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Ellen Addis, Midlands 4 Cities PhD student at Hay Festival, watched some of the top researchers from the University of Birmingham’s  College of Arts and Law as they took to the screen in this year’s Hay Festival ‘Lunchtime Lecture’ series to lead talks and debates showcasing their research. 

Dr Abigail Rokison-Woodall, Senior Lecturer in Shakespeare and Theatre and leader of the Signing Shakespeare project was joined by Tracy Irish (RSC), Angie Wootten (University of Birmingham) and Charlotte Arrowsmith (actor and director) to discuss Signing Shakespeare's aims and methods and to showcase films made with the RSC.

The Signing Shakespeare project is a collaboration between the University of Birmingham and the RSC and has worked with D/deaf theatre practitioners and teachers of the D/deaf to tackle the problem of access. It has undertaken a pilot study on Macbeth with three schools for the D/deaf, producing active lesson plans based on RSC rehearsal-room practice, and making films of key scenes in British Sign Language. The talk oscillated between the four women’s different perspectives of the project and had a BSL interpreter.

The lecture underpinned the nature of translating Shakespeare into BSL as a creative process, one which uses drama as an educational tool for D/deaf children and young people. More than anything, the lecture emphasised the necessity of working with D/deaf practitioners to create theatre and make the correct accessibility adjustments. The key principles of Signing Shakespeare are primarily: closely following the chronology of the narrative to stimulate the audience’s mind; using explicitly visual resources; reinforcing cumulative knowledge and exploring interpretations; the short films by D/deaf actors for D/deaf students.

When we spoke to Abigail Rokison-Woodall about her experience speaking at the digital festival, she said:

“It was a great delight to be able to share a project that means so much to us all with a wide and varied audience.  The digital format, whilst obviously lacking the wonderful atmosphere and excitement of the live event at Hay (at which I have spoken a number of times), served us well.

Certainly pre-recording and being able to stop and start enabled us to ensure that we kept to time (something that can be tricky with four speakers).  It was quite a feat for those involved - running a live studio with five of us.

I think that it was most challenging for Charlie (Arrowsmith) and Laura (our signer) since a small screen does not lend itself particularly well to signing, which is something that ideally involves the whole body.

The main thing that I missed was a connection with the audience.  I have no idea how many people attended the event, or who they were.  We couldn't gauge their reactions, which is always so important when presenting work and we couldn't hear their thoughts - anonymous questions typed in a box is not the same thing as a live question period.”

Professor Rebecca Gould, writer and Professor of Islamic Studies and Comparative Literature and Dr Kayvan Tahmasebian, poet and Marie Curie Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham delivered a presentation on ‘Translation as Activism’ where they explored the theories and ideas behind The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Activism, for which they are co-editors of, and  their forthcoming book on translation as activism. 

Rebecca Gould and Kayvan Tahmasebian spoke about the role of translation as an act of activism, with the activist translator discovering, revealing, and highlighting the translational sensitivities of oppressive power relations. They discussed the collaborative nature of co-editing and co-authoring books as one of solidarity and constant education, noting importantly that once a text is translated or written, it has its own agency. Looking at translation from very global perspectives, Kayvan underlined the importance of the temporality into which a text is translated which can impact its reception and activism. They ended the talk with advice for translators who want to be involved in translation as activism to learn from other disciplines and professions like anthropology, to live translation and take it into their daily lives.

 Rebecca Gould and Kayvan Tahmasebian said:

“We greatly enjoyed the opportunity to share our work on translation and activism with a wider audience. The digital format enabled us to connect with listeners around the world. It is also great to have the conversation archived, so that others can listen in the future.”

The final contribution at Hay from the University of Birmingham was from Professor Karen Harvey who retold the story of the hoaxed 18th century media sensation of Mary Toft, who had started to give birth to rabbits. The story was uncovered to be a hoax, and in her talk, Kaven Harvey used archival research in her lecture to explore the motivations of the medics who examined Toft, the role of the women in the fraud, and the reasons the case attracted the public and political attention of the King and his government. As the talk was pre-corded, Karen was able to discuss themes and ideas further with the audience in the live chat, answering any questions they had directly. The lecture introduced the theory of the maternal imagination, the ancient idea that women’s thwarted desires and thoughts could affect their unborn child by turning it into a monstrous birth. Interestingly, the lecture explored the famous case from Mary Toft’s perspective, underlining the complex gender relations at play, something that Karen does in her book The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder.

All of the speakers saw the digital environment of the festival as an opportunity to bring their research to more people. Karen Harvey said:

“For me this was an invaluable opportunity to reach a broader audience, and a genuinely international one. My talk was pre-recorded but there was live chat throughout. The first comment was from an individual in Australia. Though it was a rather strange and disassociating experience to listen to myself, it was really satisfying to be able to engage with the audience through the chat during the event. It was especially gratifying to have so many appreciative comments at the end - which were a fine alternative to the conventional round of applause.”

Hay Festival 2021 was the thirty-third edition of the annual literary festival and took place from Wednesday 26 May to Sunday 6 June 2021. Since 1988 Hay Festival has brought readers, authors and publishers together to share stories and ideas in live events. Seeking to stimulate creativity and reading in live sustainable events, Hay Festival works to engage diverse audiences with the value of literature.