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NZSL Interpreted Theatre Inspiring Young Minds

Updated: Oct 6, 2023

For over three decades now, the Tim Bray Theatre Company (TBTC) has been inspiring young minds through the magical experience of live theatre. Each year, 20,000+ young people attend their professional live shows and participate in their workshops and classes.

Accessibility has long been a focus at TBTC, and in 2004, they were the first theatre company in Aotearoa to offer New Zealand Sign Language interpreted shows. Thanks to TBTC's ongoing commitment, Deaf children have been enjoying theatre alongside their peers for almost 20 years.

We sit down with TBTC’s Business Development Manager, Gail Rotherham and Artistic Director, Tim Bray, QSM, to talk about the theatre company’s dedication to illuminating the imaginations of children from all abilities and backgrounds.

* Tim Bray Theatre Company was a recipient of the NFD Trust Community Grant in 2020, click here to learn more about this grant.

Can you tell me about your theatre company and the work you do?

Gail: “The company was established in 1991 and is now recognised as Auckland’s leading theatre for children. We create original stage shows mostly based on local and international children’s books. We have delivered over 100 original productions and toured throughout New Zealand. We even performed to the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall (now King Charles III and the Queen Consort) to celebrate The Queen’s Jubilee in 2012.

We've reached hundreds of thousands of children, and we now have adults who attended our shows when they were children bringing their own children to our shows.

Alongside our productions, we offer opportunities for creative learning and social outreach through our Youth Theatre, where we deliver drama classes and holiday programmes to young people aged 5 – 16 across Auckland."

What can people look forward to when they come to a show at TBTC?

Gail: “You can expect world-class theatre and an experience that will stay with you for a long time to come.

If a show is based on a well-known book - you can expect an honouring of the original work. Authors, such as, Joy Cowley, the late Margaret Mahy, and Witi Ihimaera have acknowledged the care we have taken with their characters and stories.”

Can you tell me about the work you do to ensure theatre is accessible for members of the Deaf and hard of hearing community?

Gail: “As well as offering NZSL interpreted performances, we have had a long relationship with Ko Taku Reo Deaf Education, who attends almost all our shows.

Last year, we introduced Deaf Touch Tours before our shows with Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Children were able to come on stage and experience the instruments up close and feel the vibrations while the instruments were being played. It was a huge hit for the children. We also had a violin that the children can play with and feel the vibrations on their shoulders.

Under our Gift a Seat™ programme, we’re inviting kids from Ko Taku Reo, and their peers from Kelston Primary, so all the children can share the experience. There are up to, at times, 80 to 100 learners coming to see the show..So it’s all-inclusive. They’re all enjoying the show together.

This year, we had 18 students take part in a collaborative project with Ko Taku Reo Deaf Education and Creatives in Schools, to empower Deaf students to perform…It was phenomenal, and at the end, they performed on stage at Ormiston College and The PumpHouse Theatre. It was a piece mainly in sign and movement and mime. All of their whānau came along. It was so moving - we were weeping. It was a truly awesome outcome.

We’ve also got some staff members here at TBTC who are learning NZ Sign Language which is exciting. They’re very passionate about it. They’ve got Deaf friends in the community and they are committed to communicating in sign.

One more thing we’ve done this year is we introduced discounted tickets (Access Tickets for Deaf Patrons) at $21.50 for Deaf audiences. Also, if you are a blind or vision-impaired person, or autistic or neurodivergent person, we have accessible shows available with discounted tickets for you and a companion.”

Can you tell me about your Gift a Seat™ Programme?

Gail: “The Gift a Seat™ programme means children who wouldn’t be able to attend a show for various reasons, get to attend live theatre. A lot of these children might not have even been over the Harbour Bridge. They’ve never seen live theatre, they come thinking they’re going to see a movie. It’s bringing books to life for them.

Most of our shows are based on early reader books and generally New Zealand stories, by New Zealand authors. It’s supporting early literacy for children and we provide a teacher resource guide, which the teachers can use to plan lessons before and after the show. It’s full of cross-curriculum activities.

It was also awesome to receive the grant from NFD Trust in 2020 to help support this programme. If people want to support Gift a Seat™ they can make a gift via our website or when they purchase tickets for a show.”

How do you work with an interpreter to ensure the show is translated accurately into New Zealand Sign Language?

Tim: “I know some very basic sign language but I have to trust the pre-show work done by our interpreters from Platform Interpreting that they are accurately translating the show’s words into NZSL. Kelly Hodgins from Platform has been interpreting our shows since 2004 and so has developed a synergy with our style of shows and particularly my scripts. She will often tell me that sections were a challenge to directly translate (due to say, silly words or a rhyming sequence or joke) but she does her best to honour what the intent is behind the script.”

What does having an interpreter on stage bring to the performance as a whole?

Tim: “The interpreters can be a performance in themselves, and many hearing audience members will say how they enjoyed watching the interpreter alongside the show. A good interpreter, like Kelly, inhabits the characters so the Deaf audience can understand who it is that’s ‘talking’. Where possible, we like to include NZSL in the show itself so that it’s not an add-on but comes directly from the show. For example, when Santa first arrives in The Santa Claus Show the actor playing Santa signs in NZSL for the opening verse and chorus of the song.”

How have the Deaf and hard of hearing community responded?

Gail: “It’s been a great response from the schools in terms of patronage. Ko Taku Reo has attended every single production since 2004, so many of their students will have grown up with our shows. They attend for free thanks to our Gift a Seat™ programme. We would love to see more Deaf families attending our shows and we are offering 3 NZSL performances during our upcoming season of The Santa Claus Show ‘22.

In 2020, we were acknowledged by Arts Access Aotearoa for our contribution to creating accessible theatre for all, an indispensable asset to Auckland. This year, we received the NZSL Arts Award from Deaf Aotearoa. It was wonderful to be acknowledged by the sector for all the hard work we’ve put in.”

What are TBTC’s plans for 2023?

Tim: “We have yet to launch our season publicly so it’s hush-hush at the moment but check out our website and expect some more great theatre based on popular New Zealand and international titles. We are thrilled to have been granted permissions from some high-profile authors to stage.”

Showing soon at Tim Bray Theatre Company:

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