Mixing Non-Verbal Physical Theatre and Multilingual Creativity – Just Add Water!

Hannah Bird - Open Theatre

I work as a theatre practitioner for Open Theatre which has, for 30 years, worked with young people with learning disabilities in the West Midlands of the UK, especially in Coventry and Birmingham.

Creative Multilingualism (CML) generously provided support for us to deliver a series of workshops in Coventry’s special schools and colleges as part of our project called UNCOVER/DISCOVER – Revealing the Creativity Rippling through Coventry which is inspired by the uncovering of the River Sherbourne in Coventry as part of its year as UK City of Culture in 2021.

Blue and green logo for the Uncover/Discover project

Open Theatre’s normal practice is a non-verbal physical theatre and the aim of the workshops supported by CML was to explore the integration of different languages – both community and taught – into the creative activities.

In early 2020 we developed the design for these workshops alongside some of our regular participants who are also acting as assistant facilitators for the workshops. As a devising team, we explored (or should I say, uncovered and discovered?) all things watery and river-themed ready for the workshops. As mentioned, inspired by CML’s work we did this quite differently to how we would usually work and we wanted to share the results so far in this blog.

After devising the workshops – which involved lots of testing out adding languages to our existing non-verbal exercises and creating and trialling completely new ideas for activities – we delivered two of our water/river themed workshops, one in-person and one online (due to lockdown).

Three people take part in a workshop in a drama studio

We made sure we maintained our usual fun (and sometimes silliness) which is often supported by the amount we lean on clowning and mime, but now adding languages to the mix. We began exploring the subject of water and rivers through playing games, some of which we had never played before, so this was an interesting opportunity to learn something new as a team of professional theatre practitioners who often work individually and not together as a group.

One of our favourite activities from the in-person workshop was called ‘Change if’ which we developed from ‘The Sun Shines On’ (found in the MPP Get Involved Pack). The original game needed changing to avoid using abstract language, making it more accessible for our young people with learning disabilities, and this is how we played it:

All players sit in a circle, on chairs. However, one person has not got a chair so must stand in the middle. The person in the middle REALLY wants to sit down. To get everyone to move and leave their chairs, the person in the middle says “Change if…” followed by a statement involving water or rivers. For example, the person in the middle may say, “Change if you have ever been swimming in the sea”. All players who have gone swimming in the sea have to leave their chairs and as quickly as possible find another chair. It is at this point the person in the middle can also get a chair if they move fast. This will then leave another player without a chair and the game repeats. This is a fun warm up game as it gets everyone thinking/talking about connections to water but also, we get to find out a little bit more about other members of the group. A multilingual development of this activity was: “Change if you know the word for water in… Spanish? (¡agua!) …Hindi? (paani!)” etc.

Two people dance in a drama studio

So what did we learn? For me, because we always work non-verbally I was a bit nervous about including different languages – especially ones I don’t speak – in activities with young people with learning disabilities, so while this experience took me out of my comfort zone it has definitely added to my toolbox as a practitioner and the sessions gave us new and exciting ways to create together.

My colleague, and lead practitioner for Open Theatre, Melissa Daly said:

“This project was a great opportunity to challenge our young people to consider the use of different languages, which we have never done before. Actually, it challenged me also as a practitioner and I am excited to explore how I can continue to use languages in creative ways with our participants”.

One of our participants, a student at Hereward College in Coventry, said:

"I really enjoyed the rivers workshops as we got the opportunity to talk with different words for things and use physical theatre together.”

Participants in a drama workshop with colourful fabric

At Open Theatre we’re looking forward to leading more water-based and now, thanks to CML, multilingual workshops in Coventry’s Special Schools as soon as we can!

A young man in white jumper and glasses sits on the floor