"The Hundred Languages of Children: Language and Theatre" by Emelie FitzGibbon

Voces in Artes Conference, Dublin, May 2013

Convened by Foras na Gaeilge

In the late 1940’s in the district of Reggio Emilia in Italy, an area which had been recently devastated in World War 2, some women gathered together to create a new world where small children would be cherished, cared for, opened to beauty and joy. The system of the ‘nido’ - the nest - which they began was supported by an influential educator called Loris Malaguzzi and developed into one of the most admired and copied system of early childhood education in the world.  Here is part of a poem Malaguzzi wrote and which I think is seminal to our discussions today

...The child has

a hundred languages

a hundred hands

a hundred thoughts

a hundred ways of thinking

of playing, of speaking.

A hundred always a hundred

Ways of listening

Of marveling, of loving

A hundred Joys

For singing and understanding

A hundred worlds

To invent

a hundred worlds to dream.

The child has

A hundred languages.

So has theatre. And the very young child doesn’t even try to distinguish how meaning is created: gesture, atmosphere, sound, light, dynamics, physical presence, openess of the performer’s body, face, rhythm, pacing, engagement, comfort, safety are all as valuable as the words: all are new and exciting places to explore and mine for meaning. Well maybe theatre hasn’t quite a hundred languages ... but it has a multiplicity and all of them contribute to making the meaning of a performance and all of them re-inforce one another, deepening clarification of meaning and experiences.  Every element of theatre offers a means of making meaning to any audience and the audience, in turn, receives meanings in different ways and feeds those meanings back to the performers. Sometimes an audience member will have little engagement because there’s a problem at work, sometimes someone texting near you will drive you mad        ... but meanings are being made, one way or another every second.

 In normal ‘life’ we all recognise that babies and very small children respond to calm and to tension, we speak of their ‘feeding off’ tension in the world of their adults.  We know they respond negatively to loud noise and to sudden movement when these are not in the play frame.  And we also know that in the world of theatre for the very young a sustained and engaged response is most frequently offered to the performers and performances who can best modulate their bodies, voices, focus.  So what are babies and small children receiving from role-model performers?   They are receiving an openness to share with them a constructed world, a world where they can watch and hear, a world where their stillness is asked for but where they are never lost for engagement, exploration, beauty.  The role-model performers’ eyes engage saying, ‘This is specially for you.  Let me share it with you.’

 Graffiti Theatre Company’s recent piece for very early years (0 - 3) offers an illustration of the complexity of perception and meaning-reception of a really small person.  The piece, Blátha Bána/White Blossoms is bi-lingual, each language moves seamlessly into the other, it is sung rather than spoken and it is emotionally complex but simple in its outline. I was recently watching a 14 - 15 month old watching the performance with total engagement, occasionally providing single word commentaries: a lullaby piece got the comment ‘sleepy’, and, interestingly, a simple look upwards from the actor elicited ‘sad’.  And she was correct. Deep in the mythic structure of the piece was a buried sadness. That child read the body, the face, the performance, the music, the mood and found the emotionally correct word to speak.

 As Elliot Eisner says, ‘The arts help children learn to say what cannot be said. When children are invited to disclose what a work of art helps them feel, they must reach into their poetic capacities to find the words that will do the job.’

 And how is theatre for young audiences internationally helping them to discover those ‘words that will do the job’?

 Theatre specialising in work for young audiences is a substantial international, multi-ligual movement, the Global organisation being ASSITEJ of which TYA Ireland is a constituent member. It works in many different languages and introduces us, the members, to the cultures and worlds of other voices. However,  its primary language is that of theatre and its objective to develop and extend children’s access to high quality work created directly for and respectful of each young person.

 And what is the current situation in Ireland regarding the development of Theatre for Young Audiences through Irish?  The answer is ‘developing with care, consideration, ambition and openness.’

 In this respect, I think that Foras na Gaeilge has had a major role in the development not just of companies who work in Irish but of companies using the language who look to develop their aesthetic and linguistic practices by looking outside ourselves to international forms, practices, new developments, new audiences - companies who are interested in other ‘languages’ of both theatre and children. Branar Dramaíochta in association with The Gombeens has recently developed an Irish/Catalan bi-lingual piece, Spraoi. Their major model is Teater Refleksion in Denmark and their work with Bjarne Sandborg has revolutionised the aesthetic of their work.

