Director Jeni Draper and company member Lisa Kelly were on BBC Front Row on Tuesday 12 November 2019:
Samira Ahmed (SA,) Jeni Draper (JD,) Lisa Kelly (LK)
SA – Charlotte Keatley’s play, My Mother Said I Never Should is a powerful saga about four generations of mothers and daughters over the course of the twentieth century. It deals with teenage pregnancy; single motherhood; and the challenges of careers; of going further than our mothers’ may have been able. They play isn’t naturalistic, jumping in time and place and there are scenes when all four characters play together as young children on waste ground. It’s been staged all over the world, from Japan to Peru, in dozens of languages. Now a new staging in Sheffield uses both English and British Sign Language. Earlier today, I spoke to actor Lisa Kelly, who makes her professional debut playing Rosie and the director Jeni Draper, whose idea it was.
JD – I’ve staged it with 3 Deaf actors and 1 hearing actor - and within that company we have profoundly Deaf, sign language user - EJ, and we have 2 Deaf actresses who both sign and speak. And we have a hearing actress who is a fluent sign language user. So that gives us the flexibility to have scenes that are just in sign language; scenes that are spoken and signed at the same time; and also some scenes which are just spoken. And then on top of that we are adding access for audiences, so we have captions on the screen, and we’ve certain scenes which are live performed just in sign language but will have a voice recording playing at the same time.
SA – Lisa, tell me about the part that you play?
LK – I play Rosie, she’s the youngest character of the whole show, and she is fun, quite direct, she’s like naïve.
“Hold this - so you can see your face in it. Sit down on the piano stool.
What are you going to do?
Close your eyes.
Smooth the wrinkles away.
Ooh, nice warm hands Rosie.
Now open your eyes, Gran.
There, see, not old really, only on the surface. My outside’s the same as my inside. That’s why, when I talk, Mum thinks I’m being rude.
When you’re old, if you’re rude, they just think your mind is going. They don’t understand that it’s anger.”
LK – I play different ages, so she’s 8 years old, 11, 15 and a half and 16 years old. So it’s quite a challenge to play the young character, then up to the mature character, but it’s a fun character to play.
SA – I wonder if the production might be more theatrical in a way, because presumably you’re telling the story in a more physical way.
JD – One of the things that Charlotte and I have talked about is, and I think she really likes is that we’ve really brought out the physicality of these 4 women. The Wasteground scenes are my favourite scenes I think and that’s where you see the wild children playing.
LK – You know how all children are very imaginative and they just come out with the weirdest things or random things and we had that opportunity in the play, like if we had to sign a baby, or a pregnancy we would just use the hand and demonstrate it, like a baby growing out of her tummy. Or things like a cord coming out of the mummy’s tummy because of the baby and we would demonstrate the cord and things like that. There was a lot more visual and it was more funnier that way.
JD – We’d get quite brutal with those, we’re, they say things like what are girls made of? Sugar and spice and all things nice? Well, I think we throw that on its head.
LK – Yeah, and I think with hearing people, they would probably like portray via the tone of voice and with volume and things like that but because we’re deaf and we rely on visuals of everything that we like play in a visual way - more than hearing people.
JD – Yes, it’s a lot of imaginative play – that’s what we’re showing.
SA – Jeni, have you and Charlotte Keatley changed the script much in developing it for a bilingual version with British Sign Language as well as English?
JD – Yes we have, I think it’s’ one of the reasons why Charlotte and I get on really well is because she’s very open minded to the changes that we have made. The changes, we’ve kept the story – absolutely, but when you transpose it to a difference culture - which is what we’re doing by placing it within the Deaf community. There are certain things that need to be adapted, so for example, there’s a phone call which is a very important scene but that makes it tricky when you’ve got one of the characters being Deaf. Back in the time – it’s a phone call that happens in the 1970s – where the technology wasn’t there to have a direct communication with a Deaf and a hearing person in separate places. So, we’ve had to come up with a solution, being it’s Lisa who actually plays an extra character who we have created, who’s the neighbour’s daughter dressed as a girl guide. She’s obviously doing one of her badges and comes in an interprets for Doris, the eldest character in the play, played by Ali Briggs. So she’s physically in the room, interpreting for Ali. So, we’ve had to make some adaptations like that – which has been quite fun, and Charlotte’s been well up for all of those.
SA – Lisa, when the place was originally written, it was right up to date, whereas now because it ends in 1987, it’s sort of a period piece and I wonder what you make of it as a young actor?
LK - Well, there is a difference, like Jeni said about the phone call. If you think about back in the day, Deaf people had limited privacy, so back in the day people would hearing families or hearing neighbours to do the phone call for them, and they would like lose their privacy. But nowadays because we’ve got iPhones and all that, we have video call, so it’s weird like going back in time and playing a character that - as a Deaf character, in the time that would have no access to their own privacy.
SA – Jeni, what do you think of the issues explored in the play and how far they still apply?
JD – I think fundamentally, this is a play about four generations of women in one family and the issues that are covered in it are still relevant today, and that’s why it’s such a classic and why it’s performed all round the world. And yes, we’ve transposed it to a Deaf community but those issues are still there, whether it’s teenage pregnancy or fighting to have a career and a child; family secrets; oppression from men; fighting for equality. And I suppose on top of that we’ve also got the fighting for equality within the Deaf Community. You know, we’ve worked with a Deaf historian...
LK – The Deaf history, so like Doris (Ali) back in the time she would have no access to sign language because of the Milan Conference in 1880. It was a conference that, bear this in mind, everyone was hearing, and they brought in this little deaf boy and said ‘oh this boy can talk.’ And they made him talk in front of everyone. And everyone was like ‘oh wow! Okay, so we’ll just remove sign language in education and make everyone talk and learn via listening and talking. But, this was decided by hearing people not Deaf people.
SA – Obviously the play has already been in previews, I wonder what audiences have made of the play and what feedback you’ve both been getting from them?
LK – I’ve had my family and my friends over last Saturday, and the really enjoyed it and all the audience reactions are really good. They’ve been laughing at the right times thankfully!
JD – Audiences initially are unsure what it’s going to be like, and I think there might be some concern that they’re not going to get it but we have got a lot of access elements in there, and I think that once they’ve tuned in - you can tell from the laughter, there’s a lot of laughs in it - that they are enjoying it. So, yes, we’re looking forward to opening the show tonight!
SA – which is happening just about now in fact, director Jeni Draper and Lisa Kelly who plays Rosie. My Mother Said I Never Should is at the Crucible Studio in Sheffield. It runs until the 23rd of November and next spring it’ll be touring nationwide to eleven theatres from Exeter to Manchester via Ipswich.
The interview is available for catch up from 14:20 here: