Edinburgh Festival 2014: It’s the way she signs it - art of telling comedy to the deaf

 

arts correspondent

All aspiring comedians know timing is the key to delivering a joke, but for one act at the Edinburgh Festival this is a particular challenge – as she delivers punchlines using sign language.

Despite sharing a stage with top comedians at the Fringe including Adam Hills and Sarah Millican, few will recognise Catherine King’s name even though her exquisite timing often brings some of the biggest laughs.

As the main interpreter for comedians at the festival, she explains that stand-up shows are becoming increasingly popular among deaf audiences and her ability to make the jokes work is crucial.

To work out how to interpret a stand-up’s routine on stage, first she watches the material and takes “exhaustive” notes. She consults on slang and language used by different deaf groups, before doing extensive run-throughs at home. “I process the jokes and pull them apart and re-construct them in a different language. I have to work hard on the timing, so deaf people in the audience get the visuals at the same time as everyone else,” she said.

“There’s nothing I won’t sign, although puns are nightmarish. The audience do sometimes get a bit carried away with me signing words like ‘wanker’. I don’t edit, I just present the material in a way that is a lot less disruptive,” she said.

The self-confessed “comedy geek” will sign for Fringe veteran Jimeoin as well as rising star Daniel Sloss. The increasing use of a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter has helped boost deaf audiences at stand-up. “Deaf people don’t have a tradition of stand up in their culture,” Ms King said. “In BSL culture, it’s about sitting round in a circle and sharing stories about our community, it’s an oral history tradition. The idea of watching a bloke tell jokes is an odd one, but it’s catching on now.”

Each comedian provides a different challenge. “Daniel’s comedy is text based, and about concepts; I have to work a lot harder on stage. With Jimeoin, the issue is that if I get theatrical it impacts on his visuals. I have to think ahead so I don’t tread on his punchlines,” she said. “The great thing about these two guys is they don’t really include me in the show too much.”

Comedians have made her act out rude words for the benefit of the audience, had her Irish dancing on to the stage and one pretended he was signing for her. Sloss said: “There are laughs to be had from it, but you don’t want to do material just about that as people are there to see the show.”

Ms King registered officially in 2000 and was picked by Adam Hills to sign his show at the Pleasance a year later. “I was terrified about doing it. After Adam’s show I fully expected that to be the end of my comedy career,” Ms King said. “Interpreters in Scotland are trained to do everything, then we narrow it down to something we’re good out. I was never very good at mental health, but I’m quite good at comedy.”

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