 In our early years work we’ve been heavily influenced by the same company and also by the work of La Baracca in Italy. In Meitheal na mBeag, the association of companies working through Irish, and imaginatively and strategically supported by Foras, we have been able to expose young practitioners to the ASSITEJ World Congress in Copenhagen in 2011. With over 2,000 delegates and a huge range of international practice on offer in many different languages it was particularly pleasing to the TYAI Delegation to hear Irish spoken at Conference - probably for the first time.  Meitheal na mBeag in its own Conferences has also encouraged Irish practitioners to look to outside ideas while retaining Irish voices. Ivica Simic from Croatia, Ruth Little from the UK, are among many  examples as well as ‘local’ international experts and provocateurs such as Fionbarra Ó Brolcháin. The organisation is further enriched by having members from arts centres, theatres, educational institutions and individual artists who are all committed to the provision and development of high quality child-centred theatre though the Irish language.

 Mairéad Ní Chróinín of Moonfish Theatre Company, in her contribution to the TYAI Journal on Meitheal na mBeag 2011, writes of Ruth Little’s presentation on Language and Theatre:

‘Ruth Little’s evocative and enthralling talk captured the spirit of the work of the conference, examining the interdependency of language, body and place ... She (Ruth Little) pointed to the etymological connection between the words ‘host’, ‘guest’ and ‘ghost’, and to the crossing of thresholds that all these words imply: the host inviting the guest across the threshold - the ghost crossing the threshold between the living and the dead.  Language, she suggested, is also an invitation; it can invite people, particularly young people, across a threshold, into another understanding of the world they live in.

 Language, according to Ruth, is more than what we learn cerebrally; our native language is learnt bodily, by sensing the world around us. If we have lost the ability to be sensuous, to connect with our environment directly through the body, then maybe language can make that connection - maybe it can guide us over that threshold.

 Ruth has the (Gallic) word ‘stiúr’ tattooed on her foot; the meaning of the word is ‘a guide’. And this, as she emphasised, is what theatre practitioners, particularly those working with young audiences, can be ... guides across thresholds, to forgotten ways of understanding the world - to the ways languages form a connection between a people and their environment, to the ways of learning about the world bodily, and to the ways of physically connecting with our environment.’

 The Irish language companies for children and young people - Branar Dramaíochta, Graffiti, Moonfish, Púca Puppets, Ciotóg and Fibín - are all developing their own theatre languages, languages of analysis and even languages of strategy (!) in order to grow their own range of aesthetic communication with children and extend the depth of practice of TYA in Ireland ... and abroad. Paul Mercier, recent winner of the Stewart Parker Award for Sétanta, produced by Fibín comments, ‘I am engaging with everyone even on an international level not only the Irish speaking audience. The most central and important language is the language of theatre!’

 However, as a sector, we also celebrate the beauty of languages - of words, theatre, children, aesthetics and recognise a privileged responsibility to honour those factors in production.

 Working bi-lingually has made us in Graffiti particularly aware of the unique quality, individual beauty and world-shaping capacity of individual languages. Language enables all of us to see and hear the world in a different colour, a different shape. We all know what ‘a slender-bodied insect that flies by day and has large, broad, often brightly coloured wings and long thin antennae’ is but consider what colours and images you see when I say ‘Peileachán’, ‘Butterfly’ or the older ‘Flutterby’, Papillion’, ‘Farfalla’. Or consider the wonderful descriptors of landscape in Irish placenames, names which disappeared in the Ordnance Survey in the nineteenth century. Language gives unique shape and substance to landscape, atmosphere, visualisation and, consequently, human experience.

 Working through Irish to shape the worlds of plays has not only helped us to fashion our Irish language work but has made a stylistic and imagistic difference to all our work.  As with the other companies, our work is not made to teach a language (English or Irish) but is rather designed to provide aesthetic experiences through the language and thus to create/reinforce/extend a pleasurable response to both the art of the theatre and the art of the language.

 Exposing children to theatre in Irish or constructed bi-lingually seems to me to be an ideal way to utilise the rich resources of meaning of that particular art form to re-inforce and help clarify meanings. I don’t, mean, of course, semaphoring meaning on the ‘My Bonny lies over the Ocean’ model but rather allowing meaning to be subtly shaped by gesture, presence and look. We refer to it as ‘physicalising the text’, making sure that meaning is clear from visuals, action or focus as well as from the words themselves. In the 13 years of Graffiti as Gaeilge we have worked quite a bit with translations of scripts written originally and, frequently, already produced by us in English. The analysis of the effect that such a translation has on the world of the play is fascinating. (I have to say that we are extrenmely fortunate that our translator is a poet, director and theatre maker so our ‘translations’ might perhaps be more effectively described as ‘transmutations’.)

