Press attention – thank you lovely journalists!

The Fake Interpreter Connect ZA project caused quite a stir in the local and national South African media, despite being at the early stage in its development. Here are links to our press.

Image by BubbleGum Club

Blubblegum Club

““If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”  – Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

This quote is at the top of every page of the blog that Sophie set up to document the process they are undertaking to put the production together. This quote ties together perfectly the core motivators behind their collaborative show. The first being the fake interpreter that was used at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. The second being the necessity for a serious public conversation about the need for good, qualified interpreters. The third being a conversation around who controls language. And lastly, thinking about deaf power, deaf pain and deaf people being able to have these kinds of conversations on their own terms.”

The Times, 21 April 2017 (republished online in Sunday Times)

”I’m interested in integrating sign language artistically. We’re trying to create a cross artform piece that has dance, signing, video editing and storytelling intertwined. It’s a new genre,” she said. ”Hopefully it will help people see this invisible world.”

Review and interview in Weekend Special

“Several people were complimentary about Vellem’s dancing and encouraged the director to include more movement in the work, as theatre is about “show not tell” and dialogue does not always have to be verbal. There was also broad consensus that inviting government officials to watch the work could be useful to teach those in power what it feels like when you have no power because your means of expression is marginalised.”

Interview with Azania Mosaka on Radio 702

Audi file listen again:

We also had an interview on SAFM on the literature show with Nancy Richards.

Sophie Woolley (writer & performer),  Andile Vellem (performer), Gemma Fairlie (director), Marsanne Nettling (stage SASL interpreter). Photo by Bubblegum Club. 

Video clips of our scratch performance

We had a lovely audience for our scratch performance of The Fake Interpreter at Artscape, the feedback was useful and everyone was keen to see a full production in future. Andile Vellem and Marsanne Neethling (our stage interpreter) gave great performances and wowed the crowd.

Then came the radio and press interviews and post production work and even a commission to write about the piece for Magma in UK.


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As the lead artist and project manager, I felt proud to have made the project happen although I found it challenging to play several roles off stage as well as on. The good news is that the team wants to work together in future. I’m now searching for a producer to take it forward to realise our dream of a full production and international tour. Here are some clips of the performance, with many thanks to Kerrin Kokot at Just Films Just Films.

Andile’s fantasy sequence

YouTube clip 2

YouTube clip 3

YouTube clip 4


After the performance learners from Dominican School surrounded Andile Vellem to ask him more questions about his stunning SASL performance and dance skills.


Sophie Woolley


Is this the right story to tell?


‘REDUCE YOUR CONSUMPTION IMMEDIATELY”  Road sign warning on the way home.

Devil’s Peak on the way home.

“Is this the right story to tell and is this the right way to tell it?”  Said our director, Gemma Fairlie as we sat in a traffic jam on the way back from our rehearsal today.

That’s one of the things we hope to find out at our ‘scratch’ performance on Wednesday 29 March at Artscape. It may well be that our Q&A feedback session has the whole audience telling us we’re doing it all wrong, and telling the wrong story. And that’s okay.  I’ve written three drafts, so if it’s a bad idea, I need to be stopped now, before it all gets out of hand.

This afternoon, as Gemma laid out the chairs in the rehearsal space to plan the seating and performance area, our DSM, Namhla Kalipa, cheered and gave us the news that our audience just doubled in size, to 65, which is good. However it did mean Gemma had to re-plan the seating and performance layout. It’s fairly unusual to get an audience that large for an afternoon scratch sharing, but a class of teenagers from a Cape Town deaf school are coming.

“I hope everyone knows it is just a rough, scratch performance and not a full, finished show!”, said someone.

“I hope the school learners don’t laugh at my dance movement sequence,” thought the writer.

In the morning, Gemma got me to do some more dance moves. Fortunately Andile is a very generous performer to work with.  Gemma also asked our performance interpreter to integrate into the show. Marsanne will move around, and do a bit of shadow interpreting as well, rather than standing at the side the whole time.

At the moment the story is told in spoken English, SASL, movement and dance.

Tomorrow Andile is rehearsing a solo dance from scratch, and we will also rehearse our ‘fantasy’ scene from scratch. This is the scene in which we re-write the whole story.

There is not much time to achieve everything by Wednesday and we won’t perform the whole script, but I’m happy that we’ve managed get a lot out of the short time we had together. It’s all gone in the script.

We had a photoshoot by Bubblegum media today, and a Skype interview. I couldn’t hear the questions as the sound was bad but that will be online later this week.

Tomorrow we’re also running the video interview clips, edited and subtitled by Tamara McLachlan, which I will be reacting to in the piece.

I have to learn my lines now.

Book now for Fake Interpreter experiment.

The Fake Interpreter – a new multi disciplinary performance by Sophie Woolley and Andile Vellem. SASL interpretation by Marsanne NeethlingIMG_9664.JPG

Sophie and Andile have a plan.
They’re going to rewind time and expose the fake interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.

Step 1 – Stop the blank faced imposter from flapping his hands next to President Obama and ruining this momentous occasion.
Step 2 – Prove that sign language is real and mocking it will have consequences.
Step 3 – Save the world.

