, as part of the Cultural Olympiad: a commission to stretch the practice of deaf and disabled artists (I’m deaf myself). As well as it being my first children’s show, we wanted to raise the bar on accessibility. Our usual, ground breaking projected subtitles are bigger, bolder, with stunning animation by James Merry. We have a vibrating hexagon floor for children and parents to sit on to mimic the experience of being a buzzy bee in a hive.

Although doctors barred me from acting on tour, I’ve been able to watch one of my own shows for the first time. Gemma is back in full director mode and our new detective, Elinor Keber, is set to wow deaf and hearing children at what promises to be a game changing disability arts festival at the Southbank Centre.

For more information about Bee Detective follow the company’s blog and for tickets, see the Southbank website. If you’re interested in finding out more about accessible theatre, you can attend a panel with Sophie and others at Unlimited Festival on 30 August – more information here.

Image credit: Elyse Marks