(Not) My Mother’s Tongue


In October of 2018, Reneltta Arluk and Patti Flather took part in a research project facilitated by Nightswimming’s Pure Research wing.  They were interested in discovering how languages, specifically Indigenous languages known to few people, could be part of  theatrical presentations. They investigated the use of text in a language that the audience, and possibly the performer, neither speaks nor understands.  With the help of the Nightswimming team, they created and refined several live experiments to carry out over a few days.  Eventually, they wrote a report on the process, which you can find here, in the Pure Research archives.  Kathleen Flaherty interviewed Reneltta and Patti about the project.

Co-Researchers Reneltta Arluk, Patti Flather

2 Fluent Stoney Nakoda language speakers – Buddy Wesley, Steven Mark

2 non-fluent Actors – Caleigh Crow, Kristen Padayas

Nightswimming team – Brian Quirt, Brittany Ryan, Dramaturgy Intern Jeff Ho


KF : I know it’s been a few months since you did this, but I was very intrigued by it and I was wondering if you would talk a bit about what you wanted to know and what you did to find out.

PF:  I wanted to explore how to best and respectfully promote and foster a greater and meaningful inclusion of indigenous languages, specifically in theatre and the performing arts, and I was curious about how to do this in a way that addressed and recognized that people who have lost their languages or feel their languages have been lost or stolen, the trauma around that. So working in a way that was empowering and affirming and positive and recognizing that people, audiences and communities and performers, would all be coming at this with different layers of relationship to that language.  And I know that a lot of people – I love this way of looking at it – say that some of these languages are sleeping.  Not dead.

RA:  I was kind of like, “Let’s find a way to experiment with the language.  How can we use it in performance and how can we use it just in space that doesn’t usually support language that isn’t in French or in English?”  So we used Stoney Nakoda, using an elder, Buddy Wesley, and another speaker, Steven Mark, and having two non-speakers working with text.  But because you only really have three days, we didn’t want to get bogged down into memorizing a lot of text – it’s hard to memorize language that isn’t yours – we used “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall”, and another piece of text that had rhythm to it, “Row row row your boat” and something that was just…they bring a story in their language so we can hear language scripted and language shared naturally.  And then just little scenes, asking questions with a little bit of an ending, so “Hi, How are you?  I’ve lost my wallet.  I can’t find it. Oh, here it is.”

KF: And you put these into Stoney Nakoda.

RA:  Yes, so the actors had to memorize the text before we got in the room because it would have taken more than three days to memorize it. So really it’s just a lot of prep work to make sure in the room you can do the work like a rehearsal.

Brittany setting up Buddy in booth_photo Patti Flather

KF : Wow.  So, what were you trying to find out and what did you find out?

RA:  One, I just wanted to find out whether it was okay to use language by people who don’t speak the language or share the culture.  Because I’m really into protocol, so… I wanted to get feedback from the fluent speakers and the Stoney Nakoda, what was it like to hear their language spoken by non Stoney Nakoda people.  And that was well received.  It’s not always that way.  Some people find it a bit triggering that somebody is speaking their dialect that’s not of that area.  But for Stoney Nakoda, both Stevie and Buddy were thrilled and impressed with how quickly these two actors, these two women, had learned the text so well.  So that was really positive.

PF:  The joy in the room and the joy of the fluent speakers with the rest of us was incredible and really affirming.  Just seeing how dedicated people are and appreciating how generous these language speakers like Buddy Wesley, and Steven Mark, who we had in the room, how generous they are and how passionate.  So that really interested me and also inspired me.  I realized how important it is to cast for translators as well as casting for non-speakers who are open to doing the work and being uncomfortable and being lost.  Also, because we did a lot of preparation with texts, having them translated, having Reneltta meet with the fluent speaker Buddy Wesley and record a text in Stoney Nakoda and share these with the non-speaking performers, I appreciated just the need for building in support and time and preparation to do it properly.

