The Multilungual Stage
Session called by Steph Back, notes taken by Lorna Heap
Session Members
Paul Miller
Erin Hutching
Tine Hofman (Croatian)
Katerina Pushkin
Will Renel

Session notes
S: My new show is in Welsh, English and BSL,

E: New Zealand also has its own BSL,

In both places, developing both of these cultures, spoken language and sign language, especially for children, can mean very disjointed learning.

S: Welsh is spoken in schools, there are only 2 Deaf units, the schools prioritise assimilating, learning speech, sitting on your hands and discouraging BSL use. I was surprised to meet with students, Deaf students, and see that they were all speaking to each other, not signing, but it makes sense, after what the school in Wales had prioritised in their learning.

P&E: It’s the same in Ireland with Gaelic, it’s the same in Scotland with Gaelic, the language is dying out and the community are trying to bring it back.

The language goes hand in hand with the culture.

S: I didn’t find my Deaf cultural identity until I was 18 years old. Spoken language = Cultural identity especially when language is endangered. Deaf parents, children speaking Welsh at school, then learning English, speaking BSL… all of their cultural identities are divided in their life, by what languages they speak with which people.

English has never been an oppressed language or culture.

S: The performance will be 1 Deaf actor using BSL, 1 Welsh actor using spoken Welsh, and English Captions. The audience may not know Welsh, read English or use BSL,

P: That’s interesting for hearing audiences. Lots of people who hadn’t come across the Gaelic Language have come to find it very beautiful. How can you translate the beauty of the Welsh language through the English captions?
Lots of hearing people think BSL is such a ‘beautiful language’ but they don’t speak it. I’m thinking about conveying the three different cultures through their separate languages.

W: I saw a show, I can’t remember the name of it, but it used BSL and spoken English, investigated hierarchy between the languages, and it was interesting thinking about which language presented itself as the core language and to which audiences members during the show.

S: What did you find yourself most looking at during the show?

W: The actors, throughout. I was following the BSL because the show established how that communication works in the first 20 mins, and I could follow it from there.

S: Is it better to set up the narrative first? Or to create the scenario and the show with some ambiguity, to let the audience be lost. Allowing things to be missed or lost to the audience, like in real life where you miss parts of conversations.

W: What’s the intention of making the show, of making something in multiple languages?

S: In Wales the three languages are very separate. Portraying the same narrative with different hierarchies of languages onstage, even though the three cultures and languages exist in one place, even in this show, they can still feel very separate.

W: Do you want to explore the connections between the languages and cultures then?

S: Yes. Looking into why people are scared of communication or of new languages and cultures.

E: In a show I did with a company of deaf and hearing actors(The Deaf and Hearing Ensemble – People of The Eye), we combined creative captioning, spoken English and BSL, we established the conventions at the beginning of the show, allowing the audience to understand from the beginning. Then as the show went on, they were able to understand the narrative even when their used language was removed.
Although, it could be interesting to start from a place of ambiguity. But you need to have an understanding of how far your audience can be pushed before they disconnect. Perhaps it’s more comfortable to marginalise the majority language speakers.

S: What different feedback did you get from Deaf and hearing audiences?

E: Deaf audiences were familiar with the story of the show (about a Deaf child growing up in a hearing family) and followed the story when the captioning was removed, actually the whole show was well understood for the most part by hearing audiences as well.

S: Have you seen the film ‘Tribes’? Ukranian film about a group of young, Deaf, Sign Language users. The film is signed throughout. It’s interesting to see a language being spoken, as the film was un-subtitled – quite strange to watch. Also the ‘signing space’ (physical space taken up by people’s signing) was different from BSL. There was some criticism about the same signs being used repeatedly so that it was easier to follow, and that it was directed by a hearing director.

T: English is not my first language. I’m Croatian and am creating a piece with one character speaking only Croatian and we will be captioning the performances in English. My Croatian perspective is that Croatian children were and are intrinsically encouraged to learn multiple languages (esp. English and German, which are featured strongly in the media) I was very used to subtitled content because of exposure to subbed, other-language media – especially subtitled English media, we had no dubbed shows, just subbed.

S: In Wales people often don’t accept other languages or forms of communication, not happy to register other languages, despite it being a bilingual culture. Four Welsh people might be having a conversation and if an English person who speaks no Welsh joins, the Welsh will continue in Welsh and not accommodate the English person.

The language IS the culture, they are intrinsically linked. If you want to be part of the culture you must know language.

