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Jonathan Lloyd - Love and Information, Solar Bear and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland's British Sign Language and English Course

When Jonathan Lloyd decided to direct a production of Caryl Churchill's play, Love and Information, with final year students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland's unique three year BA Performance in British Sign Language and English degree, he knew it wasn't an obvious choice. On the one hand, the recently installed director of Solar Bear theatre company had a group of performers who all define themselves as deaf or D/deaf (more of the latter definition later), who would be embarking on their first ever tour of professional venues. This would showcase the company's talents with maximum exposure beyond the relatively safe confines of the academic environment.

On the other, Lloyd had selected a play looking at the information age, but which, over its fifty short scenes, is seriously open to interpretation. With no stage directions or any indication of setting or character names, the result of this is a tantalising production performed by a cast of ten in a mix of British Sign Language and English.

“There are no clues to where we are,” says Lloyd, stepping out of a noisy rehearsal room. “Caryl Churchill is well known for playing with form, and this is no exception. “That's partly to do with what the play is about, which is what the effect of living in a world where you're bombarded with information has on things like love, sex and relationships of all kinds. There's no more sense of that than what comes from the dialogue that she's written, so we've spent the first two weeks of rehearsals trying to find out what might be going on, and who these people are.”

Churchill's play first appeared in 2012 at the Royal Court Theatre in London, and has been performed several times since in completely different ways. Despite such potential for misunderstanding, Lloyd sees this as a positive thing.

“We've tried out various situations, to see what interesting things that might throw up,” he says. “Because the course at RCS is about theatre-making and directing as much as performing, we wanted to do something that would really challenge the students, and out of the process we've been going through over the last couple of weeks, that's really given them a strong sense of ownership.

“On one really simple level, because we're working simultaneously in British Sign Language (BSL) and English, that sets up a fascinating process, whereby actors working on a scene are not only making choices about what the scene is about, but are also dealing with deciding what language it might work best in. The whole group's shared language is BSL, and what has come of that is that, out of the fifty scenes, about forty of them are done in BSL. As a means of expression, that means the actors have to work at a completely different level, so the actors also become translators, translating Caryl Churchill's words into BSL. We're doing all that as we go, scene by scene, and that really takes everyone out of heir comfort zone, but again, gives the actors a sense of ownership.”

For audiences too, interpreting what is going on is happening onstage is a challenge. To this end, captions have been integrated into the action.

“One of the things that can be frustrating about captions sometimes is that they can be quite high up,” says Lloyd, “so you spend all your time reading them. What we've decided to do is use captions as we go, and place the screens close to the action. The work is being made for both deaf and hearing audiences, and there might be members of the audience who are deaf, but who don't use BSL, so it's important that the work can be understood by them as well. We don't use interpretors onstage either, and that's because, we want the company to be seen and showcased as actors first and foremost, and that the performers are at the absolute front and centre of the show.”

In terms of how performers define themselves as D/deaf, Lloyd explains it thus.

“Essentially, those who use a capital D tend to experience deafness as part of their identity,” he says, “whereas those who use a small d are solely people who can't hear, and maybe don't see themselves as part of deaf culture. We tend to use both, because we think it's important to make distinctions between different people's experiences.”

Lloyd comes to Solar Bear following stints as an associate director at Soho Theatre, where over nine years he set up and ran the company's education and outreach programme. He then became artistic director of children and young people's company, Polka Theatre. After this, Lloyd became head of Pegasus Theatre in Oxford. He first came into contact with the possibilities for D/deaf theatre as a board member of London based company, Deafinitely Theatre.

Solar Bear's association with the RCS came following initiatives led by the company's then artistic director, Gerry Ramage and Maggie Kinloch of the RCS. The three year BA British Sign Language and English course – the only one of its kind in the UK – was launched in 2015. With Claire Lamont at its head, the students have performed in a version of Davey Anderson's play, Scavengers, created new work for the On the Verge festival at the Citizens Theatre, and took part in New Dreams, the celebration of William Shakespeare's 400th anniversary initiated by the University of Glasgow, Glasgow School of Art and the Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Collaborations with the National Theatre of Scotland, the BBC and other professional bodies have also been key to the course.

With applications now open for a second crop of D/deaf or hard of hearing performers for the course, this month, a symposium, titled Now You See Me, and co-produced by the RCS and Solar Bear, will explore potential future opportunities for the performers and theatre-makers within the industry after they graduate in Spring 2018. This is something that Lloyd sees as an essential focus of both the course and the tour of Love and Imagination.

“With Solar Bear, we're thinking beyond this production, and want to work with some of these actors again,” he says. “We want to have a positive conversation about different creative possibilities, and different ways of telling stories. “

If all goes well, Lloyd plans to bring an adaptation of Australian artist and writer Shaun Tan 's 2006 graphic novel, The Arrival, to the stage. Told solely in pictures, such a work opens up a realm of possibilities, both for Solar Bear and the actors the company are working with at the RCS.

“It's a extraordinary, strange and surreal book,” Lloyd says of Tan's novel. “It's about migration, and and it tells a story that speaks in a whole range of different languages.”

This ethos is at the heart of Lloyd's aims with Love and Information, and provides the impetus, both for Solar Bear and the course at the RCS.

“Working with deaf performers isn't just a one-off for us,” he says. “This is what we do, and this is what excites us.”

Love and Information, Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, November 14; Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh, November 15; Scottish Youth Centre, Glasgow, November 16-17; Eastwood Park, Giffnock, November 20; Eden Court, Inverness, November 22; Woodend Barn, Banchory, November 23.
www.solarbear.org.uk
www.rcs.ac.uk

The Herald, November 9th 2017

ends

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