Creating ‘This Is Foreign’ (digital scratch)

Earlier this year me and my partner Rufino were selected by CAST Theatre in Doncaster to create a digital work for their digital scratch event. It’s called This Is Foreign and is a work in progress exploring how two people navigate the ongoing exchange of different cultures and languages in a relationship.

Rewatching the film, the first thing I’m reminded of is how cold it was and how impractical this made filming outdoors.

You can see in the first shot it’s snowing. We kept putting filming off, every weekend in January there seemed to be snow. We drove to the beach early one sunday and instead of sand there was snow and ice on the beach. Rufino was gobsmacked. Yeh, you and me both love. During the editing I decided not to use any footage from the beach. More about that further down the blog post…

But seriously it was super chilly. We didn’t really go for costumes. Even if we had, they would have been covered with hats and coats. Under our clothes we’re both wearing base layers. All the outdoor footage we filmed in short 30 minute bursts then it was straight back in for a cuppa. Anything longer was too painful!

Still from digital scratch work This Is Foreign

Rufino was born in Sheffield, raised in Mexico and speaks Spanish and English fluently. I was born and raised in Sheffield, speak English fluently and Spanish very little. We were actually born in the same hospital. When we moved in together and were sorting documents, Rufino enjoyed that our birth certificates looked the same.

Because we met and our relationship began in the UK (and my spanish is minimal), english is our dominant language. I feel really bad about this. Anyone else in a cross cultural-lingual relationship and not speak their partners language? I’ve got about 100+ words. I can do the politeness bits. Hellos / How are you’s / Goodbyes (I’m great at those!) I can follow conversation with an obvious context. But 8 years and that’s it!

When we visit Mexico, there’s such an obvious shift in dynamic between us as we switch to speaking Spanish. Rufino becomes my means for communicating, my voice, my vessel for expression. It’s so wonderful for me to see him express himself with ease, with his native language, a language that flows and is natural to his body and physicality.

This piece emerges from this ongoing negotiation of our own heritage / language versus the constant and evolving negotiation of each others. It examines the power imbalances that occur in our relationship depending on what language and culture we are communicating in.

Foreign =

1. of, from, in, or characteristic of a country or language other than one’s own

2. strange and unfamiliar

Definition from Oxford Languages 

Still from digital scratch work This Is Foreign

Me and Rufino have been together for 8 years and been to Mexico together 4 times. After our first visit I had the idea to make a piece / begin exploring ideas about language barriers and communication after being struck how difficult communication is when a common language is not shared.

I’ve been on holiday where the language has been different to my own, but this felt different. Being completely immersed in the culture was a new experience and the first trip, quite overwhelming. I’d watched Frozen on the plane over and enjoyed it so much, I latched onto it as an escape and watched it 3 more times in the first week. Before bed it was a chance to relax my brain, no concentration necessary. Comfort. Safety. Words I understood! (And Olaf!)

From 2014 I worked on the project on and off. I got funding from Leeds Inspired and Arts Council England for research and development. I worked with refugee and asylum seeker community groups and Deaf community groups, all who experience language barriers either by living in Britain where English is not their first language or through hearing impairments. I collaborated with a BSL awareness consultant and academics from the University Of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University whose research in language acquisition / 2nd language learning informed the development of a solo work (read about project Rudio here)

Suffice to say there was A LOT going on in this R&D project! In hindsight I fitted too much into 6 months and felt overwhelmed by the end. I didn’t feel like I had any breakthroughs or much advance in understanding exactly what I was investigating and trying to find out.

I still don’t know 100%…

But what I do know is that rather than focusing on developing the piece as a solo work, it needs approaching from a dual perspective based on own lived personal observation. Our personal observations. Mine and Rufinos.

Still from digital scratch work This Is Foreign

Above is a still from one of the few moments of movement in the film. In the studio before lockdown 3.0 we moved around a lot, playing with improvisation, contact and physicalising the narrative but as we began editing it was clear the simpler shots with stillness were more powerful and contrasted well against the busy audio track. It ended up being quite stripped back. 

During the edit, I was drawn to using only material which had been filmed from above. We did film from other angles including a trip to an icy cold beach in January but there’s something I really enjoy about the birds eye view. Like you’re peering into our brains or spying on a private moment – me and Rufino have invited you to look but we don’t know you’re there!

Still from digital scratch work This Is Foreign

Digital versus Live.

When first selected to create a digital work, my understanding and approach was to point a camera at our work in the studio, continuing to present the material as if a live audience were watching straight on.

CAST provided all the artists with a digital mentoring session with artist and choreographer Wayne Sables. This was hugely helpful as it massively shifted my understanding of the differences between making a live performance piece versus a digital work. After chatting with Wayne I realised how quickly my thoughts had developed and was excited for all the possibilities of making a digital work. The audio was our starting point and we created and layered the visuals to enhance the audio. Playing our voices backwards to create a distorted unintelligible conversation was a super fun discovery.

Going forward, I think I’d like to revisit the ideas in a live performance context but maybe that will include a digital element. Who knows?

There’s still loads for me to learn about digital work which is exciting. I only scratched the surface on this project and really did enjoy making this piece with Rufino.

Still from digital scratch work This Is Foreign

The creation days with Rufino were some of the most exciting, inspiring, ‘in the flow’ creative days I’ve ever had. The juices were flowinggg! We had 4 days at home before getting into the studio at Yorkshire Dance.

I wasn’t sure about research from home, would it work? Would Rufino want to develop the ideas from home? I had a great chat with dance artist Lizzie Klotz about changing the energy of a space by simple things such as shifting the furniture – thanks Lizzie!

These days were also Rufino’s days off from work so we made sure they were as joyful as possible. I lit a copal incense to start every day (a lovely incense from México), we watched episodes of the taco chronicles at lunch times and went for walks each afternoon. One day we made fish finger tacos – yum! (And all part of our process)

Rufino was amazing and so much fun to work with. Writing this I’m reminded how exciting it was and can’t wait to begin working on this piece again!…

Big thanks to Yorkshire Dance for rehearsal space where we could develop these ideas, to CAST Theatre for selecting and supporting us in developing this digital work and to Wayne Sables for digital mentoring support.

Still from digital scratch work This Is Foreign