Infamous fake interpreter fiasco inspires thought-provoking play

21 April 2017 - 21:47 By Staff Reporter

There's a quote at the top of each page of the blog that writer Sophie Woolley set up to document the process she, choreographer Andile Vellem and director Gemma Fairlie undertook to put their mixed discipline show, 'The Fake Interpreter', together.

It's a quote by Nelson Mandela that says: ''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."

Mandela's words tie the themes of the production together.

First, a fake interpreter was used at Mandela's memorial service.

Second, the necessity for a serious public conversation about the need for qualified interpreters to enable us to understand each other.

Third, the debate around who controls language.

And, lastly, the issue of deaf power, deaf pain and deaf people being able to speak on their own terms.

WATCH Andile Vellem perform a scene from The Fake Interpreter scratch performance at Artscape Cape Town


Woolley became interested in drama when she stood next to the DJ box at literary nights at nightclubs in London.

She created satirical characters based on the characters she watched and interacted with.

She started a column based on one of her characters and then developed the character for a theatre production.

Woolley comes from a deaf family and became deaf herself in adulthood. She was introduced to Fairlie while writing her one-person show, When to Run.

The Fake Interpreter is the second of their collaborations that incorporates sign language.

Woolley was introduced to Andile Vellem a few years ago, when she watched his show Unmute, a dance piece about growing up in the Eastern Cape that expresses his frustration at not being allowed to use sign language at school.

''Unmute reminded me of my own experiences - the fact that I can't tell my own story. I don't have my own voice and it feels like somebody is keeping my mouth shut," she said.

Vellem is the choreographer and dance teacher for Unmute Dance, a dance company which he co-founded in 2013. Woolley first collaborated with him on I Am Not the Other in 2015 and was itching to work with him again.

The interpreter incident at Mandela's funeral aroused a sense of helplessness in Woolley. She had just received a cochlear implant and began reflecting on the privileges of hearing and the oppression of sign language, and began writing about her feelings.

Discussing the incident with Vellem led to the creation of The Fake Interpreter.

''What Gemma did was point out the fact that we both felt angry, powerless and guilty. She asked me to fantasise about what I could have done instead of nothing," said Vellem.

That's how The Fake Interpreter started to develop, according to Woolley

The show uses sign language as part of the performance.

''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."

This article is part of content created for the British Council Connect ZA 2017 Programme. To find out more visit programme2017.

This article was originally published in The Times.