Creating a linguistically diverse deaf sitcom through improvisation

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Annelies Kusters and Jordan Fenlon

See above for a BSL version of the blog post by Jordan Fenlon.

Small World is a British online sitcom inspired by Friends. It was created by deaf actors Brian Duffy and Ace Mahbaz, and produced, directed and edited by Louis Neethling (who is also deaf). It features a range of signing deaf characters: Graham is a fussy sign language teacher who often corrects other people’s signing, Laura is a deaf person who is in the process of learning how to sign, Alfonso is an Italian migrant and very creative with sign language art, Chris Baker is a poorly educated deaf person, and Ryan is a Scottish aspiring actor. They live together in an open-plan flat in London, and most dialogue happens on the couch and in the kitchen, which are within visible range of each otherThe flat is frequented by other deaf people, such as: the landlord, a plumber, a conman, a journalist, a film scout, a sister, and girlfriends. The flat thus forms a centre of convergence where deaf people of diverse paths of life pass through, as well as a few hearing people such as an awkward and patronising hearing neighbour. 

We were really interested in Small World because the identities of the characters in the sitcom are conveyed through language use. Sign language varies from person to person and the way we sign partly reflects our background. When someone signs, we might make assumptions about the person based on the signs that they use and how they sign them. For the actors of Small World, the challenge is to create dialogue in British Sign Language (BSL) which reflects their characters' backgrounds and life experiences. How do they achieve this?

When watching Small World, we can see that the five main characters clearly differ through their use of BSL, such as their use of regional variants from Leeds and Scotland; the degree of influence of English on their BSL; the degree to which their signing follows prescriptive ideals; their use of signs from foreign sign languages such as Italian Sign Language, American Sign Language or International Sign; and the extent to which they use artistic forms of signing. For this sheer diversity, the sitcom is unique in the British deaf TV landscape. While the flat residents are multilingual and/or use various registers of BSL, we are also confronted with language-related limitations and conflicts, such as Chris Baker and Laura’s struggles to fit in and Graham’s initial reluctance to accept the diversity of signing varieties within the flat. 

The creators behind the sitcom engaged in a collaborative creative process: the dialogue was produced through improvisation with the actors. After the improvisation sessions, a BSL script was created in the form of a video consisting of clips of the agreed sketches, which were recorded with a mobile phone. In a video about the creation of Small World, creator Ace Mahbaz explains the benefits of using a BSL script: “Why is this the best way for deaf actors? It’s because the language, BSL, comes from within us. It’s original. To translate BSL to English and then back to BSL feels very unnatural. (…) We wanted to keep the BSL as really deaf. That’s why we used a BSL script”. Brian Duffy added, “if it was an English script to be acted in BSL, the actor needs to take on two roles: acting and translating at the same time. They should be actors only.” The argument that natural BSL should be used on the screen returned several times in our interviews with the two creators, the main actors and the team’s BSL advisor. With them, we discussed footage of the programme, tracking the process by which different identities are moulded from rehearsal to screen.

What is crucial here is that, for the creators of Small World, “natural, really deaf signing” means very varied language use, and improvisation was the way of letting this diversity emerge during the process of rehearsals. The actors explained that they started with the development of the characters’ life stories, and the characters’ way of signing would then come naturally or spontaneously in the process of characterisation. So, in other words, “natural signing” in this context means natural signing in character – when the actors are in character, they are not signing how they would sign when not being in character.

Through improvisation, the actors had a lot of input into their characters. Actor Sophie Stone, who plays Laura, explained that the actors picked up on things they saw in the deaf community, analysed YouTube videos and discussions on deaf Facebook groups, and reflected on their own personal experiences. In this way they bring together elements of the backgrounds or behaviours of several “real” people in their character. Several audience members said they recognised themselves and others in more than one of the main characters and supporting characters, and everyone declared they knew someone like Chris Baker, the endearing “lad” with a failed education and idiosyncratic signing style.

When developing the characters, the creators and actors of Small World thus engaged in producing caricatures of types of people they encountered in the deaf community, such as fussy BSL teachers, naïve enthusiastic learners or people who mix BSL with other sign languages. Stereotyping is a central strategy, especially for this genre of comedy. Importantly though, actor David Sands, who plays Chris Baker, clarified that these are “more character stereotypes than sign stereotypes. We can sign spontaneously through becoming the characters”. In other words, the characters are more stereotypical than the signing, since the actors engage in creative and flexible signing even when playing a stereotypical character. It is not the case that each character uses one variety only. Rather, all the characters use several different registers and varieties, adapting their signing to their interlocutor and the context. This is one of the gains of improvisation; by creating the dialogue during rehearsals, people adapt their signing to their interlocutor when in character, rather than acting according to a script created behind a desk.

Small World is a sitcom, so the aim is for it to be funny. The question is then: to what extent is it possible to sign “naturally” when doing comedy? Is “natural signing” funny enough? Creating humoristic TV is accomplished in Small World by punchlines and stories, but a lot of the comedy is implied in language use by using specific facial expressions, funny mistakes in signing, and exaggerations. For example, Graham uses American Sign Language when he is drunk. His slipping into another language is funny, since it is something he is generally against. However, some of the exaggerated signing and mistakes may not feel natural. For example: would Laura, in real life, make this many sexual-looking mistakes in signing? There is thus a productive tension between producing “natural” signing and the aim of creating comedy.

Is so-called natural and diverse signing always understandable for a BSL-using audience? Some of the signing in Small World is sloppy, informal signing as is used between best friends; some signing is very poetic and artistic; some signing is mixed (such as BSL and Italian Sign Language). The writers and actors emphasised that, in general, we can never understand everything, which is true both for real life and for TV. BSL advisor Clark Denmark, who advised on the language used in Small World, emphasised it was a quest for a good middle solution between “naturalness” and “understandability”. Yet some viewers in an audience reception study we undertook found it more comfortable to watch Small World with English subtitles even though they were fluent BSL signers. Many of the jokes got lost in the subtitles though, such as Laura’s mistakes and Chris Baker’s typical signing style.

In summary, the creators and BSL advisor very much supported the idea of producing “natural signing” on the BSL screen, in contrast to performed signing that is translated from English. At the same time, the actors are in character and their language use is stylised. Small World is not a reality show where people are themselves, and Small World has an audience which needs to identify with the characters by understanding them to a certain extent. In addition, the genre is comedy, which comes with its own constraints, freedoms, and expectations. Taking into account these factors, the use of a BSL script based on improvisation sessions was seen as a great way to produce a linguistically diverse sitcom that, at the same time, feels “real” and “natural” to the creators, actors and audience.

Annelies Kusters is Associate Professor in Sign Language and Intercultural Research at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. She specialises in the study of sign multilingualism, mobility, and language ideologies. 

Jordan Fenlon is a linguist who has published research on the linguistics of sign languages, corpus linguistics, and sign language teaching. He received his PhD in 2010 from University College London and has held research and teaching positions at University College London and Heriot-Watt University. 

Small World was produced by Mutt and Jeff Pictures for BSL Zone.

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