Communicating ideas clearly and maintaining artistic integrity can be difficult in any collaboration – let alone one that straddles language barriers. Ellen McDougall explains how the Gate Theatre overcame these challenges for its latest co-production.
As soon as I became Artistic Director at London’s Gate Theatre, 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 taking eight weeks to rehearse, they rehearse afternoons and evenings, never mornings. Later Jean-Pierre explains that it’s very important to have time to dream while you are making a show. I explain that although we can interrogate how we divide a day of rehearsals, we can’t afford to rehearse for more than four weeks. We part with the challenge of finding a story that might work in these parameters.
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
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 means that the shorter rehearsal time isn’t as daunting; he arrives with a clear sense of what he wants.
The sound designer who designed his previous production, Adrien Wernert, is also available, which will help as sound is often added in the two to three days of technical rehearsals, leaving little time to navigate language, taste and cultural differences.
However, there is no translation. We will have to commission one, but by the time a first draft is ready, it will be almost too late to change our minds.
How we solved it
Before deciding to go ahead and produce Suzy Storck we read it line-by-line with Google translate, and then have two very careful conversations: one with Chris Campbell, who had translated Magali’s other plays; and another with Jean-Pierre about what the play means to him. It was important to interrogate what the play would 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 is French and was able to act as a translator as we worked through various budgeting and practical challenges with 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 with 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.
A 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 than they are used to. Jean-Pierre explains that while it’s important to work quickly, and have the play ready for the technical rehearsal, the shorter time available 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.
Jean-Pierre had a couple of sleepless nights thinking about the technical rehearsals. In France they are used to a two-week process, refining until the work is complete. We have two days. I explain how our tech process works, how it’s important to consider previews as working time.
At the first note session after the dress rehearsal, I suddenly become aware that my own generalised, short-hand phrases aren’t specific enough to survive the 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. The team all listen attentively to each other. They take time to ensure they’ve understood a concern before responding; unpacking every question before searching 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.
Ellen McDougall is Artistic Director of the Gate Theatre.
Suzy Stock runs at the Gate until 18 November.