Languages & Creativity: Translating a Russian play into Hip Hop Theatre – a conversation by Rajinder Dudrah and Noah Birksted-Breen

The European Literature Network is delighted to be collaborating with Creative Multilingualism – a large-scale research project led by the University of Oxford, which studies the interconnection between linguistic diversity and creativity. In our new series of blogs entitled Languages & Creativity, ELNetter and post-doctoral researcher on the project Heike Krüsemann will curate a selection of Creative Multilingualism posts for a fascinating glimpse into the world of language research. Over to you, Heike!

It’s official – languages and creativity go together! Who knew? Well, clearly not everyone, so the Arts and Humanities Research Council gave us money to do some research and spread the word. Don’t you just love it when things fall into place like this? Our intrepid research teams right now are busy studying the creative power of metaphorthe construction of a meaningful world in nature (that’s naming plants and animals to you and me), intelligibility between languages and communitieslanguages in the creative economyworld literaturescreative possibilities in translation, and creativity in language learning. While we’re doing that, we’d like to share some of our findings and related musings with you, dear ELNetters, in bite-size chunks and blog post format. Do let us know what you think – we’re always happy to hear from you!

By Heike Krüsemann

Heike Krüsemann is a UK-based researcher, writer and translator with an interest in Language, Culture and Education. Blog: German in the UK, Twitter: @Dr_Heike_K. Heike’s #RivetingReview of Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf; Heike’s #RivetingReview of Bühlerhöhe by Brigitte GlaserHeike’s Short Story with a translation twist: German Cinnamon


Blog post 16:

Rajinder Dudrah and Noah Birksted-Breen were going to write a blog about their work developing a hip-hop theatre version of Russian play Oxygen, written by Ivan Viripaev and translated by Sasha Dugdale. Then this happened …

Translating a Russian play into Hip Hop Theatre: a conversation

Originally, Rajinder and I were going to write a blog together about our work developing a hip-hop theatre version of Russian play Oxygen, written by Ivan Viripaev and translated by Sasha Dugdale. We had a conversation which went something like this:

Noah: It actually feels odd writing a blog about this. Blogs are good for explaining research which has been completed, or offering provocations, but the R&D showing was just the first stage in an ongoing project.

Rajinder: Yes, it would be good to do something to capture that “liveness”.

Noah: Yes  our ideas about it are still developing.

Rajinder: How about we write a series of questions for each other to respond to?

So that’s what we did!

Lady Sanity and Stanza Divan_Oxygen performance

Noah’s questions for Rajinder

Noah: In the piece of work which we showed, we were doing a few different ‘tasks’- translating a play into hip-hop, culturally adapting a play into UK culture, and writing a new documentary play which is interwoven with the translation/adaptation. Three-in-one! So my first set of questions are about the form of the play:

To what extent, do these three tasks complement or contradict each other, for you? Did it (honestly!) feel constructively or confusingly eclectic? I’d be curious to know whether you have you encountered work like this before?

RD: Interestingly, I worked in a Drama department at the University of Manchester before my move to the School of Media at Birmingham City University in 2016. Ironically, even though I taught across Drama and Screen Studies degree programmes and was Head of the Department for a few years, I predominantly taught film studies and assessed related screen practice. Teaching or being involved in actual theatre or performance assessment was a limited part of my brief back then.

Nonetheless, I took part in assessing theatre and practice work and learned about and saw a considerable amount of theatre and performance happening in and around the Department. So, witnessing and experiencing a multi-media performance was not new to me, but being involved in the middle, as it were, and that too to be part of the collaborative process in a curatorial and production context was new. It was a challenge.

Our R&D of the play was more than just a simple translation, it’s fair to say, and even adaptation covers some of the main aspects that we tried to cover as a team. I think your idea of the documentary play that has been and is itself translation/adaptation, in rehearsal and performance, is a nice way to try and capture what we were doing and perhaps performed. I like the ‘/’ or even a hyphen in between these two words, and I think, we could use that in between all three areas (i.e. documentary theatre-translation-adaptation) to signal or, at the very least, to suggest that something more than the original play text in Russian, and as it has been translated by Sasha Dugdale, is now up for further work and processing between the four of us. 

In moments of new artistic and cultural creation the idea of an “on the way to becoming constructively eclectic” is more apt for me as we were engaging in some traditional processes of theatre play-making and performance, but we were also aware of and slightly concerned with the “newness” and risk-taking of our venture.

Noah: Does the eclectic nature of what we produced feel problematic or not? Which aspects of the play/performance would you like to see developed? Which ones minimised or removed?

RD: Eclectic is good. We need to be honest that this is what it partly is at the moment and perhaps this is a good way to move forward as we consider what we want to do with the next phase of the R&D, which hopefully will lead to a full production.

The idea of two Black British artists being able to tap into pressing social issues of the moment that consider and transcend race, class, geography and other boundaries is, for me, one of the powerful statements that we are making in and through the performance. The further fact that it is a multi-racial and a multi-lingual and multi-genre team that is producing it, is also worth exploring further. Is this a nice instance, a much needed example, as it were, of not just talking about diversity but actually doing it, getting on with it, and then considering, okay what does this mean then in terms of good practice and trying to share and develop that further?

