Picture depicts two actors; Ioan Gwyn and Stephanie Back practicing a scene together. They stand next to each other; Ioan (to the left) blankly stares ahead as he pretends to take a shower, Steph (to the right) faces the camera whilst clutching her private parts as if she’s been unexpectedly caught naked (Actors are fully clothed).

I Said I Love You: a peek into our tri-lingual theatre world!

Steph Back takes us through I Said I Love You (ISILY), a deaf-led theatre project exploring the cultural connection between Welsh Language and British Sign Language (BSL).

Shwmae. Hello. A wave (Sign Language). My name is Steph, I am fabulously Deaf, and I am the lead artist for “I Said I Love You.” I wrote this blog to give insight into my experience making tri-lingual theatre.

For context, I Said I Love you (ISILY) is a piece of new-writing that explores in-depth the cultural connection between Welsh Language and British Sign Language (BSL). Back in 2017, myself, Elise Davison (Director) and Alun Saunders (Writer) started to question why D/deaf people in Wales (our fabulous country) had such limited access to the Welsh language; we had no idea what a can of worms we were opening! Extensive research into the history of Welsh language and culture and BSL/ Deaf culture revealed similar experiences for both cultures, most prevalent was the oppression of the languages by the dominant English Language. This is still the case today.

ISILY is our response to this. With the Welsh language and BSL constantly fighting for attention, why can’t they work together? With great thanks to funding from Unlimited and the Arts Council Wales we have been able to tackle this subject matter head on. As a result, ISILY has evolved into a character-driven piece of meta-theatre that takes a darkly comic look a prejudice and miscommunication. Joyously ‘un-PC,’ it’s an invitation to try, to challenge the fear of getting it wrong, demonstrating that trying to communicate IS the most important thing.

Picture depicts (from left to right) director Elise Davison explaining something to the actors, BSL Interpreter Lianne Lusty interpreting and writer Alun Saunders looking up from his laptop to join in the discussion.
Photo Credit: Kirsten McTernan Photography.

One of my favourite examples of where the three languages truly entwine was in the way we developed one of my semi-autobiographical monologues. We began creating it with pure BSL, I signed about a real-life personal experience and one of our BSL interpreters voiced this over in English. Alun then took this story and used parts of it to create the monologue, which we then translated back into BSL. Then came the decision, to voice-over or not to voice-over? When working in three languages we had to make choices over which language(s) the audience would access each part of the play in. This monologue truly brings to light the oppression that Deaf individuals can go through an, consequently, it felt wrong to provide access in English (whether spoken or creatively captioned) as it wouldn’t truly encapsulate the powerful message that we were trying to portray.

So, we decided to caption this in Welsh only with no voice over. But instead of using a full Welsh translation we decided to use Welsh words written out in the order of BSL syntax. Why? We wanted to highlight the similarities between Welsh grammatical structure and BSL; we wanted to bring these two oppressed languages together in this raw powerful moment of expression. And to maybe make the hearing, non-signing, English speaking audience experience for a moment what it is like to have access denied.

This, I’m sure, sounds like an incredibly complex process! But we were experimenting; we needed to find the right way to truly centre the writing around the BSL and the Welsh. At times like this, we did not choose to exclude the English-speaking hearing audience so that they would miss out. We did this because we wanted to give them a taster of what it can feel like to be an afterthought. We wanted the audience members to try and glean meaning from what they could see and found that this deepened the meaning for them. And who doesn’t love some quotes to back this up:

“The way they placed the action within such a universal narrative made it accessible even without being able to understand all the languages.” Audience member 2018.

“The parts I didn’t understand were so engaging.” Audience member 2019.

“I loved the playfulness of it, including how much the audience can understand and the moments of incomprehension as deliberate.” Audience member 2019.

Picture depicts actors Stephanie Back and Ioan Gwyn rehearsing a scene together. Ioan (to the left) looks frustrated as he holds his hands out in exasperation whilst looking at Stephanie who is pulling a grimacing face of disgust.
Photo credit: Kirsten McTernan Photography.

And another thing – our entire team, in their real lives, have their heart and soul fully embedded in these cultures and communities! Our writer, Alun Saunders, is Welsh and is award-winning for creating bi-lingual work in Welsh and English. I asked him what it has been like for him to branch out into the Deaf world and working with BSL: “For a good few years now I’ve believed in doing new things, particularly things which scare me. Working in two spoken languages can have its challenges, but I’ve loved the new – and yes, daunting – challenge of also working in an unvoiced language with which I’m not familiar. All I can do is my very best to bring integrity to the project and a genuine desire to learn about other people’s lived experiences… and then share these with others.”

To be leading this project as a profoundly Deaf BSL-using woman, now that feels pretty bad ass! It truly feels like our rehearsal room is equal; everyone needs access, some for the Welsh, some for the BSL, some for the English. And yet, even without our interpreters, we all find a way to get along – and that is the beauty of it, much like the show.

Director Elise says:

“Working on ISILY has been one of the most thrilling and most eye-opening experiences of my career to date. During the process we all felt out of depth and very vulnerable at times and it has been a blessing to have a team who completely embraced this process. From the vulnerability we found common ground, a truth, and a real mutual respect for all the languages and cultures represented in the space. A melting pot of ideas and I felt like a sponge just soaking it all up. It’s been an honour and a privilege to work alongside Steph in this journey.”

Ultimately , I cannot write a blog about I Said I Love You without a massive thank you to all the people who have made it possible along the way. A thank you to Unlimited, Arts Council Wales, to all those who wrote letters of support, to the Wales Millennium Centre, Taking Flight Theatre, The Other Room Theatre, The Welfare Ystradgynlais, The Ffwrnes Theatre, Jenny Sturt, Hadley Taylor, Birkdale Trust for the hearing impaired, National Theatre Wales, our audience members, and most importantly to Elise for not only being my partner in crime throughout all this, but for empowering me on a day to day basis to be the strong and fabulous Deaf woman I am today.

Want to see more things “I Said I Love You”, why not give @deafandfabulousproductions a follow on Instagram!