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Deaf actress Charlotte Arrowsmith makes history in British theatre

In the United Kingdom, one of the dreams of any actor or actress is to perform a play by Shakespeare, one of the most famous writers in world literature. And a Deaf actress has achieved it, not only in a play by Shakespeare but also in the prestigious British theatre company Royal Shakespeare Company.

La actriz sorda Charlotte Arrowsmith en la obra de teatro Troilo y Crésida
Deaf actress Charlotte Arrowsmith in Troilus and Cressida (photo: Helen Maybanks © RSC)

From Sport to Acting

Charlotte or Charly, as she presents herself, spent her childhood in schools for the Deaf. At age 16 she chose Doncaster College for the Deaf to study sports and with the intention of becoming a professional coach. But when Charlotte was 19, she discovered a BA Hons Theatre, Arts, Education and Deaf studies at the prestigious University of Reading, after which she fell in love with acting.

Charlotte has specialised in drama although she likes all kinds of performances, including musical interpretation, of which she is particularly pleased with her signed performance in a music video by the writer and dub poet (spoken verses over reggae rhythms) Benjamin Zephaniah, considered one of the 50 best British writers of the post-war period. This is the 2007 video with English subtitles:


Charlotte, now 39, began working for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2018, but since 2003 she has performed in numerous plays, performances, musical performances and some short films. In the following video you can see a showreel:


Troilus and Cressida

Troilus and Cressida is a tragedy written by Shakespeare around 1602, shortly after the completion of the famous Hamlet. Set in the Trojan War, Charlotte plays Cassandra, a prophetess and daughter of the King of Troy, Priam.

After the premiere of the work, RSC published a video trailer in which you can see a few seconds of Charly's performance and one of the spectators said: "I think Cassandra was really strong and the Sign Language and the miming was very evocative". This is the trailer:


In fact, Charlotte put all the creativity of Sign Language into her performance, using Sign Theatre, Sign mime and Visual Vernacular, a form of theatrical expression to tell stories using elements of Sign Language with a strong visual performance.

For weeks, Charlotte worked with the artistic team with Sign Language interpreters, discussing the meaning of each scene and making other actresses and actors aware of Deaf people. In one of these awareness-raising tasks, she proposed a fun lip-reading game and the artistic team, amid laughter, ended up understanding how difficult lip-reading is. In the following video Charlotte explains herself the process of working to prepare her performance (in British Sign Language with optional English subtitles):


Not only is it the first time a signer British Deaf actress has been given a leading role in a play for the mainstream by a prestigious theatre company, but her Sign Language performance is not interpreted into spoken English for hearing people. It doesn't matter because, according to Charlotte, 'often you don't understand everything in a Shakespeare play'.

About her experience, Charlotte has a very powerful message for companies that are hesitant to recruit professional Deaf actresses and actors:
I’m not the only deaf actor. There’s lots of skilled ones out there, but they need to be seen and encouraged and I hope what I’m doing will open up opportunities for others. It shows that nothing is impossible if we try as a team
The play was on stage from October 2018 and is now expected to be available in cinemas in the UK.

New Works in 2019: As You Like It and The Taming of the Shrew

Charlotte's experience with the Royal Shakespeare Company has not ended with Troilus and Cressida: from 21 February to 31 August 2019 she is performing in the new performance of As You Like It with the role of Audrey, considered one of Shakespeare's best comedies.

In addition, until 2020 he will also be working on The Taming of the Shrew, with the role of servant Curtis. The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies worldwide and one of the most translated. It will be on stage at the company's main theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until August 2019 and from September 2019 to April 2020 it will be on tour across England.

Charlotte Arrowsmith in the theatrical performance of The Tamed Shrew of the Royal Shakespeare Company (photo: Ikin Yum Photography)

[Updated 26/04/2019] Charlotte has explained to Unusualverse the following:
I am playing Audrey in ‘As you like it’ and Curtis in ‘Taming of the Shrew’. I also understudy a hearing actor in both plays. Some of my BSL is voiced by other hearing actors in ‘As You’ however in ‘Shrew’, we communicate in our own way and come to understand one another, using a mixture of BSL, ‘home’ signs, gestures and visual acting which isn’t translated for the hearing audience. ‘Often you don’t always understand everything in a Shakespeare play’ is the same for everything we watch. Sometimes we understand, and sometimes we don’t. It’s the way of the world. It makes people listen more with their eyes when BSL is performed on stage and therefore I feel, we should enjoy what we SEE, rather than have it all explained in words. Thank you!

The Royal Shakespeare Company

This theatre company was founded in 1961 and has its main theatre in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, where William Shakespeare was born, although it has a second theatre in London and occasionally tours the UK.

In this company began some of the most famous British actresses and actors, such as Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Mia Farrow and Ben Kingsley.

The main theatre of the Royal Shakespeare Company (photo: BuroHappold)



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