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James Berlyn, Crash Course James Berlyn, Crash Course
photo Fionn Mulholland, Daxen Photography
James Berlyn’s Crash Course is a participatory theatre show that takes the form of an immersive language class. Before entering the classroom, the participants are informed by a terse teacher’s assistant they have endured an unspecified trauma and have subsequently lost the faculty of language, and that a teacher, Jakebo, will help to piece it together again.

Simulating the experience of language loss in a performative context, Berlyn has developed Winfein, a fully functioning language which he speaks throughout. In essence, the show explores how people respond when faced with a seemingly impossible challenge.
Berlyn’s imposing and authoritative portrayal of Jakebo, along with the Victorian architecture of the performance space, transports the participants to another time, stirring up familiar sensations of powerlessness in the classroom, exaggerated by the archetypal schoolmaster character, who could be straight out of a Dickens or Bronte novel.

Before long Jakebo shows that he too is anxious and afraid of failure; afraid that he will not help his students adapt, to be able to communicate with him and each other. Changing tack, he softens and begins to converse through song, acting out scenarios to create context for Winfein words and physicalising the Winfein alphabet to form neurological bindings between brain and body. In this way, the class is exposed to a numerical system, an alphabet and six pieces of vocabulary: the Winfein words for ‘adapt,’ ‘help,’ ‘crash,’ ‘yes,’ ‘no’ and ‘good.’ ‘Tsoopun’—Winfein for ‘Help!’—rang through my mind for most of the work. That much I learnt.

I’m not sure if the initial premise of relearning language following a traumatic incident was necessary to the success of this work. The anxiety in the room, the fear of returning to a classroom and not understanding what is being taught, was palpable, bringing out participants’ innate reactions to either adopt the language and conquer their fears, or crash quickly when challenged with something they could not immediately grasp. I even found myself checking my friend’s worksheets to assure myself I had got at least one thing right and, let’s be honest, to cheat when I didn’t know the answer. On the other hand, my friend diligently applied herself to the worksheets long after the class had moved on to another task, determined to assimilate some meaning from a disorienting experience.

Director Nikki Heywood crafts a taut structure so that Jakebo pulls back just at the right time when the participants need some breathing space. Her acute sense of space and movement allows Berlyn’s physical work to shine; fluid, sweeping yet contained, he creates a surprising contrast with the initially uptight, no-nonsense presence of Jakebo at the beginning.

James Berlyn has an excellent capacity for creating work which can be packed into a suitcase and pulled out anywhere. His creation of the Winfein language and our subsequent immersion in it takes this idea to a new level. The potential to perform this piece anywhere, no matter what the first language of the participants, suggests enormous potential for the work across the international festival market.


James Berlyn, PICA, Performing Lines WA: Crash Course, creator, performer James Berlyn, director Nikki Heywood, lighting Jenny Vila, sound design Geoff Baker, graphic design Shaun Salmon, costume Anne Marie Terese, teacher’s assistant Sarah Nelson, PICA, Perth, 14-30 Nov 2013

RealTime issue #118 Dec-Jan 2013 pg. 40

© Astrid Francis; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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