RA:  And another thing we came up with was bit of a protocol for language.  I’ll start using this, “This language is spoken through Alberta, into the States.”  It’s kind of like recognizing treaty but it’s recognizing language is still alive.  Like if the language is Gwich’in.  Gwich’in is spoken in Alaska, the Yukon and the NWT.  When I say that, I visualize a living language. So we can visualize, one, the distance that language and culture can travel within nations, plus, that it’s still thriving.  It’s true, language is dying.  But do we…I don’t know if we need to keep sharing that narrative.  Because we’re trying to revive it and resurge it.  So, for me, using a map in that way, it helps.  As for the experiments themselves, I’m not really into surtitles/subtitles. To me it’s the autonomy of viewing.  When you watch theatre, you can look wherever you like, if you speak the language.  You can look at whoever’s holding the spear, you can look at the floor, you can look at the set, the light, wherever.  You can follow the actor who is speaking.  You have the autonomy to do that.  That’s what I love about theatre.  But when you have surtitles and subtitles, you have no choice but to look at them.  And you can get stuck looking at them.  So what I wanted to focus on was, How can we engage in language and accessibility without centralizing what people can see?  So, we worked with intention, and found that intention really worked.  We found like, “ Hey, what are you looking for?”  “My wallet, I can’t find my wallet.” “Here it is.”  – you didn’t need any of that translated into English.  You could do all of that in Stoney Nakoda and you knew exactly what was happening in the scene.

KF:  Right.

RA:  We did three experiments.  We did it with language back and forth, no intention, no blocking.  Then we did it with intention, no blocking.  Then we did it with intention and blocking.  And we brought in audience to witness the process.  And the first time, Do you know what they’re saying?  They said, “No”.  Then we did it with intention.  Do you know what they’re saying?  “I think they’re asking a question and the other person answered it.”  and the third, “Yeah, someone’s lost their wallet and they found it.”  So, we did it.  And then used a prop.  And none of it was with surtitles.  The other experiment, and I think I’d really like to explore this further, was having a scene done, a nice scene in Stoney Nakoda, and have people watch it, and at the end, if they chose to, they could listen to what was being shared in English.  And I think there’s a way to do that with the play ongoing, but the big question was, if you had a big cast, how would you identify those voices?  But I’m going to follow the model of sign language:  if it’s two people, it’s a two-hander and they just take on the roles of the two people who are on stage at the time.

KF:  Right.  Okay.

RA:  Another thing we did was play with surtitles in a way that… like, do you need to use surtitles for an entire act or do you just use surtitles in certain moments in that act? And I think I’m going to try that route in the future.

KF:  So what are the kinds of things that would make you decide to use surtitles?

Reneltta working surtitles. Photo: Patti Flather

RA:  For example, we told the story of the Red Riding Hood.  And at the end, in the surtitles, there was a wolf.  And it didn’t get translated too too much, with Pure Research, I used surtitles to the side of the person, separate from the person, and I used the same surtitles with another actor and put the word Wolf on to the person.  So then they became the Wolf.  So, then surtitles are engaging into the storytelling, rather than telling the story.

KF:  Right right.

RA:  I didn’t get to explore too much more on that one. Because it was frustrating.

KF:  Just technologically.

RA:  Yes, just technologically.

KF:  I understand how it might work with a fairly straightforward story like Red Riding Hood… well, maybe it’s straightforward.  But what about something that was a little bit more… had subtext, where you would require subtext to tell the story?

RA:  I think you can do that with acting.  I think that if you really activate your text … ‘cause when I memorize now, I don’t memorize words any more, I memorize action, then I know what I’m supposed to be saying.  That’s the process I use.  If you can activate what you want, then the words will always be there.  The same for me goes with language.  If, as an actor, I really go for what my needs are, then you will know, you are already understanding the story, and the relationship and all those things that go with it.

KF:  Mm hmm.

RA:  So, I think you can do that with subtext, so that surtitle doesn’t really drive what’s going on, just sharing the words of it.

KF:  Those are interesting experiments.  Did you find out anything that surprised you?

PF:  I was very interested and thrilled by the beauty of live translations, both with a fluent speaker onstage and also doing the translations with the earbuds.  I could also see that it could be pre-recorded and also have a lot of power. So that was beautiful to see how much translation could be done in a very intimate, warm way without using surtitles.

RA:  What surprised me?  I think just that … putting the earpiece in, I think was the big surprise.  That listening to the voice through the earpiece, you can have the experience of listening to the voice, but also understanding.  Another thing was, we thought, well why don’t we do indigenous language surtitles and speak English and see how that’s responded to?  And some of the feedback in the smaller audience was, “I was less interested to look at the actual language, because I understand what they were saying.”  I loved the honesty of that, because we’re so politically correct. We’re so like, “oh well, if we do that, we gotta do this.”  So when we did our demonstration to the other Pure Research peers, one of the comments was, “I would have liked to have seen the language.” and I said, “You probably would have, but you wouldn’t have known what it was saying and you already understood what it was saying anyway, so it wouldn’t have mattered.”

KF:  That’s interesting.  I agree with you.  I went to a play that was spoken in English and surtitled in Chinese and I watched the surtitles largely to see how they were written, out of professional curiosity, rather than because I needed them to understand the play.

