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Photography by Luke Maritz

The Fake Interpreter // A cross-art performance piece

I had a conversation with writer/performer Sophie Woolley, dancer/choreographer Andile Vellem and director Gemma Fairlie on their collaborative mixed discipline show The Fake Interpreter.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”  – Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

This quote is at the top of every page of the blog that Sophie set up to document the process they are undertaking to put the production together. This quote ties together perfectly the core motivators behind their collaborative show. The first being the fake interpreter that was used at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. The second being the necessity for a serious public conversation about the need for good, qualified interpreters. The third being a conversation around who controls language. And lastly, thinking about deaf power, deaf pain and deaf people being able to have these kinds of conversations on their own terms.

Sophie made her name when she started out standing next to the dj box on literary nights at nightclubs in London. She created satirical characters based on the nightlife characters she saw and interacted with. She then received the opportunity to have a column in a lifestyle magazine for one of her characters. She later got the opportunity to write for theatre. Sophie comes from a deaf family and eventually become completely deaf herself in adulthood. While writing her one person show When to Run she was introduced to director Gemma Fairlie who assisted her in the physicality of her characters. Working as a freelance director, there has always been a lot of physicality in Gemma’s work. The two of them have worked together on a number of projects, with The Fake Interpreter being the second show which incorporates sign language.

In 2013 Sophie was introduced to Andile and went to watch his show Unmute; a dance piece about his experiences growing up in the Eastern Cape and how he was not allowed to sign at school. “Sign language around the world is often oppressed,” Sophie explained. “Unmute is about my own story and the fact that I can’t tell my own story. I don’t have my own voice and it is like somebody keeping my mouth shut. With Unmute is it opening up that world for me,” Andile explained. Andile is the Artistic Director for a dance company, Unmute Dance Company, that he co-founded in 2013. With Sophie in awe of Andile’s work and having worked with him on the smaller performance I Am Not The Other at Artscape Disability Day 2015, Sophie wanted to work with him again.

When the fake interpreter life event happened in 2013 Sophie felt annoyed, as well as a sense of helplessness. This was around the same time that Sophie had a cochlear implant. Reflecting more on the privileges of hearing and the oppression of sign language, three years later those feelings had not left. Sophie was encouraged to write about it and this project was selected to be part of the British Council Connect ZA Arts Programme for 2017. Meeting up with Andile again she was able to hear his life story and how he felt about the incident. “What Gemma did was point out the fact that we both felt angry and powerless, and we felt guilty but for different reasons, kind of about our inaction at the time. She asked us to fantasize about what we could have done instead. And so we had lots of crazy fantasies about how we could have stopped the fake interpreter and so that is how things [the script] started to change,” Sophie explained. The show developed into a multi-disciplinary re-writing of the memorial service based on their feelings and experiences.

The show incorporates sign language with the sign language interpreter who supports Andile being part of the performance, and not simply signing on the side. “I am interested in integrating it [sign language] not just in an accessibility way but artistically,” Gemma explained, “We are trying to create a cross-art form piece that has dance in it, that has signing in it, that has video editing in it, that has storytelling in it. But that we bleed between these aspects. That it has that feeling of sort of creating a new genre where all of these aspects are vital to the storytelling.”. Reflecting on the importance of this show Sophie expressed that, “any kind of cultural output that shows deaf culture will be really powerful and help people to see this invisible world.”.

Andile expressed that this show provides an opportunity for advocating for deaf rights and the need for sign language to be recognized worldwide.”It’s a beautiful language. It has got variations. Now we are doing theatre, and we are doing it in sign language! And we are following sign language linguistic structures,” Andile expressed. This goes back to the Nelson Mandela quote referenced earlier; the show speaks to people’s hearts.


‘This article forms part of content created for the British Council Connect ZA 2017 Programme. To find out more about the programme click here.’


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