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Ella’s acting ambitions

Photo: Image credit: Pete Le May

As a freelancer and an actress, Ella has struggled to get the support she needs from Access to Work. But she’s determined nothing will hold her back.

“I adore the Globe. It’s been my favourite theatre since I was six,” Ella says, sitting in front of a wall of books filled with classical texts and Shakespearean plays. Now, at only 17, she graces the stage as an actress with the Globe’s Youth Theatre, a dream she’s worked very hard for.

Ella began to lose her hearing when she was 11 and is now profoundly deaf and periodically wears two cochlear implants. While she does use spoken English, Ella prefers to use British Sign Language (BSL). “I wouldn’t have told you this when I lost my hearing at 11, but my deafness is the best thing to ever happen to me,” Ella says, beaming.

One of the good things that came out of losing her hearing was a new attitude towards her career. “I’ve always enjoyed my drama lessons, but when I lost my hearing, I realised acting could be a viable career, and my deafness could get me into the industry. The casting pool for deaf actors is much smaller, which means I get more acting opportunities than a hearing person would,” Ella says.

Currently in sixth form, Ella intends to fully launch her career in theatre and film once she’s left school, and has been busy getting as much experience as she can. “I apply for every single opportunity I see,” she says. “I have to turn down some jobs because I wouldn’t have time for them, but I still apply so I can get my name out there.” Ella has now landed acting gigs on stage, in TV shows and in commercials, and has also taken on freelance work behind the scenes for film productions.

Because she’s always taking on new jobs, Ella spends a lot of time educating people about her deafness, which can sometimes be tiring. “I went to South Africa last year to do some shooting for a TV show. It took a long time to communicate with them that I couldn’t have South African Sign Language interpreters and that I needed someone who spoke BSL instead. Still, my gratefulness for the opportunity outweighs any tedium that comes from having to re-educate people.”

With her cochlear implants, Ella can hear about 70% of what is being said, but she still needs BSL interpreters for her work. “Without an interpreter, there’s a very limited amount of communication I can comfortably do. Considering I’m always working with other people, it’s imperative I have them,” she says.

Last year, Ella applied for the Globe’s Youth Theatre, a training programme for young performers, but she had a rocky start when she was given very short notice for her first audition. “I let them know I was deaf when I applied, but they had a very quick turnaround time, which meant I couldn’t get interpreters for my first audition. It was really awkward and difficult,” Ella remembers. “Since then, though, they’ve been incredibly accommodating. It’s been my goal for a long time to become Artistic Director of the Globe, so this is a nice foot in the door!”

Ella has now acted on the Globe stage in scenes from plays such as ‘Richard III’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Ella uses BSL on stage, which is creatively integrated into the performance for audiences who don’t know sign language. Ella’s lines are left in BSL without translation during moments when the audience can still understand what is happening. At other times, another character will translate by repeating what her character has said. She enjoys the advantages she has as a deaf actor who uses BSL. “The people who use speech have to fight to get their voice around the massive 1,500- seat theatre, whereas I just get to chill and sign!” she laughs. “When you’re deaf, you have better observational skills. Because you have to read body language to understand the context of a conversation, you naturally get a better sense of how people move and act. As a BSL user, our brains work in a different way, which is more inclined to performance because BSL is so visual.”

Ella uses two BSL interpreters for her work with the Globe. “Not only are they there to literally translate what’s being said for me, but they also occasionally advocate on my behalf,” she says, “Having them in the room is a big thing – people can see when they can’t keep pace, so the whole ensemble will slow down.”

Ella’s interpreters are funded through Access to Work (AtW), a government grant scheme which provides personal support for disabled people in paid employment. As a freelancer, Ella has to apply for AtW for most jobs she takes on, which can be a tiring and inaccessible process.

“It’s so bureaucratic. The main way to contact the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is by phone. I’m trying to be independent and not rely on my parents to phone for me, so I’ll email instead. But my emails don’t get answered for weeks, if at all,” Ella says. “Also, English isn’t my preferred language. What they need to have is a BSL relay service – that way I know I can get in contact with someone as soon as I phone them.”

It can take up to six months for AtW funding to come through, which doesn’t make it easy for Ella who often takes on short-term jobs. “It’s an absolute nightmare,” Ella says. “Quite often, I have to go on good faith with a company, who may only be hiring me for a week or two, that they’ll get paid back when my AtW comes through. It would be so much easier for a company to hire a hearing person who doesn’t need any special arrangements – that’s often what ends up happening.”

Due to the nature of the TV and film industry, some of Ella’s work is unpaid or works on profit share, which means it doesn’t qualify for AtW, and neither does any training or voluntary work. “There have been some opportunities I’ve had to step away from because they don’t have the funds to book me an interpreter, I definitely don’t have the funds to provide one, and AtW won’t cover it,” she says. “The system isn’t designed to support disabled freelancers. I don’t think they expect disabled people to be freelancers.”

But Ella learnt how to advocate for herself at a young age when she had to apply for her own Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan at school to get support for her education. It was a frustrating process, and it took a year to get a full-time communicator put in place, but it taught Ella how to legally stand her ground.

“I went through a really traumatic process when applying for the EHC plan, so when I apply for AtW, I feel angry and ready to fight,” says Ella. “At the same time, it’s made me well versed in legal standpoints.

“I also developed my campaigning and advocacy skills while on the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Young People’s Advisory Board (YAB). My proactivity in reaching out to people and asking them for opportunities came from the YAB. They showed us you can ask for things, and what’s the worst that will happen?”

Despite her struggles with AtW, Ella has continued to strive towards her goals and is enthusiastic about bringing more awareness of Deaf culture through theatre. To make theatres more inclusive for deaf actors, Ella says, “All we really need to do is recognise that deaf actors can play hearing characters, and also make sure deaf actors know what support will be in place for them.

“You don’t want to have to fight every single battle for every single job. So it’s just making sure actors know that access will be in place from before auditions even start.”

This summer, Ella won the National Theatre’s ‘New Views’ playwriting competition for young people for her play, ‘Barrier(s)’. Her play was chosen out of over 400 entries and was performed in London’s Dorfman Theatre in July. It includes a mix of BSL and English, with actors from the Deaf community.

“Deafness is a privilege,” says Ella. “It’s very hard to be deaf, but it’s such an asset. I have so much to offer; I have sign language to offer, I have a completely different culture to offer. This industry is starting to catch up and realise that disabled people should be involved in creation, behind and in front of the screen. It’s such an incredible time to be disabled right now."

Autumn 2022 Families magazine