Simple really.

Directed by Gemma Fairlie, Sophie Woolley collaborates with Andile Vellem in an exciting mixed discipline experiment, with a scratch performance on Wednesday 29 March at Artscape, D F Malan Street, Cape Town. SASL interpretation by Marsanne Neethling.

PLEASE NOTE. Limited seating, RSVP to secure a seat. 
Arrive at stage door entrance at 2.30pm for 3pm. 

Day One in the rehearsal room.

Lots of thoughts to process about sign language interpreters, communication and Deaf power, after a great first day with Gemma Fairlie,  Andile Vellem, Namhla Kalipa and Marsanne, Andile’s interpreter. We were in a dance studio at Artscape in Cape Town. Here is the evidence:

Andile Vellem of Unmute.
Sophie Woolley and Gemma Fairlie

The scratch performance is at 3pm on 29 March 2017. Limited seating so watch this space for detail so how to reserve a seat!

How to book a real Sign Language Interpreter

Sophie Woolley and David Rubin in ‘Fight Face’, Hammersmith Lyric, Tin Bath Theatre 2008

“I never used to speak or write publicly about this job within the job, of recruiting highly skilled, difficult to come by, interpreters. I avoided speaking about it because I wanted to appear ‘easy to work with’, and also because I just wanted to get on with my real job, without dwelling on how fast I was paddling below the surface to keep up.”

Working with a real sign language interpreter takes forward planning and a crucial wish list of reliable faves, blog by Sophie Woolley.

We’re counting down to the start of our Connect ZA research and development workshop for The Fake Interpreter, which starts on 20 March. One of the first things I did to make this project happen, was to ask for the name of my Deaf collaborator’s preferred sign language interpreter.

It’s crucial to ensure good communication access when working with a Deaf artist. I know this because I’m almost totally deaf myself. I had a cochlear implant three years ago, but before that, I used sign language interpreters too. If I had a meeting or a rehearsal, depending on the job, I always booked either an interpreter or a speech to text stenographer.

I had a list of preferred interpreters with their contact details. I also had a DO NOT USE list of interpreters. I never had to deal with a fake one, but a colleague who worked on one of my shows, did once book me a ‘communication support worker’, someone who was not qualified to interpret. I could not understand what the CSW was signing, and she did not know the sign vocabulary crucial to that meeting, and so was fingerspelling a lot of the words. The meeting ran late and I felt very embarrassed and frustrated. The person I was meeting went away with the impression that communicating with me took a long time, and that I could understand little. I can’t remember why the booking error arose. Sometimes people think real interpreters are too expensive, and so they look for cheaper options. This is often how you end up with a faker.

Sometimes I worked with interpreters who wanted to do more than translate. Some wanted to give opinions on the work that I was doing. This can be a slippery slope. If an interpreter is constantly interrupting meetings to contribute ideas, or going walkabout in order to network for their own benefit, then it damages the Deaf artist’s access, process and fundamentally disempowers them.

In South Africa, there are fewer qualified sign language interpreters than in UK. The training system is a little different and the regulatory framework is still a work in progress. I’m nervous, keen for everything to be perfect, because I don’t want to end up in a fake interpreter / no interpreter situation, like the South African government did three years ago at Nelson Mandela’s memorial!

Andile Vellem, dancer and choreographer

We’re waiting for the preferred sign language interpreter to confirm her availability for our workshop, before we can book our performance time and space and invite deaf audience members. The interpreter is already booked at her regular interpreting job, and must find cover for that before she can confirm with us, so that performer, Andile Vellem, can have his preferred interpreter.  This is the sort of thing I managed all the time for myself, when I still used interpreters. After that awful experience of ending up with an unqualified charlatan, I always tried to control my access myself. It was an extra job on top of the job.

I never used to speak or write publicly about this job within the job, of recruiting highly skilled, difficult to come by, interpreters. I avoided speaking about it because I wanted to appear ‘easy to work with’, and also because I just wanted to get on with my real job, without dwelling on how fast I was paddling below the surface to keep up.

Sophie Woolley ‘When to Run’ publicity shot by Manuel Vason.

After I got my cochlear implant, and stopped using interpreters, I found out that hearing peers don’t realise that Deaf artists have a lot of preparation to do before they can get in the room. Hearing people are unaware of the process. A lot of hearing people didn’t register how much time and effort I used to put into being able to communicate at work.

We’re booking a South African Sign Language (SASL) interpreter to work on The Fake Interpreter, who will provide voice over for Andile’s sign language, and translate my spoken English into SASL. I know some basic SASL myself, and there are similar signs in British Sign Language. But if you want to work at a highly professional level, it’s a good idea not to cut corners and think you can get by through ‘getting the gist’.

Another thing worth sharing about working with a sign language interpreter, is to think ahead to how intensive your meeting or workshop will be. Interpreting is tiring, and interpreters require regular breaks. If the meeting is longer than two hours, you are supposed to book two interpreters. In our devising process, however, there will be natural breaks, there will be a lot of physical, improvisational work being done. We don’t spend long periods talking. I spoke to the SASL interpreter about this in advance, and thanks to her experience in the theatre and working with Andile, she knew that this would be alright.