 In the first place we found that the sound of the play is different. This may seem stunningly obvious but the point is that this has a distinct effect on the way the play plays. It is much softer in both the volume of the speaker and in terms of the interactions and emotions generated. It has a gentler atmophere even if the actor, the blocking and the timing seem to stay substantially the same. In effect, the production in Irish creates different dynamics and rhythms. Another interesting thing is that in Irish the production is usually five minutes longer that in English. It simply takes longer to say things in Irish!!

And, of course, connotations are different.  Take the wonderful play by Olivier Award Winner, Mike Kenny, which is called Walking the Tightrope. Translated literally the title would be ‘Ag Siúl ar an teadcleas’ - not a catchy title! Also the word ‘teadcleas’ would not be familiar to the 7 - 9 age group. The phrase ‘Céim ar Chéim’ was finally arrived at - step after step, step after step, moving cautiously, little by little. We lost the image of the tightrope but turned the title’s connotations into an image of the journey of the play’s grandfather and child - characters where knowledge of a grandmother’s death was arrived at ‘little by little’, ‘step after step’. Incidentally, the author preferred the Irish title!

We also had an experience of this when we commissioned a translation of a Danish script for teenagers and found that while the language of police procedure translated very quickly, the edgey, fast language of the teenage protagonists was very, very, difficult to get right in a different language. However, if you care for language, any language, it repays the effort, offers you new possibilities and opens young people up to different theatre and linguistic experiences. We learn so much about theatrical communication by working across languages.

 I realise that this address is fairly heavily focused on early years and, obviously, our work is not confined to that age-cohort. However, I think that Theatre for Babies teaches us a lot about the cognition, attention, absorption, imagination, empathy, wonder and the profound ability of children and we need to continue to learn and extrapolate from this as the field grows.

 For example, much of the theatre work in early years is informed by new neurological research. One such piece of work says that the child in the womb is already hearing and recognising the sounds and cadences of the mother and others and has a predisposition towards finding comfort in the language/accent. Accordingly, the child is predisposed towards that, ‘family’, language, or in the case of bi-lingual parents, both languages. Children are, however, really open to languages and, as I’ve pointed out before,  languages in theatre have embodied support and clarification.  Occasionally, when the play is in Irish the parents will say, ‘I don’t think she’ll understand it’. The child, however, is wiser and just experiences it for what it is and what it means to her.

 Elliot Eisner again: ‘The arts make vivid the fact that neither words in their literal form nor numbers exhaust what we can know. The limits of our language do not define the limits of our cognition.’

Jody Picoult provides us with a lovely image of the fluidity of words and their inadequacy: ‘ ... words are like nets - we hope they’ll cover what we mean, but we know they can’t possibly hold that much joy, or grief, or wonder.’

And yet the little child I observed at the Blátha Bána performance could understand the joy, grief and wonder because she could read more languages than the language of words. I think ‘wonder’ is a word almost beyond language which is very important in the connection between the theatre event and the young.  And its importance is in two of its meanings. The first one is to speculate, to be motivated to ask questions, to ponder and consider. All of these sophisticated mental actions - the above description could equally be employed of a philosopher or a scientist.  The second meaning involves the experience of awe, of magic, draíocht, an opening of the senses and the intellect to new revelations. In the late nineteen eighties a Tasmanian child identified as having learning difficulties and poor literacy standards was asked the meaning of ‘to be capable’. The child replied, ‘To be capable is to have a mind of many wonders.’ Isn’t that capability and that perception what we would all like to have?  Or listen to Charlotte Fallon of Theatre de la Guimbarde in Belgium:Her essay, ‘Like a shell on a beach’ reminds us that very young children ‘live their lives as if it was always the first time, they are focused and attentive to the moment they are living.’ And she asks us: ‘What would be a life made exclusively of first times? Would we still be able to tolerate such intensity?’ 

 Rather than leave you with such challenging existentialist questions I’d like to bring you back to Malaguzzi.   In an introduction to The Hundred Languages of Children Exhibit at the Dayton Arts Institute, Pamela Houk pays tribute to his poem quoted at the beginning of this address by creating another poem in the voice of the child:

If I can

  ask my own questions,

  try out my ideas,

  experience what’s around me,

  share what I find;


If I have

  plenty of time for my special pace,

  a nourishing space,

  things to transform;


If you’ll be

  my patient friend,

  trusted guide,

  fellow investigator,

  partner in learning;


Then I will

  explore the world,

  discover my voice,

  and tell you what I know

  in a hundred languages.