Kellye Bensley (Ngāti Kahungunu) is a Deaf NZSL interpreter, who specialises in interpreting theatre shows. She is a former president of Deaf Aotearoa and has also served on its board. She was also on the National Foundation for the Deaf’s captioning working group.
For the past three years she has been a member of the interpreting team for the annual Circa Theatre pantomime. Here, Kellye responds to questions from Arts Access Aotearoa.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I was born and raised in Christchurch where I was educated via the mainstream system. I didn’t learn NZSL until I was 18 as neither my parents nor I were encouraged to learn NZSL. Before I learned NZSL I relied on lipreading, which was definitely a challenge, and exhausting. When I learned NZSL, I felt I could relax more because I didn’t have to focus so much all the time.
I lived abroad for a few years and became fluent in American Sign Language, which is an asset, and I can understand things on US television shows. I have been living in Wellington since 2015, where I work at the Office for Disability Issues. I am of Ngāti Kahungunu descent and so identify as Turi Māori.
What’s it like to be a Deaf interpreter and what’s the process to become one?
There is no formal training in New Zealand to become an interpreter. However, I worked doing NZSL translations from English to NZSL, so I guess it is about building up that knowledge of ensuring the information is completely transformed from English into NZSL and making sure you’re not following the English structure. My first Deaf interpreting job was from NZSL to International Sign for the World Federation of the Deaf Board when they visited Aotearoa in 2016.
I love Deaf interpreting! The process to transform a language into something so visual is fun and it often takes different ways of working out how to transform it so it’s easy to understand but also fits the character I am interpreting.
How did you get interested in theatre?
I have been going to shows since I was young, but my first interpreted show was the Rocky Horror Picture Show back in the 90s, live at the Isaac Theatre Royal in Christchurch. I was so excited to see it interpreted because it happens to be my favourite movie and I knew the whole script off by heart. If it ever comes to Wellington, I will be the first person to put my hand up to interpret it.
I have also done some theatre consulting work to support NZSL interpreters.
What has been your favourite show to interpret?
Over the past three years, I have been interpreting the Circa panto. I have loved every one of them but I think my favourite out of the three would be 2021’s The Little Mermaid. It’s such a great show with a great cast and crew, and there was so much fun. A big part of that year’s show was the incorporation of NZSL. The actors picked it up really quickly and the feedback was wonderful. One such piece of feedback was that they particularly loved how the cast used truly Deaf NZSL, where they used slang commonly used by Deaf people and not by NZSL students.
What do you most enjoy about interpreting theatre?
A lot! I love working with the cast and crew of the pantomimes. They are such great people, and they are so willing to work with the interpreting team to make sure it is accessible. The interpreting team are such great people also and I love working with them. There is often a lot of laughs especially when trying to develop the NZSL for the innuendo: how do you make it obvious without being too obvious?
Sometimes it’s not interpreting but actually performing – and I really like performing.
What are some of the challenges of interpreting theatre?
My memory. I have to memorise all my lines in both English and NZSL. I depend on cues so the interpreting team members also need to remember their lines too.
Another challenge is the lack of social life for three months but it is very rewarding in the end. I love the work and the end product, so it is all worth it.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I would love to see more interpreted theatre with more Deaf interpreters. There is a very small pool of Deaf people who have done this work so if there was a way to make it happen, it would be wonderful.