A Universal Story in A Universal Language?

Chris Michael tells us about his live stage show that reimagines the Charlie Chaplin silent film classic, The Immigrant, for a live theatre audience. Chris hopes that this show will demonstrate that theatre is for everyone, no matter their level of English proficiency or cultural background. He hopes that NALDIC’s readers might offer advice and suggestions for ways that he can develop the show with EAL learners in mind.

Chris Michael

I am a clown. (That’s not why I need help!)

I have created a show about what it’s like coming to a strange place where you can’t speak the language and you don’t understand the rules.

This started as an article which was meant to impart information, but I now realise that it is a cry for help!

Like all my performances, the show is a silent comedy with no language. So I am hoping to encourage EAL learners to come and see the show – partly because I hope they will enjoy our light-hearted take on being an outsider, but also because the show is a rare opportunity for them to experience a British theatre show as an equal with native English speakers.

Being a newcomer to NALDIC blog and all things EAL, I understand Cherry Pearce’s description of her experience as an EAL teacher going to the Inside Government conference: “It can sometimes be daunting to take a step outside one’s comfort zone and enter the realm of another”. The Bell Foundation assessment guidelines alone are enough to make my knees quake!

So what I would really like this article to achieve is to encourage teachers with children who are in the process of learning English to suggest ways in which a theatre show with no words might be of benefit to them.

I’ll give you a bit of information about the show and how it came about, and suggest some ways in which I think the show could be an enriching experience for children for whom English is an additional language.

I’ve been working as a professional clown for nearly 20 years. I have performed over 4000 shows to nearly a million people. Most of these shows have been in schools and family events. So for a long time I had been looking for a way to showcase my clowning skills in theatres.

In 2017, a Charlie Chaplin short film caught my eye because of its blunt title: “The Immigrant”. This was at the same time that Donald Trump had just declared the ban on flights from Muslim countries, and Britain’s newspaper headlines were full of commentary about the “migrant swarm”. I was amazed that no one had mentioned the film before, especially as it was the film’s centenary. It was a funny and moving story about someone going to start a new life in a place where he wasn’t welcome, and where he didn’t understand the rules, told in way that used no language. I can’t imagine many stories that fit the clown persona better! This was the perfect match for me.

We toured a trial version of the show last year with great success. We have now been funded by Arts Council England and Oxford City Council to tour to sixteen theatres this autumn.

The show now is almost unrecognisable from the original film, but the core message stays the same. Audiences experience the same confusion as the main character as they try and figure out what is going on in the strange world in which he has arrived.

For deaf and EAL learners, it is a rare chance to see theatre which is fully accessible for them where they can enjoy a show in exactly the same way as hearing, English speakers. In May last year, we took the show to a deaf school where one of the children had come from a country where they had never been taught any sign language. To have them be able to experience a show in the same way as their peers for the first time was incredibly rewarding. In another venue, we worked with organisations who supported refugee families and Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Minors. We were delighted to welcome a group of children who had never been to the theatre before. They bought popcorn from a shop nearby and then made cones from paper to pass the popcorn to the other audience members – very Chaplinesque! Their minder told us that the show was an opportunity for them to discuss some of their experiences.

In our drive to bring children from diverse linguistic backgrounds to the shows, we are printing fliers and posters in multiple languages. Our target audience coordinator has done some great work identifying the key languages of refugees, and cultural communities in the UK, many of whose members are fall into the category of being an EAL learner. Our key aim is to get people for whom English language performances might be seen as a barrier to understanding and enjoyment into the theatre and to provide them with the opportunity to engage on the same terms as everyone else in the theatre.

Our hope is that by encouraging linguistically diverse young people into a theatre once, they may want to come back again. This was definitely the reaction of the group of Unaccompanied Minors. We often joke that “The Immigrant” is a gateway show that can lead onto harder forms of physical theatre. And there are many types of performance that do not rely on formal language and which, therefore, English learners can enjoy as much as anyone else – dance, mask theatre, physical theatre and (sometimes) pantomime are so visual that language need not be a barrier. Even theatre with language can be a great way to start building language connections in very simple ways – both as audience member and participant.

We’re new to providing work that we believe is accessible to EAL learners, be they fluent users of English or coming to the language for the first time. So, we would be really grateful to hear NALDIC members’ thoughts about how we could develop the work and resources around the show, to help us break down barriers and make the theatre a truly inclusive opportunity for all. Please do get in touch via the links below.

You can contact Chris at chris@newslapstick.com or tweet him @newslapstick. If you’d like to see the show, all the details of his Autumn 2019 tour are here https://newslapstick.wordpress.com/

EALJournal.org is a publication of NALDIC, the subject association for EAL. Visit www.naldic.org.uk to become a member.