The multi-media elements in the play where we have a video of the audience address via this in-yer-face figure DJ Ghost from the States, that is part shocking, part challenging and part philosophical at the same time. It’s an example of one of our character’s biographical indexes and it’s something to elaborate on further, not least in a social media and YouTube generational setting.

What I’d like us to be challenged on more and to consider developing further are the Russian language, or at least another 1 or two languages, in the next phase. I think this will move us out of any comfort zone that we might feel we have in terms of the languages used thus far and allow us to think creatively about how best to develop a multi-lingual performance that moves us beyond English, snatches of patois, street styles and languages, and Russian references in the music soundtrack.

Noah: I wonder whether you felt any ‘Russianness’ about the performance, and if so which aspects?  

RD: I guess for me when one mentions Russia, and especially if they have limited knowledge or only know of Russia or “Russianness” through the media, then images and ideas of Putin, authority, extreme cold weather, the Kremlin, a country shrouded in mystery etc. all come to mind. In some respects the context of the original play Oxygen published and then performed from 2002-3 onwards is set amidst some of these concerns and representations as two young people try to negotiate who they are, their relationship to each other, and the striving for air, for oxygen that allows them to be. 

That aspect of speaking to, or being aware of authority, social ills, things not quite right, and young people trying to make it on their own and learning to trust one another was not only Russian but also quite urban British and gritty urban British for me, with an air of a sense of hope. This worked quite well for me in terms of the social documentary-translation-adaptation processes that I mentioned earlier.

Noah: For you personally, does your involvement in a theatre-music project represent a development of your own work as an academic and curator to date, or a new departure, or some of both – and in which ways?

RD: All of the above. It’s a bit like setting off on a new research-practice-artistic-collaborative journey together (look there’s those hyphens again!), and then waiting to see where we might arrive. As part of the process of deciding as to whether we have arrived, or not, at any sort of preferred or suitable location, I want us to be able to think more about how the process is also changing us and what we are doing to the process and the play along the way.

Rajinder’s questions for Noah

Rajinder: As Artistic Director (AD) how do you see the play developing into a full hour-long production? Which aspects of our collaboration (or the performance itself) would you want to develop and extend? Which aspects would you prefer to stop or leave out in the next steps?

NBB: I imagine the screen on-stage as becoming the ‘third character’ in the play. There’s Sanity and Stanza, the hiphop artists-performers, and then there’s the screen! With only two people on stage, we need to create a complicated world in the audience’s imagination. I don’t want to bring in “professional actors” because I want the focus to be on the hiphop artists who are already performers in their own right. So, the screen will be the main item of the set but it will also help to navigate the audience through the different “layers” in the play – both fictional and real.

I imagine using projections realistically for some scenes, but also in a non-realist or expressionist way in other scenes. For example, when Stanza describes his journey walking home from the ‘white middle-class’ world of his secondary school in London into his ‘ghetto’ black and poor neighbourhood, I imagine Sanity being part of a crowd of young black people – represented on screen – watching Stanza suspiciously. With one image, it’s possible to conjure up a crowd and indeed a vivid experience from Stanza’s life.

Also, hiphop lyrics can be difficult for white audiences (or anybody who doesn’t know hiphop) to understand, so I imagine non-realistic images during the rap performances – including words and phrases appearing on the screen in playful and creative ways! Our version of hiphop is about how people cross cultural and social boundaries. The screen is our guide – not over-explaining the on-stage world, but offering enough clues to help audiences speak the many different languages woven together to create Oxygen.

Rajinder: For you, are there any aspects of ‘Russianness’ or Russian culture or Russian theatre that you feel we were able to express or at the very least begin to engage with in the R&D and performance?

NBB: That’s a tricky question! We could have chosen to remain more faithful to the original, by keeping the fictional narrative in Russia, rather than relocating it to London. Paradoxically, I think there may be more ‘Russianness’ in the play by an act of cultural adaptation – it just appears in a more subtle way. By removing the Russian references, the creative team has to reflect more deeply on the original, in order to take well-thought through decisions when you decide to make significant changes. So, rather than a young man Sasha from provincial Russia and a young woman Sasha from Moscow, we ended up with a young man Jordan from west London and a young woman Jordan also from west London.

In Russia, the suburbs have a particular connotation – derelict, disadvantaged and so on. Yet, London contains those very paradoxes side by side, e.g. a rich street right next to a run-down housing estate – or think of Grenfell which stood in the richest borough in London. So, the thought process of considering the ‘equivalent’ social status and geography in UK terms led us to reflect deeply on the differences between the UK and Russia, rather than just presenting a stereotyped vision of Moscow and the Russian provinces to British audiences. Hopefully our version will shed light on the original – rather than being a poor imitation.

Where we hope to have retained the ‘Russianness’ of Oxygen directly is through the drama’s musical texture – accentuated in our version by the hiphop lyrics. Furthermore, we’ve kept the eclectic nature of the Russian narrative and we have also used the play’s original dramatic form to structure our performance. Stanza also sampled Russian instruments into the hiphop tracks. Normally, when audiences watch a Russian play, they hope to find out about one aspect of life in Russia today. We are trying to achieve something else. I hope people will watch our version of Oxygen, and then afterwards think to themselves ‘Hang on – was that a Russian play?!’ In other words, our play is the start of an imaginative journey for the audiences, to question their own stereotypes about Russia.

