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Spotlight on Sign Language

Updated: Oct 6, 2023

Auckland Theatre Company has long been a beacon of quality theatre and a highlight for theatre goers in Tāmaki Makaurau. We sat down with Natasha Pearce, Head of Strategy, to talk about the important work the theatre company are doing to make their shows more accessible to the Deaf and hard of hearing community.

Can you tell us about the history behind Auckland Theatre Company?

"In the 1980s, Mercury Theatre was New Zealand’s largest theatre company and had also been the training environment for people who wanted to be professional theatre makers and practitioners. Then suddenly in 1992, Mercury Theatre company was dramatically closed. It was put into receivership. There were chains on the doors…and everyone was turfed on the street. A group of people sat down and said, “what are we going to do now?” And conceived the idea of a theatre company that doesn’t have a standing company of actors; that works production by production to make it sustainable. Out of this conversation, Auckland Theatre company was founded…and we did our first work in 1993.

We’re coming up to 30 years of seasons, and it’s gone from being a company that produces outstanding quality of theatre to one that also supports the development of new theatre, the writing of new work, programmes engaging with communities and schools."

How is ATC making theatre more accessible to the Deaf and hard of hearing community?

"For some years now, we have been trying to expand accessible theatre to consistently include NZSL and audio described performances. It was a bit patchy at first. If we got money, we put a show on, but we couldn’t make it part of our permanent programme. This year, we have finally gotten to the point where we can make it part of our permanent programme. Now, it’s every play, thanks to Dentons Kensington Swan and Four Winds Foundation, who fund our NZSL performances.

We wanted it to be every show because part of accessiblity is being able to choose the theatre you want to attend. You know, to change it from “I’d like to go to a play and that’s the only one available” to “I’d like to go to a play and I like comedy or I like New Zealand stories or I like the big show experience or I just want to see everything.”

What were some of the barriers that ATC has focused on addressing for the Deaf and hard of hearing community?

"For our Deaf and hard of hearing patrons, we are trying to make it an easy experience when you come to the theatre. This means, when you’re coming to the theatre, you’re not having to spend energy on – 'Am I going to be able to get around? Am I going to be understood? Am I going to have the things I need to be available to me? Will I feel safe in that environment? Is it an environment that supports my needs?'

One of the things we noticed was that it was difficult for people [who are Deaf and use NZSL] to pick up tickets. People were having to write their names down and that’s because we weren’t able to communicate... So, we have started having an interpreter available for our staff. It means our patrons no longer have to through the not mana enhancing experience of people having to find a pen or find a piece of paper and write their names down."

It can be very tiring advocating for yourself in those types of situations.

"It is and it doesn’t have to be. Because it takes away from what we’re trying to achieve, which is an enjoyable, safe, welcoming experience of going to the theatre with friends…"

How do you support the experience in the theatre?

"We make sure that the seats are well positioned to be able to see what’s happening on stage, as well as the interpreting team, who are just off to the side. We make sure the interpreters are well lit and think about how far patrons are sitting from the stage, so that the sight lines are right.

We have a T-Loop in place, and we have a hearing headset that’s infrared, that people can borrow as well. Depending on what your needs are - there is more than one way we can support them.

We also hold our accessible seats for quite a long time before the show goes on. So, it doesn’t matter how late you book your tickets, you can still get into seats that are appropriate."

Is there a discounted ticket?

"Yes, it’s $20. All of our accessible tickets are $20. And, you can also get a $20 companion ticket, because it’s a social experience."

NZSL Interpreter from Platform Interpreting NZ

Can you tell us about how the director works with the NZSL interpreters? They’re not coming in cold on the night and interpreting on the fly are they?

"No! There’s a huge amount of work that goes into it. We send out the scripts weeks in advance to…Kelly Hodges and the team, from Platform Interpreting. They are invited along to see a stage rehearsal and an early performance. We record a performance for them so they can watch it multiple times before the performance.

A big part of it, from what I understand from Kelly, is interpreting the intention. Particularly, with jokes. I know that she works very hard on what is intended in the dialogue so that it is interpreted in the translation. They come in, we light them, we have a little run through and then we do the show."

It must require quite a bit of creativity to ensure the intended vision for the play is translated accurately.

"Yes. We did a show last year that was called The Haka Party Incident, and the cast was an ensemble cast and each member played multiple characters and the only thing that changed was they might change their voice or the way they stand. So, Kelly brought into her interpretation a little gesture that kind of explained the change in character…she showed that flip of character for our Deaf patrons as well. Kelly puts a huge amount of work into it."

How does having NZSL interpreters on stage impact the overall performance?

"I feel it adds to the performance as a whole. And also, having it in every season helps normalise the experience. It demonstrates very visually that theatre is something everyone should be able to come along to. I always have to go along a couple of times - so I can watch the play and then watch Kelly."

How can the Deaf community provide feedback?

"We are always open to new suggestions. If anyone from the community has ideas about how we can do it better, we’d definitely love to hear that!

If there are any Deaf clubs or groups out there who would like to find out more about what we do, we are happy to come along and talk to them and we’ll organise the interpreter. We are keen for any opportunity to tell people about what we’re doing, so that people feel more comfortable coming to our theatre.

We have an accessiblity coordinator and her name is Natalya Mandich-Dohnt. If anyone has a question or would like to get in touch about our programme, they are welcome to contact Natalya:

Our accessiblity offerings are also on our website: or people are welcome to call our Box Office: 0800 282 849, (via NZRelay service) or email:"

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