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Mary Poppins Civic Promotional 2

In every job that must be done there is an element of fun

When virtual and online performances became the norm during the Covid-19 pandemic, the “arts went dark” for the Deaf community.

It’s why this season of Mary Poppins: The Broadway Musical is a particularly special one for New Zealand sign language interpreter, Kelly Hodgins, as she can help bring joy back into the lives of our Deaf community.

"They can go for a meal with a friend, then to a show, get those endorphins going and feel really good about being part of society, which hasn’t been there in the past,” says Kelly.

Kelly is a NZ sign language interpreter for the musical, bringing dialogue, sound and lyrics to life for our Deaf community.

"We know that the arts are important, we know that socialising with one another is so important for your own wellbeing. For the Deaf community, they haven’t had access to that for so long, and they have only had regular interpreter access in areas of life that aren’t about enjoyment... like GP visits, court or employment.

"They’ve got access to all these other avenues in life but where is the access to enjoyment?”

Auckland Live offered the sell-out accessible NZSL show on October 22, as part of their initiative to increase the accessibility to theatre for all and boost wellbeing through the arts.

Auckland Live Programme Development manager, Georgina Cervin, says a lot of work goes into bringing the musical to life through the eyes and ears of a NZSL interpreter, like Kelly.

"We believe so strongly that access to the arts should be equitable,” says Georgina.

The full season of Mary Poppins, The Broadway Musical, which also includes a touch tour, hearing aid loop, and audio described performances, runs through to Sunday,1 November.

When a promoter brings a show to New Zealand, Auckland Live works with them to present accessible shows to the community. Scripts and video or audio recordings are then given to interpreters, like Kelly, ahead of time so they can start rehearsing.

Kelly says people mistakenly think she turns up on the night and signs away, when in reality she has spent countless hours rehearsing, with her team interpreter, to ensure the audience get the same performance quality as any hearing person would.

"People think it’s just words they’re hearing but everything you hear as a hearing person; we have to in some form deliver that to the Deaf community.”

Unlike generic interpreting, which has a lag time, performance interpreting must be immediate.

"So we’re like actors in a way because we’re performing an interpretation.”

It means when a letter is ripped up in Mary Poppins, Kelly is cued into the music to make sure she rips the letter ahead of a ‘ting’.

Kelly is also positioned on stage so that the audience “can see through her” in a way that doesn’t mean they have to flick between watching her and the action on stage.

"It’s why we often have these shows at the end of the season, so it gives Kelly and the audio describers enough time to see the show a number of times, so they don’t miss that ‘ting’ and they know it’s going to happen. It’s a huge undertaking,” says Georgina.

The first Covid-19 lockdown forced the cancellation of the initial Mary Poppins season, meaning Kelly has had a shorter than usual lead into the show.

In the days before the show, Kelly went through one scene more than five times to make sure she was across the “choppy, changey” nature of it.

Kelly says NZSL access is still a very new concept for New Zealand theatre but unlike other countries, our NZ public is far more accepting of having interpreters actually on stage.

"The NZ theatre companies also say ‘you’re part of our cast, we want you there for that night so that it’s equal access for the Deaf community, they’re just as important as our hearing audience for that night’.”

She has previously worked on Phantom of the Opera, Mamma Mia! and Les Misérables.

“It’s awesome to have an arts organisation like Auckland Live that is so dedicated to accessibility and having companies coming in who are exactly the same way in thinking like us,” she says.

Pictured: Kelly in Les Misérables. Credit: Auckland Live (acknowledgements for LK Creative & The Amici Trust).

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