Bilingualism is at the core of modern Wales. With 20% of the population fluent in welsh, and a further 10% learning, welsh language theatre and artistic work is a key cultural product.
However, although welsh speakers are, on average more likely to attend theatre and the arts than non-welsh speakers, audiences for welsh language work are small. As a result, developing and engaging new audiences is a key priority for producing companies.
It’s also a significant challenge. Attempts to open up welsh language work to non-fluent speakers can be problematic. Surtitles are often distracting for a fluent welsh speaking audience, while synopsis cards can often result in users becoming detached, and at risk of missing out on the real experience of live theatre.
Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, teamed up with technological partner, Galactig, a bilingual digital technology company based near Caernarfon, to develop an idea that sought to address some of these issues.
They envisaged Sibrwd, (meaning ‘whisper’ in welsh); an audio description app for individual audience members. Could this digital tool prove itself to be a financially sustainable means to broaden audience reach while staying true to an artistic vision and offering an uncompromised welsh language experience for fluent speakers?
The team set out to explore how a digital platform aimed at reducing the language barriers that stand in the way of non-welsh speaking or learner audiences enjoying Theatr Gen’s work could broaden audience reach and engagement.
As well as defining the technical requirements needed to achieve this, the team set out to explore the creative conditions required to bring Sibrwd to fruition.
Key to this were a number of questions around target audiences, with the team focused on identifying key differences in the needs and expectations of non-welsh speakers, welsh learners and those fluent in the language.
Another key consideration of the project was the exploration of Sibrwd’s potential as a multilingual platform and its significance to TGC’s future strategic development in terms of UK-wide and international touring opportunities.
To fully explore these questions and construct a prototype platform, the team embarked on a rigorous first stage development process. From this, they produced a prototype mobile app, running from a CMS of content created as part of a production’s creative process.
The Sibrwd prototype delivered the user a ‘whispered’ commentary during a live performance, in their own language, through their mobile device and headphones.
Over the projects 14 month lifespan, the prototype system was developed iteratively, via a user testing process structured around three Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru productions.
These productions, different in scale and content, allowed the team to interrogate the impact of the platform on specific user groups representative of the company’s ‘new audiences’ profile; from non-welsh speakers, beginner and intermediate welsh learners, and those unfamiliar with Welsh culture.
Results of user testing showed Sibrwd to be on the whole, technically and technologically robust. However, in terms of audience experience and creative production processes, the testing revealed areas for further development.
User tests confirmed that Sibrwd’s success relies heavily on embedding the platform into a production. Sibrwd demands an additional layer of creative production – including abridged translation of script; voice casting and voice direction – and therefore requires significant resource from producing theatre companies.
A change in companies’ creative culture and practices is needed to realise its benefits and provide a meaningful experience for audiences.
Sibrwd proved successful in opening up welsh language work to non-welsh speakers or learners by reducing language barriers. However, the process highlighted some of the wider issues around accessing theatre in a different language.
In its current form, Sibrwd can’t compensate for a lack of the cultural familiarity and knowledge required to fully engage with some culturally specific work. To do this, and meaningfully engage with new audiences and broaden the reach of welsh language theatre, a cultural shift is needed to accompany the digital solution that Sibrwd provides.
At the end of the R&D process, Sibrwd stands as a fully developed mobile app, available for iOS and Android with a flexible interface to adapt to multilingual application if required. Audience testing continues, with the team moving forward with plans to commercialise the platform as well as developing its potential for an international market.
Key insights taken from the process are:
- Technology only provides part of the solution: Sibrwd is a tool that can assist audiences, but cultural changes are necessary across the sector to commit to attracting non-welsh speakers and learners to see welsh language work.
- Developed venue and company audience engagement strategies: Understanding audience needs and experience is essential in building strategies that break down barriers and engage new audiences for live theatre in different languages.
- Audience journey is key: live theatre offers a collective experience, and Sibrwd needs to support that to be successful. Understanding and addressing the points where audiences could feel distanced by language and cultural references will deepen engagement.
- Engage in the additional creative process: As well as delivering creative content, production teams and venues need to ensure Wi-Fi and technological infrastructures are sufficiently robust to ensure a positive user experience.
- An iterative R&D process was significant in placing audience response at the heart of Sibrwd: Valuable learning and cultural change developed from one production to the next.
- Sibrwd was created in parallel to production 1; but by production 3 it was embedded in the entire creative process.