Lost in translation
“Think about a time when you didn’t understand what was going on around you.” That was the blurb for the play. “We set out to unsettle audiences – to let them think they know what’s going on. Only to realise that they really don’t…”
When the DARE Edition of the University of Leeds’ Creative Labs offered Dr Lou Harvey the chance to collaborate with a theatre company, she didn’t hesitate. Paired with the Cap-a-Pie theatre group from Newcastle, the Lecturer in language education began telling them about her research into the ways that even small communication breakdowns can have a huge effect on the lives of migrants, even those who speak excellent English.
DARE is the longstanding partnership between Opera North and the University of Leeds.
“Take the story of my participant Dmitry,” she explains. “He was from Russia and joined a choir when he came to Manchester. When he went to the pub with them, someone asked him, ‘Oh, what kind of music did you sing in Russia?’ And he answered in great depth. But he realised that people were starting to look away and lose interest and chat with other people. It made him think, ‘Oh God. What have I done? Why don’t people want to listen to me?’ It took him a while to grasp that when people ask you questions in the pub, they want chit-chat, not an in-depth history of your life. Or as Dmitry put it, ‘I did big talk when I was supposed to do small talk.’
As Lou discussed stories like these with Cap-a-Pie, they together began to come up with a shape for what they could do. First of all, they wouldn’t simply recount real-life stories from Lou’s research – instead they would try to create “something symbolic and fictional.”
The second realisation was that they needed to make the audience not just see or hear the kind of confusion and discomfort being communicated, but feel it too. “We said ‘Right, what do people expect when they go to the theatre?’ Then we played around with those expectations.”
The result was a seven-minute piece called Up and Up and Up Towards, performed by a single actor. “We spliced together two fictional stories, the story of Icarus and that of an Austrian immigrant called Liesl and her boyfriend Andy, who bullies her when she tries to use local slang. And then we wove in these confusing features. Andy would begin the story of Icarus, and then he’d suddenly stop and he’d go, ‘I haven’t said that right.’ And then he’d start again. Or he’d be speaking English and then go into gibberish, and then back into English. And then the story would switch without warning. The audience were going, ‘What? What just happened?’”
With audiences responding to both the message and method of the drama, Cap-a-Pie set about assembling funding for something bigger, and in June 2017 they put on The Translator in Leeds. It consisted of 90 minutes of material split over two evenings. Some moments were playful – one segment saw the actors playing charades with the audience but gradually changing the accepted symbols for ‘book’ and ‘film’ and so on until the audience had no hope of guessing the answers. Others were much darker, though. One saw audience members being encouraged by the actors to join in with the barracking of a character struggling with language in different public situations. It built up over various scenes from sighs and tutting, to a point where the audience found themselves actually chanting abuse at the characters.
“You could hear how, at first, for some of the audience, it was kind of a joke. But as it went on and on and on, people were going, ‘This is awful. How have we got to this?’
Lou sees The Translator as very much a work in progress, and is looking to gain funding for a ‘polished piece’ that could be put on and possibly toured. As an academic, she’s been fascinated by the avenues that the collaboration has opened up, particularly the ways that performance can be used in learning. “I’m really interested in exploring how people were actually learning in that experience – it’s something that I wouldn’t have been thinking about without this work,” she says.
Equally, though, Lou is delighted with just how effective an evening of theatre they created. “A friend of mine who’s doing a PhD in applied theatre said, ‘Theatre that is based on research, and especially based on social issues, is often very important, very worthy. But it’s often very dull.’ She said that what we did, though, was make interesting theatre. You got the sense of what it was about socially and why it was important, but it was also an interesting and innovative event in itself.”
Up and Up and Up Towards: Lou Harvey and members of Cap-a-Pie discuss their collaboration