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Look! Talk Is Free Theatre embarking on 'innovative' new project

YouthDome, which uses 'augmented reality translating glasses,' breaks down language barriers for young people learning English

A new, high-tech project by Barrie’s Talk Is Free Theatre (TIFT) is striving to remove language as a barrier to both involvement and participation of young people in theatre.

TIFT is set to launch YouthDome, a new theatre program for young people who are learning English, explained Arkady Spivak, producer and CEO for the company, which has been developing and producing shows in Barrie since 2002.

The program will pair 15 young people with a theatre professional, who will mentor each student before they are grouped together to create a play. Throughout the entire program, as well as during the live play, the students and mentors will work together — all without ever having to speak or understand each other’s first language. 

“The youth will never speak one consistent language. They will speak their birth language,” Spivak told BarrieToday.

The idea was inspired by a line he once heard that said if people don’t have a language in common, they tend to talk about more important, global topics.

When translation is needed, participants will be able to use TIFT’s proprietary "augmented reality (AR) translating glasses." The final play, which is slated to run in 2024, will be performed in a combination of each of the student's first languages. With the help of the AR glasses, the audience will receive live, personalized translations, without having to disengage from the production to look at a screen with subtitles.

“When looking at youth opportunities, we have solved all sorts of things, but we haven’t actually solved the linguistic barrier in theatre, so when you have a lot of immigrants coming to live in Barrie, the young people would only be able to participate in our youth mentorship program as offstage help,” Spivak said.

The glasses have the ability to translate from audio to text, he added.

“If I am speaking Italian to you, it will sense that I am speaking Italian and translate, transcribe and convert it to English, and that is projected into the glasses," Spivak said. 

Part of the experiment is that youth will be using this technology for the first time, even before they’re used professionally, he noted. 

“What is exciting for us is that it’s not just the young people being mentored, this is for the young people to influence how a new access point — through glasses or lack of language — can be influenced in theatre. It puts them in the driving seat of innovation," Spivak said. 

The idea for the project was born prior to the pandemic, which hit the theatre industry particularly hard, he said, noting it’s been partially funded thanks to a $10,000 grant from the Telus Barrie and Central Ontario Community Board.

Spivak said the grant "is helping tremendously."

"As a professional practice, I think performing arts will have one of the toughest recoveries. We are all about habit. You go to the theatre once or twice a year … and with COVID that habit was completely destroyed and people created other habits,” he said. “Theatre is all about proximity and that wasn’t possible.

"This is amazing, because it’s a very strategic, original and forward-thinking project … and the idea is as much about the process as it is the result. As always, we are engaging on something we don’t really know what the journey is, but we are very excited about.”