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Interview with Zoë McWhinney

by Emily Healey-Lynham

Zoë McWhinney is a Visual Vernacular performer and a poet in British Sign Language (BSL). As a Deaf person and native BSL signer, she works as a freelance theatre maker, consultant and workshop facilitator in BSL storytelling, poetry and Deaf culture. As an actress, she has performed internationally both on stage and in films. Currently playing the lead in a bold and striking show at Polka Theatre: RED, is an exciting new visual storytelling production with Sign Language, taking you on a journey around Polka.  We got to speak to Zoë about the show and use of sign language in the piece and her poetry work.

How did you get into acting, was there a particular performance you saw that resonated with you? 

Slava’s Snow Show was a masterpiece when I saw it with my family, one Christmas years ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be one of key turning points towards an acting career. I started getting serious about acting when I joined Deafinitely Youth Theatre aged 14. 

Where did you train?

École de Théâtre Universelle, at Université Jean Jaurès in Toulouse 

Can you tell us about your current production: RED? What drew you to the piece? 

Firstly, I loved how much it makes sense for a version of the Red Riding Hood story to be a promenade theatre experience. On top of that, the characters’ backstories and connections to each other are given such a fresh shake-up; it felt elevated, and that definitely drew me in too.

How does the use of Sign Language impact the performance? 

Sign language is advantageous as we can be as quiet as a mouse so the Alpha Wolf wouldn’t catch and eat us!! On a more serious note, each of us three Deaf actors’ lived experiences as British Sign Language signers (speakers) mean our sense of spatial logic and visual syntax are naturally enhanced and more coherent throughout the devising (rehearsing) phase. So yes, I would say sign language lent a good hand to our physical, visual storytelling through role-shifting, gesturing and miming! 

Is there a message you want audiences to take away from RED? 

I hope people leave RED feeling more confident around gesturing and visual communication! Listen with your eyes. It’s such a phenomenal experience… There really aren’t any limits to what you could say in signs. Sound-based speech isn’t the only way for humans to share our stories, problems and ideas. 

Where has been your favourite place to perform on stage and why? 

The Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre at Victoria and Albert Museum have such a beautiful curved, painted and sculpted ceiling above the semi-circle. It looked amazing with theatrical lighting when I performed as Frida Kahlo. 

What is the most rewarding thing about your work? 

The reactions on children’s faces. They’re simply the best 

Who are your influences and inspirations? 

Dorothy ‘Dot’ Miles, because she is one of most influential and charismatic Deaf female bilingual poet and artistic performer! The BSL and the French Deaf (Langue Signes de la Française) artistic communities are brimming and resplendent with people who are quirky and loveable characters – without each of them, I would not be the performer that I am. I’m also a lifelong avid comic reader/ watcher too, so classic Walt Disney, Eiichiro Oda and Albert Uderzo. 

You’ve made the transition from stage to screen and from acting to writing poetry how do you stay focused? 

The answer is simple: I let it flow, I welcome the ideas as they come to me and I tend to be led by how strongly I felt in my guts about any project or idea. I try to keep my notes, plans and other scribblings sectioned and organised at home!! 

Is there a role you would love to play in a show? 

Kattrin from Mother Courage would be amazing for me to experiment with; I also would enjoy a good satire such as Les Femmes Savantes by Moliere – especially in the character of Armande.

 Where can people follow your work on Socials? 

I’m most active on Instagram at @rapuznel.

See Zoë McWhinney in Red at The Polka Theatre till October 31st Tickets online.

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