T: It’s the same for me as a Croatian. My partner is English – Sri Lankan and we are raising our children bilingual (English and Croatian). It’s easier for me to integrate into English culture and language than it has been for my partner to integrate into Croatian culture and language. This is all about that early exposure to the language. I couldn’t live in England now without having previously connected with the language. So, yes. Language and culture are deeply connected.
This may be an old and outdated way of thinking though. Technology and culture has advanced and translation and interpretation is now much more widely accessible than before. We can make the choice to engage with a person or a show/content without having any previous knowledge of the language.
I want to include the English Audience of my show by not only using subtitled Croatian language, but also by allowing the audience to connect and engage through things they can recognise.
Accents, my accent, can be a barrier but I’ve found that as soon as you start to talk about something which strongly connects, if the subject matter is connective then the connection with the person or people you are speaking to can overcome the cultural barrier of the accent.

S: I’m interested in finding that connection point. Why are people scared of speaking to people who communicate differently?

T: My partner’s Croatian accent is rubbish, he is not talented for languages. Croatian society is less used to diversity and speaks English well in general so often Croatian people will speak English to him rather than let him try and speak Croatian. He also doesn’t feel the right to ask people to slow down.
S: Is that about confidence being eroded as a second language speaker?

T: yes, I’ve only recently felt comfortable asking for the language and speech in my environments to be more accessible for me, as a result of the changing culture around diversity and accessibility.
European theatre conversations (before Brexit) - how do people and organisations respond to European languages and actors with accents. How interested are they in engaging with that – why are they not interested? This subject of people being scared of engaging with other cultures and languages.
However, this is shifting.

S: In Welsh culture, children have to speak Welsh at home with their parents, this can be very strict. No spoken English. No BSL.

T: We have a huge influence on our kids. I’m very passionate about raising my children bilingually. I only speak Croatian with them when we are at home. Sometimes I’ll speak English with them when we are out and about.
There is a Croatian saying – ‘The more languages you speak, the more you are worth.’

A conversation about whether in Wales, the passion for the language and the cultural identity (and its sometime exclusivity) is born from and strengthened after the oppression of the Welsh language and the culture by England?

S: Yes. That’s very true about Welsh culture. And I’m also very proud to be Deaf for the same reasons. The Milan World Conference in 1880 banned Sign Language being taught in schools.

P: Where I grew up in the North Midlands, it’s still not allowed.

T: In Croatia, having been under different regimes throughout history and recent history, there has been a real rebirth of Croatian language and cultural identity. Croatian was reintroduced in Parliament, after the use of German, Russian and English had dominated the country previously. The best way to kill off people’s cultural identity is to ban their language. This is a historically proven tactic of oppression. My children are only able to understand my heritage and my identity through speaking my language, which is why I’m raising them to speak it.

P: On stage, during your show Steph, what will be the language accessibility for hearing audiences? Is it a social experiment regarding the three languages?
Steph explains that when English isn’t being spoken, there will be subtitles.

T: I went to see a show that used Creative Captioning and I didn’t even realise until 20 minutes in that the Creative Captioning was happening. It was so, so well integrated in the piece and visually enhancing to the design. I would love to use Creative Captioning in this way.

S: I’ll be performing in a Creative Captioned children’s show. Without knowing the children's previous exposure to spoken English, BSL or written English, it’s a very good way to not overwhelm them with a large amount of information in one language or format.

A conversation about shared connections leading to chatting about the work of mutual contacts Elise and Beth, the company Taking Flight, their show You’ve Got Dragons (which is the show that Steph is taking part in, with Creative Captioning), Graeae’s show The Solid Life of Sugar Water, creative captioning…

S: The way that Taking Flight create accessible work becomes an art form. I’ve been working with them for two years and two years ago I was wearing hearing aids, trying to use spoken English, had very low confidence. Taking Flight changed my life and now my confidence has grown so much, the hearing aids are gone, I speak BSL. They really changed my life.

C: I believe Beth has a Captioned Opera coming up.

Speaking about how while watching The Solid Life of Sugarwater, it took a long time, again (like with the show Tina watched) to notice that the integrated technical aspects of the accessibility of the show, were in fact Creative Captioning. The Creative Captioning was so well integrated that it just served as a brilliant aesthetic choice, an aspect of the story telling and design.
This can only happen with access is integrated in the making process from the very beginning.

C: I’m working with a company called Cloud Cuckoo Land, making theatre which is accessible for children whose second language is English.

S: I’m thinking about my show – I want to look into what the links are between the cultures, between the separate languages and between the oppressed and the oppressive languages.

C: Marginilasing the traditionally non-marginalised language (English) sounds great!