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Part of Your Tribe

Aaron Carter: Is the Zagreb production of Tribes being performed in English or...
Nina Raine: No, they’re performing in Croatian.
AC: Do you speak any other languages?
NR: I speak a little bit of Italian, French and German—just enough to not feel freaked out when you’re in that country. I’ve seen Tribes in other languages before, like in Budapest, and you sort of realize how many swear words there are when you hear it in another language—like: “oh God, there’s that weird-sounding word again!”
There are some fascinating difficulties they ran into when translating Tribes into Croatian. There’s a moment at the end of the play in which the projected surtitle is simultaneously about two different events. But that kind of ambiguous reference is not possible in Croatian, so they had to cut it.
AC: And so much of Tribes is about the very nature of language—it’s interesting to think about how different translations might affect the way the play is received.
NR: Well, even sign language is different in different countries. American sign is quite different than British sign, even though we share the same language. The bit in the play where Sylvia signs the poem—I was really enamored by the way they did it in London, which was quite poetic, but when I saw it inNew York, it wasn’t quite the same. And the woman who was doing the sign said, “Oh, we don’t have to do it this way—that was just my interpretation.” And so, you can say a thought in several different ways in sign just like you can in spoken word.
And the other thing that happens with translation: sometimes a joke won’t work in a different language. You realize that it’s not funny without the sound of the words being funny.
AC: There’s a saying—variously attributed to George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill-–that Great Britain and the United States are divided by a common language. Are you struck by any notable differences between the English language productions in London and New York?
NR: Something that is really exhilarating for an English person is that American actors are more willing to go further emotionally. English actors can get there as well—I’m really generalizing—but the production in New York was a bit snottier and scream-ier than the one in London. They really hit the emotional peaks. Comparing David Cromer’s production in New York and Roger Michell’s in London— David went very naturalistic, he immersed the audience in the clutter of that family. And Roger took away everything except for a table and chairs and a chestnut tree in the garden that reminds you of the family tree—it was all very clean and symbolic. David’s was a bit more chaotic, more emotionally high-octane. But I don’t think that either way was like, the one way to do it. They were just extremely different.
AC: It’s tempting to imagine parallels between your family and the family featured in Tribes because your father is poet Craig Raine and your brother Moses is also a playwright. Was the play inspired by your family in any way?
NR: Well, the initial nugget came from a documentary I saw about a deaf couple that came from really different families. The man had never learned sign and he was tremendously relieved to find the Deaf community; she was well-ensconced in the Deaf community and all her family signed. And she was pregnant and they wanted the child to be born deaf. And I thought that was really interesting, because there’s a small selfish part of us that wants to pass on our genes and our special qualities to our children. You want the child to be part of your tribe. For them, that meant their child being deaf. So that got me thinking. And then I met lots of deaf people, and I would scribble down things that they said, and I met someone who was going deaf, and I scribbled more, and slowly these characters started to take shape. And I do have a very noisy, combative and sort of funny family myself, so they were you know, the place where I put these deaf characters.
AC: What can you tell me about what you’re working on now?
NR: Not much really, because it’s not very formed. You sort of write what you know, so all the characters are in their 30s and having babies. I haven’t had any children yet, but it’s what all my friends are doing so it’s all around me. It’s about that and also the legal system… that’s as far as I’ve got, really!
AC: Yeah, my friends and I are in the “kids are about to start kindergarten” phase. So in a certain way, I feel like I belong to a tribe of young parents. Do you feel like you belong to any particular tribes?
NR: A tribe of writers, I suppose? Actually, you know, these sort of intense friendships that I had when I was younger are now finding their way back into my life. And even though we haven’t spoken in years, our lives have sort of turned out similarly, which is really interesting to me. I wonder, maybe there was something we saw in each other when we were young, and we’re still like that—we’re still that same person? I wonder if that’s a sort of tribe. For instance, I spent a year out in Munich when I was 18, and I met this girl and we got on really well and were pen pals for a bit afterwards. She wrote me a letter about a month or so ago, and I hadn’t heard from her in 17 years. So I asked her, “do you have any children?” And she said no, and I thought that’s so interesting! Because the majority of people I’m surrounded by now do have children, but not my old, old friends. It’s curious.
AC: There’s a play in there somewhere!
In the play, Sylvia describes the Deaf community as a kind of protective tribe. What has the reaction been from the Deaf community to the play?
NR: By and large, the deaf people I’ve met have been thrilled that someone was interested in telling a bit of their story. But of course, the play is quite critical of the Deaf community at some moments. Some of the people who have been critical of the Deaf community to me, they’ve said “no, no, I can’t go on the record as having said that.” It’s tricky.
But, so: positive memory! We did two press nights for the London production—one for the Deaf press and one for the hearing press. And I was so nervous on the night of the Deaf press. I sat in the back row and watched, and in the intermission, they were all just talking away in sign. And at the end of the play, they all clapped in the deaf way—which is to wave your hands—and Jacob Casselden, who played Billy, looked out and saw them all and waved his hands back at them and it was really moving. Because that was his tribe, and they were applauding him.