Italian adventures via goats, honey and young people
Some projects that you go into as a freelance practitioner are approached with a large degree of the unknown. In fact maybe most are. I must say I have never realised how much I take speaking the same language for granted. Usually the participants not only respond to the words you say but also to the intention and weight that you give to those words and which words you have chosen to use or not use. Well I have learned to appreciate this as this last two weeks I have been working with Italian youngsters from 6 to 14 years old, in Italy, with the aim of helping and improving their comprehension and use of English.
My initial approach involved building up very basic instructions and using my own physicality to give examples of what I was talking about. I soon came to realise that this is all very well if they want to communicate with an English mime artist who is chewing on a bag of toffees. As this isn’t what they want to be prepared for I then have to pass my voice along to someone else to translate. So one of my first actions was to essentially give up my voice (a bit dramatic maybe but in a metaphorical way). When I first worked with English teenagers I reveled in finding my voice as a facilitator, it was very liberating. Finding your voice with a group of passionately distracted 6 and 7 year old Italian kids is a whole different challenge.
A fork in the road I never thought about was: after spending many hours with the host Italian family I found myself thinking and talking in the same rhythm. As an actor and theatre maker it is vital that I pick up on people’s habits and rhythms but not that helpful when the main thing you are there to do is to speak like a native English person! So I have an Italian child asking me something in Italian, at least I think he’s asking me something, while trying to give instructions in English whilst stopping myself from speaking in an Italian accent like the 30 people around me! Add to this the brutal heat (of which I am certainly not complaining) and my head has truly learned the art of ‘spinning’.
I often find that spending an extended period around people speaking in another language does something to clear and calm the mind. You’re own words become precious and used with great care or precision. It can of course be frustrating that you didn’t pick Italian for GCSE and save up during your gap years to do an exchange program with an Italian family until you became fluent. But when you can’t be involved in every conversation it makes you really appreciate conversation as an art form and as a skill.
In this part of Italy everyone knows each other. There are rural mountains and valleys with farms, vineyards, villages and tiny towns (that are somehow cities). It’s been beautiful to watch these places celebrate summer and their community with mini festivals of music and feasts, surrounded by beautiful historic plazas and buildings. Once again my thoughts come back to my own roots in Cheshire. How fitting that while I am on the other side of Europe I start a Facebook page for a community project in Winsford, The Town Tellers.
We really are blessed in the UK for culture and the arts. We really need to make the most of it and preserve it. For me the best way to do this is to tell the stories that are buried amongst the local communities, just waiting to be told and shared. Making the page for The Town Tellers required profile and cover photos and I am fortunate to have access to the Red Lion’s collection of research on the area so I turned to that for some images. Every time I look through the archive of historical material I just can’t believe how many stories, images and people there must be just waiting to be unearthed. Not only that but the potential for staging well known stories on the historic and communal sites that have been through so many changes in the town. A lot of fresh, organic and free range food for thought.
Back in Italy the sun pours down over games of 4 square, volleyball, table tennis, grandmother’s footsteps and ‘Get the shoe’ as the older group (11-14) come for the second week. Gone are the passionate tales of “How I asked the gods to enable me to breathe underwater” and “In the olden times they made houses out of poo”. Now we have giddy fits at one of our volunteer’s likeness to Justin Beiber, the highest standards of fashion and lots of chewing gum! Where the younger ones battled shyness to try there English skills, this group have battles with their changing bodies and voices and lethargy thrown in to the mix. But then there are moments when some will reveal that they can say several sentences almost perfectly with no practice; this after having seemingly not understood even the most basic words on their own. Some might say that teaching teenagers is the same anywhere and in any language.
So are there any profound conclusions to be drawn after doing this camp, having also experienced other residential and shorter projects aimed at similar age groups?
Maybe one thing I can’t get away from. First of all this is a project based on a farm and in a rural location. We use drama, art and creative tasks alongside lots of physical and competitive group activities without the pressures of constant deadlines or the need to ‘end-game’. These projects already exist, there are people who want to run them, places that would benefit from hosting them and plenty of young people who would want to attend them. And I honestly believe that if there were more of them they could actually change
the world a lot of people’s lives for the better! I take my hat off to those who run these kinds of projects and hope to be involved in far more of them in the future.
Tom Barry from Bio Bruni, Montaldeo, Italy