Japanese directors and cast members communicating with Jenny via online (Photo by Ryuichi Maruo)

Overcoming multiple barriers

The stage production “The Tempest – Swimming for Beginners” is being created by artists from three countries, with different disabilities and speaking different languages. Plans to perform it in 2020 were postponed due to the global spread of COVID-19, and the team have finally reached their goal of staging the work now, in 2021, after preparations lasting over two years. Having said this, Jenny Sealey, who is responsible for the project’s overall direction, is still unable to come to Japan during the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic, and the British and Bangladeshi actors are now performing via video. The new challenge of distance has been added to disability and language as one more barrier to overcome.   

The script was first of all extensively rewritten. A bold adaptation based on Shakespeare’s “Tempest” was planned from the outset, but the infection enveloping our world at the present time has now been incorporated into the work, constructing a metafiction in which the actors, with their diverse disabilities, come onstage as themselves even before taking up their roles in “The Tempest”, creating a tempest of their own. In other words, Hero (Hiroe Ohashi), who plays Caliban; Hide (Hidetada Tashiro), who plays Prospero; Sachika (Sachika Segawa), who plays Ariel; Jonny (Rio Sekiba), who plays Miranda; Yanagi (Kotaro Yanagi), who plays Ferdinando; Bandana (Kazumi Hiratsuka), who plays Queen Alonsa, and the other actors become characters in this dramatic work, performing it together with the overseas actors via video link. In addition, the stage manager (Sakura Yoshidomi), who supplies the voiceovers for the parts performed in sign language and the sign language for the parts performed orally, is another important character, assuring the accessibility of the performance. This complicated structure might initially bemuse the audience. However, this confusion, and the way in which even the backstage elements have been transformed into part of the piece, are what make this new dramatic work unique. 

In preparation for the performances beginning on 1 June, the Japanese cast and directors got together from May and rehearsals began in earnest, watched over online from the UK by Jenny, the general director. Just as was the case in the previous workshops, various forms of interpreting are needed. First of all, their disabilities are not all of the same kind. There are deaf actors, a blind actor, actors with physical disabilities, and an actor with invisible disabilities. For this reason, when someone talks, this is interpreted into sign language, and the sign language of deaf people is also interpreted. In addition, when talking to Jenny, it goes like this: there is an English-language interpreter, and then the sign-language interpreter on the other side of the screen communicates the message to Jenny. Jenny replies in English, and the English-language interpreter and sign-language interpreter here tell everyone what Jenny says. Even though Jenny is connected online in real time, the fact that she is not actually here in person surely makes it hard to see everyone’s expressions clearly, rendering communication even more difficult. Nevertheless, it was clear that everyone was making every effort to communicate, spending time to understand each other’s intentions.

Jenny Sealey directing remotely from UK (Photo by Ryuichi Maruo)
Japanese directors, Hiroe Ohashi and Yasushi Oka (Photo by Ryuichi Maruo)
Kotaro Yanagi and Sachika Segawa (Photo by Ryuichi Maruo)

Rehearsals started from the basics, reading through the script together. When questions came up, Jenny was consulted and each issue was checked: “Who should provide the sign language here?”, “How should we present it to the audience?”, and so on. Since the discussion required interpreting several times over in some cases, progress was slow. Could everything really go smoothly in this way? The actors started to show anxiety and impatience. One day, about a week after the rehearsals had started, some time was set aside for a meeting where each actor shared their thoughts and feelings. This meeting once again threw into relief the difficulty of the challenges which this project is addressing. Even though the members thought they knew about each other’s disabilities, it became clear that they could not fully imagine the degree of each disability and where each person was struggling. Even if there are no immediate answers about how to improve the issues during rehearsals, and to link them to the piece itself, it is surely important first to share the issues with one another. Jenny always spoke about how “the actors helping one another is more important than anything”. Rehearsals are not simply a practice run for the performance; they become an important time for the actors to deepen their understanding of and support for one another. The cast continues to rehearse keenly, aiming for one of their major goals, the unprecedented creation which lies at the end of the process.

Text: Ichiko Enomoto 

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