Children’s theatre overcoming language and cultural barriers

By Liz Skitch, November 2019.

Debase Productions, a small independent theatre company, working out of Brisbane and Melbourne – without ongoing operational funding – recently had the opportunity to present two of their children’s theatre shows in Shanghai as part of the CSIAF (China Shanghai International Arts Festival). Concerto for Harmony and Presto opened in the first week of the festival and then Hurry Up and Wait played the second week. Both shows presented short in- theatre seasons and then toured to Primary Schools and Kindergartens across Shanghai as part of the CSIAF’s ‘Arts Plus’ program.

Concerto for Harmony and Presto was originally written by Debase key creative Liz Skitch for QPAC (Queensland Performing Arts Centre) and the ‘Out of the Box Festival’ in 2016. Liz then adapted the script for the Shanghai season, which included narration recorded with Mandarin speaking actor Wei Lan. The Shanghai adaptation was remounted with the support of QPAC and CSIAF, directed by Therese Collie and performed by Liz Skitch and Anna Yen.

Hurry Up and Wait, written by Bridget Boyle and Liz Skitch for Queensland Theatre Company’s Education Program in 2010, has toured extensively within Australia, including seasons at the Brisbane Festival and Perth’s Awesome Arts Festival. Performed by Liz Skitch and Clint Bolster, Hurry Up and Wait went on to receive critical acclaim at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and with the support of Arts Queensland and Kazenoko Kyushu Children’s Theatre Company, went on to tour Japan in 2013.

Touring original work for audiences who speak languages other than English has been a complex but ultimately rewarding process for Debase. In 2008, Skitch received a Churchill Fellowship to research models of best practice in this area. Immersing herself in the Kijimuna International Children’s Theatre Festival in Okinawa Japan, she observed a wide variety of strategies at work, from direct translation through to narration and subtitles. But in the case of performing work for children, Skitch urges against underestimating the ability of children to read the physical and emotional language of a piece before considering the level of translation required. “A small attempt to incorporate local language within the work goes a long way, even if it’s just a few key words”, explains Liz: “If care is taken in this process, theatre really does have the power to overcome language and cultural barriers”.

For Hurry Up and Wait’s Shanghai season, a short interactive introduction given in Mandarin by the presenter helped the audience to understand key themes, moments and cultural references in the show. Beyond that, little translation was needed in the body of the work, which employs Gaulier-trained Skitch’s highly physical approach to comedy, creating an instant dialogue with the young audience through laughter. “We know straight away if there are any moments where we have lost the audience. Then a willingness to adapt these moments is all that is needed to ensure that the full production is understood whilst maintaining the integrity and flavour of the original work”.

To access Liz’s Churchill Fellowship Report ‘Children’s theatre practices and cross cultural collaboration’, visit:

Back to Concerto for Harmony and Presto show page
Back to Hurry Up and Wait show page