RA:  Again, it’s autonomy of what you want to look at.

KF:  Yes, yes.

RA:  So that was really the only surprise I had.  Because I thought it would be really interesting to look at the language, for myself, “oh that’s lovely, that’s what that looks like”, but getting that feedback, then getting the other woman “I would have really liked that.”, I was like, “No, we’re not going to do that.  You’re not the demographic that – “  She wasn’t trying to be politically correct;  she was just trying to actually challenge me and I was like “no, we’re not doing this”. (Laughter)   But I liked that because it triggered her, it triggered her to have language onstage and I liked that a lot.  And that’s why it’s so important, why we should have language onstage, because there’s this sort of entitlement, that you should have your stand, and you should dictate.  And that’s the big surprise, which I never really talked about before, and which I’ll probably mention in my final report, is that it’s important work because it’s a form of decolonization, obviously, but that when you go into the process, there’s still a voice that wants to tell you how to do it. But we wanted to figure out how to do it in a way that was truly engaging.

KF: So, in a way, it’s not just a question of accessibility is it, it’s also a question of, as you say, autonomy.

RA:  Yes, it’s autonomy.

PF:  I was absolutely blown away by how well the non-fluent-speaking performers, Kristen Padayas and Caleigh Crow, did working with the language, never having worked with it before.  Beginning with having only recordings in advance and not yet meeting us in the room.  And once meeting us in the room, how they just continued to grow by leaps and bounds.  So that was vey inspiring.  And informative.  To see how it is possible, even for somebody who is not fluent, to inhabit and enliven a language, with support and with time, and with a lot of dedication and hard work.  I was also, perhaps not surprised, but acknowledged just how open the speakers were, the Stoney Nakoda speakers were, to having non-speakers appreciate and respect and honour and use the language.  Of course, I wouldn’t infer from that that all speakers of a language would react in the same way, but they were very open and appreciative.  I mentioned already the beauty of doing the live translation.  And how powerful that was.  And, also could see, that even when all meaning was not transferred or it wasn’t completely translated, that audience members still got a lot of enjoyment and pleasure out of it.

KF:  So, how much do you think knowing the language affects our perception of what’s going on onstage?  When I don’t know the language that’s being spoken onstage, I’m trying to put together a lot of information from what’s happening onstage  to tell me what’s going on.

RA: That’s right, and it’s exhausting.  It’s mentally exhausting.  That is some of the challenging stuff. One of the challenges is, someone was saying, “I would like the whole first act of The Breathing Hole to be in Inuktitut”. That would be great but, one,  I won’t be able to find eight Inuit actors who are Inuktitut fluent that will be able to do the play.  And, two, the dialect that that is, there’s no actors that speak that dialect, maybe one, and that means all those Inuit actors, even if they’re fluent, will have to learn that dialect.  That’s great, but you’re going to kill my actors.  And then, we’re going to have to do surtitles for an entire act into English and that’s going to exhaust the audience.  So you’re exhausting my actors in rehearsal and you’re exhausting the audience in the play.  And they’re going to really appreciate the second and third acts because they don’t have to work so hard.  So you’re really not setting this up to be a form of success.

But, in saying all that, it is important that that act be in Inuktitut, because we should see how exhaustive and rigorous language is.  So, that’s the other side of it.  You need to see it, you need to witness it, because it’s part of our responsibility to engage with language and to also not make things easy for non-indigenous audiences.  They should also be rigorous.  That’s part of training an audience member. And yeah, do we need to do surtitles the whole time?  Maybe we can engage in different ways, which I am more interested in rather than just trying to do surtitles everywhere.  I’d rather say, “Where do we really need it?  Do we just need to have it here?  Where is an essence of it?  How else can we engage with it?”  So, yes it’s exhausting but language learning is exhausting and we need to make sure that we are rigorous in that way.

PF: It’s also always a challenge in the arts to get enough funding support and it will be a challenge to build in enough time and preparation really and fully incorporating language speakers and the time, say, to pre-record samples of text and the time to give enough time for the performers to work with it.  I’m curious about how best to tackle large amounts of text in a larger production.

KF:  And more meaningful text, too, I would imagine.

PF:  More complex, more layered.  Whether one uses a… I think there’s some experimentation with a combination of live translation, perhaps pre-recorded translation, all of the elements of theatre such as physicality, lights, and sound and all of that.  Perhaps a bit of judicious use of surtitles, and also exploring where meaning can not be translated and that’s okay.

KF:  Thank you so much for doing this on a Saturday.