Tongue Tied - Reena Jaisiah and Ellie House in conversation

Reena Jaisiah and Ellie House

In October 2019, Slanguages collaborated with Caste Away Arts and Birmingham City University to host an applied theatre workshop for women to explore themes around identity, cultural experience, and language. Stories shared at the workshop – Tongue Tied: Women's Stories: Unheard Voices & Tales – were translated by a resident artist into a short animated film: “Home”. While the COVID-19 lockdown meant we had to postpone the film’s premiere, Reena Jaisiah and Ellie House from Caste Away Arts met up online to discuss the film, their collaborative project (Tongue Tied), diversity in the arts, and the impact sharing languages can have on everyday life.

Watch "Home", a short animated film: 

Watch outtakes of the Tongue-Tied workshop:

Watch Ellie and Reena's Tongue-Tied Video Log. An abbreviated transcript of the video log follows:

How did you two meet?

Ellie House: We met at Kairos, a small charity in Coventry, which works with women that are at risk of, or involved in, street sex work. I began as a volunteer there and then became Operations Manager.

Reena Jaisiah: I was already doing some creative work with Kairos and when we were introduced we just clicked! We were both excited about the same kind of work, empowering communities and creating great art.

What is the Tongue-Tied project about?

Reena: The project is called Tongue-Tied and it’s a celebration of languages and stories between diverse groups of women. It’s a celebration of differences, but it also built bridges and created space for things women wouldn’t normally share.

Ellie: Reena and I both have this understanding that creative work allows people to access a part of themselves that encourages owning their stories in a way that connects them with that part of themselves but also each other. I felt that was the big thing that came out of the work we did together at Kairos and this project built on that but with an added language dimension.

Reena: It was a huge challenge. We had German, Polish, Yoruba, Urdu, Tagalog, Patois and Chinese speakers in our group!

Ellie: It was really playful more than anything else.

Reena: Yes. It wasn’t a scary experience for the women to share their language and speak in their mother tongue. Sometimes you can have that embarrassment where you don’t want to speak your language, or you might Anglicise it, but they were so comfortable, and everyone understood each other’s stories. There was even a spooky moment where one participant just understood Chinese and she didn’t speak a word of it but seemed to understand what was going on.

Why are languages so important to your work in terms of storytelling?

Reena: Every culture has its own version of Romeo and Juliet and its own Ark story and this was an opportunity for people to say ‘yes, that’s the same as ours’, or ‘we do it this way’ and it was a way to share each other’s interpretations and look at things from a different perspective.

Ellie: There’s something that I really love about everyday phrases and words that are really descriptive and you don’t understand what they mean until someone explains where it comes from and what it means in their culture.

Reena: Like when we talked about the kissing your teeth sound, which is really offensive in some languages, but in my culture it actually means ‘pity’ and ‘you poor thing’ – we wouldn’t know that if we didn’t have those conversations. It’s not just about the language it's about the noise, the gesture, everything.

Ellie: It felt very aligned to do the project at the Community Centre in Foleshill. Coventry is so richly diverse in its languages and cultures, but particularly in that area of the City. A lot of what is intended to emanate out of that centre is about community cohesion and bringing people together.

Your work has a strong gender dimension around Women and Womens’ Stories – can you tell us more about this and why?

Reena: Women pass stories down. I don’t think we intentionally had a particular gender dimension, we just happened to be working with women on this occasion and we do want to include men’s voices.

Ellie: When we first started to plan this project we were anticipating working with women who had certain vulnerabilities, so in our search for participants we were looking for referrals from agencies and I think that because Reena and I are both experienced in working with women-only groups we’ve seen the impact and the importance of having a safe space to share. If you have multiple and complex difficulties in your day to day life or past history, like domestic violence, or drugs and alcohol, that comes up because it’s relevant to your day to day experience, so feeling very safe in that space was really important. It’s not about exclusivity.

You have worked with animation to bring your project to life, why is that?

Ellie: When we were planning it, we didn’t know what kind of stories might come up. We worked with the theme of ‘home’ and that can be very sensitive for people, even if it’s not traumatic, it can be very personal and in order to get people to truly share, animation allowed a layer of anonymity that could be provided. It’s a nice way of being able to translate the stories as well, by passing them to an artist.

Reena: We spoke about doing a live performance but we thought it might be too much to ask for women who didn’t know each other to share their language and do a performance. It’s created a piece that we can keep forever and hold and share.

What about the role of Coventry as a City and it’s diversity in terms of creativity and multi-lingualism for your work?

Ellie: Coventry has been built on immigration. I think it’s added a richness to Coventry, from our cuisine to the music – it’s always a blend of cultures and it makes for really joyous things to come out of it.

Reena: We are City of Culture for a reason; because we are so diverse and there is so much happening in the City and we are learning more and more about the City that we didn’t know,- communities we didn’t know existed, and this creates such a great opportunity to celebrate that.

What would you say are the key things you’ve learnt from the project?

Reena: I‘ve learnt that language isn’t that much of a barrier – we all had different languages and it felt so connected, not only in terms of what the story is, but how the story is told and the tone and how you dramatize that. It’s a language that everyone understands.

Ellie: I think I had seen it as a barrier previously when I worked in delivering services with people who didn’t speak any English - it was a hurdle to get over, but this didn’t feel like that, it just felt like a space for sharing. That is a much nicer way of approaching language difference, not that one person has to comply with your way of doing things but that you meet in the middle somewhere.

I also learnt not to be too precious about planning. I think we complimented each other quite well. With my Producer head on I’m always thinking about the end result, but if you are too attached to your own agenda you can’t allow for people to make their own connections within the space and respond to the facilitation fully, so I really enjoyed being present and part of the day.

What was it like collaborating with Rajinder Dudrah on Slanguages?

Ellie: As someone who was quite new to commissioning creative projects, I found Rajinder was so encouraging and supportive and not only helped to shape the content of the project, but also to bring it into fruition.

Reena: I second that. He was so enthusiastic but didn’t override our creativity. He gave us autonomy to make our own decisions and trusted us with our work. He didn’t want to overtake us but just let us get on with it.

Has the COVID19 situation impacted on your sharing of the work in any way?

Ellie: Yes, we had planned a screening which should have happened already, but with social distancing that now isn’t possible. We haven’t even been able to get all the participants together which is a real shame.

We need to continue the conversation around this work and there is a little bit of investment required in how we do that, and hold a new space to talk about the film and open up the feedback channels with the participants and the people who are viewing it.

How do you hope to develop this Slanguages project, perhaps with City of Culture in the future?

Ellie: I think there is massive scope for expanding this in different ways. That dynamic theatre practice using languages offers such a lot. It would be amazing to be able to share that practice with other people or to try and develop a tool kit for how that can be facilitated. The outcome doesn’t have to be a film or an animation, the outcome could be that everyone comes out of an amazing day with a richer understanding of their neighbour or their fellow Coventrian and that barriers are broken down and there’s a little bit more social cohesion because apart from the creative output there is a really strong wellbeing element here for me. It’s important to feel valued on a different level which is not about your job, or status. There is a lot to be said for just bringing joy.

Reena: I would like to see this developed in terms of performances for the public so they are engaged in that storytelling and this conversation too.  

What a great project. We weren’t expecting it to go so well, and generate such a strong sense of wellbeing.

Caste Away Arts (@casteawayart on Twitter) is a Coventry-based theatre company.