I’m also hoping to use the same interpreter to be the audience interpreter at our test performance. Her translation will be better because she will have been present at all our rehearsals at Artscape in Cape Town.

A year ago, if you googled ‘book a sign language interpreter South Africa’, the top results were all about the ‘fake interpreter at Mandela’s memorial’. It seemed ironic that anyone wanting to book a professional interpreter, could only find out about a fake interpreter. It’s looking better now though, as the fake interpreter fades from internet memory. Here is a screen grab of today’s google search. Hopefully we won’t need to resort to googling for  interpreter for our Fake Interpreter project!

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3 March UPDATE: Our preferred interpreter is definitely available for our scratch date and is confident about the other dates. So, I can nearly breathe out now.

The Fake interpreter is supported by British Council.


Andile Vellem & Sophie Woolley & Connect ZA.

Introduction: Andile Vellem & Sophie Woolley & Connect ZA.

My name is Sophie Woolley. This blog documents the development of a new performance piece called The Fake Interpreter, kindly supported by British Council Connect ZA cultural programme. There will be a scratch show at Artscape, in Cape Town, at the end of March 2017.

The aim is to be honest and open about the process. I will post photos and links to video footage later in March, when the workshop kicks off. Follow @sophwoolley for notifications of Periscope broadcasts from the rehearsal room in March. You can also follow @tinbaththeatre and my instagram, @evertried

By way of introduction…

I’m a writer and performer from London, UK. In March 2017, I’m collaborating with Andile Vellem, an exciting choreographer and performer from South Africa, and Gemma Fairlie, a talented director from UK. Andile and myself are deaf, and Gemma is hearing. We will be using English and sign language to communicate with each other during the workshop. We’ve booked a South African sign language interpreter to translate during the process, because British Sign Language is different from South African Sign Language.

Sophie Woolley, Andile Vellem, Gemma Fairlie, Marsanne Neethling. Photo by Bubblegum club. 

Andile and I will be revisiting the curious incident of the Fake Interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial at Soweto Stadium.

In December 2013, a bizarre imposter stood next to world leaders, in full view of the world’s press, and pretended to sign. His face was blank and his hands made repetitive shapes that bore no relation to any language at all.

Procured in apparent ignorance through official channels, and overlooked by the world press,  Thamsanqa Jantjie, the faker, nearly got away with it, until a Yorkshire based deaf blogger and journalist called Charlie made the story go viral.

The Fake Interpreter project explores the question of who controls language. In world wide news events of note, who holds the power? Was the world wide condemnation tainted by hypocritical, imperialist scorn? And did the unmasking of the faker do anything to improve life for Deaf South Africans?

Directed by Gemma Fairlie, Andile and myself will work on ways to present our stories from the 2013 week of mourning for Mandela. We will hold a scratch performance at the end of our workshop to invited guests. The scratch will include projected video interviews and be interpreted into South African Sign Language.

I’ve already written a script. I think it’s quite good, but as usual, most of it will be crossed out, scribbled over, cut up and torn up in the first day, as Gemma guides Andile and I through our devising process.

black and white photo of Gemma the director in rehearsal room, looking serious
Gemma Fairlie, photo by Andrew Billington photography

I’ve worked with Gemma before, on plays such as When to Run and Fight Face, and we have a robust, creative working relationship. Gemma can read me like a book, and she pushes me to physicalise my stories in unexpected ways. I always start with a lot of research, a lot of ‘talky’ text, character monologues and dialogue, a lot of ideas, a lot of ‘noise’. In my first draft, because I don’t yet know Andile’s story, I’ve started with a kind of written selfie. In this script I’m a hyperreal version of myself – a classic self important Brit abroad, a tragedy vulture, a post colonial tourist in search of some authentic post -struggle anaecdotes to take home.

‘I was there’, say my thrilled-looking Mandela mourning selfies that week. But when the fake interpreter flapped his hands to infamy, I wasn’t, I wasn’t there. I missed it, and my friend Charlie scooped the weirdest news story of the year and went mega viral.

Selfie central, Mandela Memorial concert, Cape Town, December 2013

In the process ahead, I expect my own feelings about the Fake Interpreter are likely to overlap with Andile’s and sometimes they will clash. Will I even get to tell my story at the scratch? Or will Andile’s story explode mine and change my perspective forever?

A person I interviewed in the Cape Town Deaf community asked me who was performing this piece. When I told them that I was one of two performers, he made a face as if to say, ‘You?!, but you’re British, and you don’t even use interpreters any more because you went and got a cochlear implant‘.

I’m projecting my own deaf-identity-in-flux-paranoia a bit there, but the question of my right to tell this story will also be up for discussion. I didn’t want to write about this story back in 2013. Now, three years after the event, there are aspects of that strange week that still annoy me. I keep replaying and re-enacting certain key moments in my mind. My experience of the fake interpreter is unresolved and I believe that’s also the case for most of us.