Yorkshire deaf actor Charlotte Arrowsmith is making history and inspiring pupils to learn British Sign Language

Charlotte Arrowsmith is a deaf actor who has made history. Laura Reid looks at her achievements and why a new role to promote British Sign Language is so important.

She made history as being the first British Sign Language (BSL) deaf actor to perform in a mainstream Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production and now Charlotte Arrowsmith has taken on a new ‘first’ at the Yorkshire trust which runs her former college.

Charlotte, who graced the stage at the RSC as Cassandra in Troilus and Cressida back in 2018, has been named as the first BSL ambassador for Doncaster Deaf Trust.

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The former student at the trust-run Communication Specialist College, previously known as Doncaster College for the Deaf will work to help promote the use of BSL.

Alexis Johnson of Doncaster Deaf Trust, says Charlotte Arrowsmith is an ‘inspiration’ to pupils.

“I had a great time at the college, being free to explore my deaf identity and use BSL with many other deaf students,” she says. “It was an exciting place to grow up in, with likeminded young people.

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“I know just how important BSL is for our deaf community and the difficulties that we face on a daily basis when we struggle to communicate, especially in a hearing/able environment where society disables us. Everything from getting on a bus to buying a drink can be a challenge and then some.

“I’m looking forward to working with the Trust to help them to promote the use of BSL to the wider community. The more people who can communicate via British Sign Language, the better.”

Charlotte studied sports at the college with the intention of becoming a professional sports coach.

“I have always loved performing and acting, but in those days for young deaf people opportunities in that industry were few and far between,” she explains. “Fortunately, the passion for the performing arts led me to study Theatre, Arts, Education and Deaf Studies at Reading University.”

Charlotte is an RSC associate artist, a title offered as an acknowledgement of an individual’s achievements with the Company. She was part of the RSC’s 2019/20 season of As You Like It and The Taming of the Shrew, both of which played in Stratford-upon-Avon, in London and on tour across England.

She then became the first deaf actor to perform as understudy for a hearing principal actor, taking on the role of Vincentia in Taming of the Shrew.

“It was an immense joy to show what I could do as an understudy, and turn the role into a character who ‘happens’ to be deaf and uses BSL,” she says. “Everyone in the cast adapted within just a day or two rehearsals to cover all bases. It goes to show how much can be achieved when BSL is shared.”

More recently, Charlotte featured in Macbeth at Leeds Playhouse, as one of the witches and Lady McDuff. She says director Amy Leach adapted the play “to make more of the McDuff family” and the cast “embraced” BSL.

“If more people learnt and communicated with BSL, it would make life equal to all,” she say. “It would mean everyone would be able to contribute to a community, wherever they are.”

Doncaster Deaf Trust, which manages Little Learners Day Nursery, Doncaster School for the Deaf, Dickson House care home, Communication Specialist College and employability service Aspire to be, launched a free online BSL course in 2020, with the help of National Lottery funding. More than 17,000 people have registered to learn to sign.

Alexis Johnson, executive principal of the Trust says: “Charlotte is a real inspiration to our students and pupils, and we are looking forward to working with her to help to promote the use of BSL to the wider community.

“Our aim is to have four ambassadors from the deaf community who will help our students and pupils to see what they can achieve and will be at the forefront of our campaign to get more people signing.”

Visit www.doncasterdeafsign.org.uk