Oxygen audience questions

Rajinder: Was there any useful feedback from audience members which you would want to use to guide us in the next steps of our collaboration?

NBB: I was very encouraged by the feedback! I was concerned that it might be too eclectic and therefore confusing (hence my question to you above). But audiences seemed to think that it was challenging to start with – but then it became very clear. That sounds like an ideal scenario to me! I don’t like theatre which offers very simplistic representations of the world. There’s nothing simple about the world! So I’m pleased with the idea of drawing the audience in very slowly, of offering clues, of allowing them to enter new worlds and then gradually they become familiar with these worlds and can start to enjoy them.

After the showing, I felt as if we were trying to do too much and I might need to cut some aspects of the play. Then the feedback came in and allowed me to gain confidence in our concept. We need to develop our performance – but its multi-layered texture resonates with audiences, so that’s great!

I should also say that there was one specific question from Katrin Kohl – who heads up Creative Multilingualism – and you have also written about this point above, namely whether we plan to develop the multilingualism of the performance. Yes – I want to bring in Russian rappers, particularly those who are part of a counter-culture in Russia, into the projections. There’s scope to explore this further too – by bringing in Russian words into the performances (‘kislorod’- oxygen) as well as including projections of rappers from other countries’ counter-cultures. At the moment, the play is perhaps bilingual but our plan is to make it multilingual!

Rajinder: You largely deal with Russian play-texts and performances as AD for Sputnik Theatre, was this collaboration with hip-hop and Slanguages new for you, and did it challenge or change any of your practice or thinking in any way?

NBB: Yes, this collaboration represents a new departure for me. For many years, but even more so after the Brexit referendum, I’ve wanted to break away from the notion that nationality is the defining part of our identity. Our nationality can be one part of our identity but no more important than other aspects. Once you realise that everybody’s heritage is always multicultural to some extent, a whole new world opens up to you!

For example, take Russian culture. Russian culture has had many influences and influenced many other cultures. Theatre directors think of Stanislavsky as representing Russian culture. Recently, academic studies have shown that Stanislavsky’s practice was significantly influenced by Indian yoga. He couldn’t write about that because of censorship during the Soviet period. So, his acting theories – which have influenced modern acting practices across the West and the world – were not simplistically just Russian. The most rich cultures in the world (or perhaps just all cultures) are in constant dialogue with other traditions, they are multi-layered and ever-evolving. So when the idea for this project was hatched – it spoke perfectly to the direction I wanted to take. There’s no looking back now!

Hiphop will change aspects of how I reflect upon the world. I found it fascinating, for example, how Stanza speaks about growing up bilingual in black English and white English. Slanguages is a wonderful ethos. I was always driven by learning different languages and studying different cultures – but Slanguages is even more far-reaching in terms of its ambition and scope. It represents the desire to be multilingual and to constantly step outside of any neat cultural or linguistic borders.

Rajinder Dudrah, Professor of Cultural Studies and Creative Industries at Birmingham City University, and Noah Birksted-Breen are part of Creative Multilingualism’s 4th strand: Languages in the Creative Economy

Watch the below film to find out more about this project

Photos taken at the R&D event at Birmingham City University

Lady Sanity and Stanza Divan_Oxygen performance
Lady Sanity and Stanza Divan_Oxygen performance
Audience questions at Oxygen performance
Oxygen creative team

Oxygen is part of Creative Multilingualism’s Slanguages project. Discover more on the Slanguages homepage.


This post was first published on the Creative Multilingualism site on 28 November 2018.


Read previous blogs in the Languages & Creativity series:

Blog 1: My love affair with eight languages by Alice Sze

Blog 2: A tale of two city guides: multilingual identity, writing, and translation by Heike Krüsemann

Blog 3: How language learning can be inspired by a fictional world by Emma Huber

Blog 4: Do you have butterflies in your stomach or little deers jumping in your heart? by Marianna Bolognesi

Blog 5: Creative translation: bending to rules to keep it personal by Philip Bullock

Blog 6: Why translation matters by Julie Curtis

Blog 7: We are Children of the World

Blog 8: Helping to balance the European argument – John le Carré speakes out for language learning by Katrin Kohl

Blog 9: “Reader, I went through a wedding ceremony with him”: Translating Jane Eyre by Eleni Philippou

Blog 10: How curiosity led me to learn 7 languages by Yulia Polishiuk

Blog 11: How I produced my first-ever (multiligual) school play by Ann Poole

Blog 12: How learning languages can help in a career as a film producer and writer by Jessica Benhamou

Blog 13: ‘Lessons learnt’ by a professional translator – adapting the same play three times over three years by Noah Birksted-Breen

Blog 14: Creative translation in the classroom by Charlotte Ryland and Lucy Christmas

Blog 15: Korean pop – BTS and fan translation by Sowon S Park

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