Attending a Play in a Foreign Language

I remember the first time I saw a performance spoken in a language other than my native tongue of English. I was in high school, and a wonderful bi-lingual theatre company performed several shows for students of the French language. Half the show was performed in English, and half in French. It was wonderful to see how gracefully these actors were able to slide in and out of each language, having total command of their performance while engaging the intellectual minds of the audience.

During my years as a theatre major at a liberal arts university I was able to once again have the unique experience of sitting through a performance that was not catered specifically to me. I was invited, along with several other students, to Poland, where a piece that we had worked on was to be showed as part of a large, international Shakespeare festival, and where the twelve American students were to be fully immersed in the culture of European Shakespeare.

The first night we arrived in Gdansk, Poland, we went to see an Italian company perform The Tempest. One of the great things about Shakespeare is that we were all able to read the stories before we went to the show, so at the very least we had some sort of understanding of what was going on. The show that night was less than riveting for most of us, I think we all ended up blaming it on jet-lag. However, what I do remember are the unique elements: the set design, the interesting costumes, and the use of video projection.

Perhaps it was not a piece of theatre that had a profound affect on my life as a theatre artist, but it was a piece of theatre that made me think. Over the next week we were able to see several more shows done in various languages, as well as perform a piece in our native tongue, but that was foreign to others.

One show in particular was done by a Polish theatre company. They took the story of Shakespeare’s Othello and confined the action by placing all of the actors on a ship at sea. The tension was palpable the entire time. The audience was seated on three sides of the boat, in a thrust stage configuration. The show was riveting. It did not matter that I could not understand a word that was spoken, I was engaged. The director, designer, and most importantly, the actors, did their jobs well.

In order for a piece of theatre or any other art form to transcend the language barrier all parties involved in the creation of the piece must do their best to make something that gets at the underlying story. The actors must embody the characters, reach into their souls and touch the audience. Failure to do this will result in a play that falls flat and does not catch the audience and bring them on board for a journey that is sure to be breathtaking. When my own group of American college students got up to perform, I am happy and proud to say that even though there were subtitles on the wall nobody looked at them, because the action of the play carried them through.