By Adrian Blackledge, University of Birmingham
In July I attended two performances of ‘Summer Times’, the production we commissioned from creative company Women and Theatre as a response to the outcomes, questions, and loose ends generated by TLANG. These would be the only Birmingham-based public performances of a show created for community-based older audiences. I had attended rehearsals, and was anxious that the emphasis in the show was more on ‘Summer’ than on anything related to the research project.
I arrived at Midlands Arts Centre early, and spoke to Janice Connolly, the director of the show. Janice agreed to let me say a few words before the performance started about the collaboration between TLANG and Women and Theatre. I went back downstairs and waited for my parents, who had been press-ganged into joining the audience. At the appointed hour the audience was still a little thin – about twenty people in all, but not an older audience at all (my parents excepted). There were two Muslim women with four very young children between them, and three children who appeared to be of primary school age. There was a smattering of others: Rachel (Birmingham-based Research Fellow) had brought a friend, as had Sarah (TLANG Project Administrator). There were three or four other women of ‘Asian’ appearance. It was enough to make an audience.
Janice introduced me and I said a few words, before handing over to the cast. Julie, Mei, and Luke seemed relaxed and confident, and Maddy the stage manager created the appropriate atmosphere with a combination of summery sounds and music. The show is a tapestry, or mosaic, of stories told to Janice as she asked older people in Birmingham to recall and reflect on memories of summer. The stories are told in the words of the people who told them. We all use stereotypes as a resource in narrative, and they were there all right: the ice cream van, playing in the park, visits to the seaside, and so on. But there were other, sadder stories that gave the audience pause: memories of war told by a Polish woman, of people sitting down in the snow to die. The show was a mix of song, dance, action, music, and comedy. It was entertaining from first to last. The audience participated in games and songs, and people of all ages seemed engaged by the performance.
In the afternoon the cast repeated the show. This time there were no worries about conjuring an audience. The first to arrive was a group of about a dozen older people from a lunch club at Birmingham Settlement in Aston. As soon as they had taken their seats a large group of Chinese older people arrived. There were other, smaller groups, who later described themselves as Irish, Brummie, Somali, Caribbean, and Brazilian. The show went as before, with younger members of the audience participating in a hat-throwing game, and the people from the lunch club very willing to join in with all the songs. There was bhangra, fan dancing, capoeira, Irish dancing, and a Cockney knees-up. More stereotypes, but a stylized way of representing diversity that was fun for all. As before the audience cheered.
After each performance the audience was invited to talk about anything prompted by the show. People talked about memories of summers long gone – driving to the beach in a Morris Minor, staying in miserable guest houses in Blackpool. There were also memories of summer lasting forever.
All well and good. But how did it relate to TLANG (which had not asked anyone questions about summer, to my knowledge)?
A striking feature of the show was that a wide range of linguistic resources were woven into the text without comment. Languages were not ‘translated’, but deployed together, in a fluid and flexible way. The repertoire of the text cannot be represented without naming languages: Polish, Cantonese, Jamaican Nation Language, British Sign Language, Gaelic, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, and Birmingham dialect – all were evident in the performance. The effect was that multilingualism became, as it is in most places in the world, normative. In the brief after-show discussions people spoke about ‘their’ languages: one young woman’s father (who was present) spoke Somali, Dutch, English, and Arabic. A Kutchi speaker talked about her response to hearing Cantonese spoken for the first time. She had lived in Birmingham all her life, and her comment gave an insight into how hidden, and often forbidden, are languages other than English.
Beyond this, the performers’ bodies were crucial resources in the making of meaning. In the performance it was clear that the way people walk, stand, and sit, the way they tilt their head, the gaze of their eyes, the shrug of their shoulders, the movement of their hands and fingers, their smile or frown, all are part of the semiotic repertoire. And it was clear that the integrated nature of the semiotic repertoire is fundamental. Here embodied communicative practice was not in any way separate from linguistic communicative practice. They were integral to each other to the extent that they were one and the same.
Evaluation report available here: Summer Times Evaluation Report