13 November 2017 •
The challenges of cross-language collaborationAs soon as I became Artistic Director at the Gate, I knew I wanted to present the work of Jean-Pierre Baro, a French-Senegalese director whose work I'd been following closely. I love his inventive staging and emotionally powerful work, and it had always transcended the language barrier – no mean feat, given his productions included verbatim text as well as classics like Chekhov and Buchner. But as we embarked on a co-production, it quickly became clear that language was only one aspect of a complex combination of differences to navigate in how we make, produce, and imagine our work.
The first hurdle regarded rehearsals. I meet Jean-Pierre for lunch in Paris, and we talk about London, and the Gate's history. ‘Right, I have to go - we start rehearsals at 2pm’, he says, and leaves. His producer tells me that in France, as well as 8 weeks to rehearse, they rehearse afternoons and evenings, never mornings. Later Jean-Pierre explains – it’s very important to have time to dream while you are making a show. I explain that though we could interrogate how we divide a day of rehearsals, we couldn’t afford to rehearse for more than 4 weeks. We parted, with the challenge of finding a story that might work in these parameters.
He sends me a play – Suzy Storck, by Magali Mougel. He's incredibly passionate about bringing it to a London audience. Crucially, he's also directed a version of it before - this meant that the shorter rehearsal time wasn't as daunting; he arrived with a clear sense of what he wanted. He requests that if we make the show, he brings his sound designer Adrien Wernert, who designed the previous production. Sound design is often added in 2-3 days in technical rehearsals. There's little time to navigate language, taste and cultural differences under those circumstances.
The decision to produce Suzy Storck was a complex one on our side, because there was no translation. We had to commission one - but by the time a first draft would be ready, it would be almost too late to change our minds. This meant reading it line by line with Google translate(!), and then two very careful conversations: one with Chris Campbell, who had translated Magali’s other plays, and another with Jean-Pierre about what the play meant to him. It was important to have both conversations; to interrogate what this might feel like for a London audience, as well as the style and approach Jean-Pierre wanted to take.
On the producing side of things, the team at the Gate, led by Jo Royce, welcomed the challenge. We were lucky that a former team-member, Suzy Sancho, is French and was able to act as a translator, as we worked through various budgeting and practical challenges with Cécile Jeanson and Isabelle Melmoux, Jean-Pierre’s producers, navigating the French tax system, funding structures, and other differences in producing models. From the start, it felt like there was a clear desire on both sides to ensure every decision was fair – even down to alternating who provided translators for each meeting.
We also had the wonderful support of Raphaëlle Rodocanachi and the French Institut, who was on hand to help us unpack any stumbling blocks we came across - her previous experience of this type of collaboration meant she was able to recommend models she had used in the past.
What feels like an incredibly short time later, I go to meet the cast after a rehearsal - they are all exhausted. They explain that although they are working shorter days, the process is much more intensive compared to what they are used to. Jean-Pierre explains – on the one hand it’s important to work quickly, and have the play ready for the technical rehearsal. But also the shorter time process means it’s even more necessary to have time outside the room to process the work, to arrive for rehearsals refreshed and ready to go. Personally, this is a wonderful revelation for me as a director.
He tells me he’s had a couple of sleepless nights thinking about the technical rehearsals. In France they are used to a 2 week process, refining until the work is complete. We have 2 days. I explain how our tech process works, how it’s important to consider previews as working time. As I write, as we are about to open the show.
It’s the first note session after the dress rehearsal. Watching the creative and production team seamlessly navigate the two languages makes me suddenly aware of my own of generalised, short hand phrases that aren't specific enough to survive a translation process. I mention that the opening beat of the show feels a little on the back foot - what does that mean? It doesn't translate literally. We have a long conversation in both languages about whether I mean rhythm, or energy, or something else. I notice that the team all listen so attentively to each other. They take time to ensure they've understood a concern before responding. They unpack every question and then search for solutions to it. It’s a beautiful thing, seeing these creative challenges met with such care. We traipse off to the pub for a nightcap. Thank you for this opportunity, Jean-Pierre says. Despite the challenges, he’s very happy. So am I. I have learnt so much from this process - my first as Artistic Director – and I hope this will be the first of many of these collaborations.
This blog post was taken from an interview by Arts Professional.