Theatre and Language, Part A

Part A of what might be a multi-part half-rant-half-analysis.

I’m heading off to England to pursue an MFA in Staging Shakespeare in just over a month. No one will ever convince me that language is not an integral part of the theatre experience, both for audience and for actor.

That being said, one of my favorite productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was done mostly in Korean.

So what exactly is the function of the text in a theatre production? How are audience members affected, positively or negatively, by hearing a play in a language they don’t understand?

Laura Barnett posted to The Guardian‘s Theatre Blog this week on this very topic  ( ). Her angle is one of conditional appreciation for the opportunity to hear plays in foreign languages at France’s Avignon festival: “I’m not saying that you don’t lose something in not being able to understand every word – merely that this loss is compensated for in other ways.” She speaks of noticing other production elements and better appreciating the play as a whole when she could not understand that dialogue. Her title, “Can You Understand Theatre When You Don’t Speak the Language?” speaks volumes about her thoughts on the subject: namely, you can’t understand the language, but you can understand the basic gist of things and appreciate other stuff about the production.

This is, to my mind, a rather narrow and overly simplistic way of thinking about theatre in any language, firstly because of her assumption that we, as audience, understand every word of a play we see in English. I can tell you that I certainly don’t. On average, I would say that I catch probably about 70-80% of the actual words, unless I know the play very, very well, in which case the percentage is closer to 90. In both cases I do not “understand every word,” despite the fact that English is my native tongue and despite the fact that I’ve recently graduated from a good university with a degree in English Literature and despite the fact that I’m a theatre practitioner myself and am therefore inclined to pay close attention to my fellow actors while they are onstage. I might reasonably claim 100% understanding of a play that I’m acting in or directing, but I would be cautious even of that.

When I take “non-theatre” people to see a Shakespeare, for example, they probably catch somewhere around 40-60% of the individual words, but they very often appreciate the production in other ways and/or forget about understanding every word and just relax and enjoy the play as a whole. Barnett speaks in her article about feeling relieved from the pressure of needing to understand every word and being free to just enjoy the production when she saw plays in non-English languages. Odd, since (based on my experiences) that would seem to be what  people who see theatre in their native tongues feel. Why does Ms. Barnett require a play in French or German to discover that a total understanding of every spoken word in a play is not a defining factor of overall understanding or enjoyment?

Additionally, the idea that an increased understanding of individual words creates meaning for an audience strikes me as a bit absurd. Isn’t the point of a script to put words together into combinations? Why do we need playwrights–or how do we distinguish good playwrights from bad ones–if our goal in the theatre is to understand every word? We understand the meaning of Romeo’s lines to Juliet in the balcony scene even if we don’t necessarily know quite what “vestal livery” means. It would seem that, in Barnett’s view, the only thing necessary to the understanding of a play is an actor who speaks with exact clarity, such that the audience hears and understands every single word. Her argument that we “lost something[…] by not being able to understand every word” doesn’t hold much water for me.

Watching a Japanese Noh production of Medea in a seminar course last year, I realized something about language that I’m sure I had noticed before and never put into words: when you can’t understand the words themselves, you understand the music of the language anyway. English has a certain cadence to it when it’s spoken by, say, Torontonians. It has a completely different musicality when spoken by someone from Louisiana or London, England. And yet we can watch actors from each of those places perform the same text and still understand them through their use of the language and its musical qualities. The same is true of actors who speak languages other than English. Japanese, especially when semi-sung as it was in this Noh production, has a musicality to it that communicates without words. There are certainly ways of speaking and utilizing the music in language that are, if not universally, then certainly widely understood and appreciated across cultures.

Agree, disagree, question! I’d love to debate this a bit. More to follow when I’m a little less exhausted. 🙂


Reflections on an Opening Weekend

Before I totally collapse and commence my much-needed day off, I need a little decompression. What I need more than anything, really, is a bubble bath and a massage and a nap (see my friend Sheelagh’s blog post re: bubble baths for a full listing of all their benefits. Search sheelbeel and you should find her). Unfortunately for me, I have neither a boyfriend nor a lot of cash sitting around, so the massage probably won’t happen. The bubble bath would be in progress at this moment if not for the sad fact that I, alas, have no bubbles. And the nap I might as well put off until bedtime at this point. So I have decided that my decompression will take place in the form of a written reflection on the ups and downs of the opening weekend of Can You Believe? So here’s what I learned during opening weekend:

The thing about a play is…

…it’s rarely (if ever) at its best on opening night.

I’m talking about opening night as the first time a show has an audience. Now, in most professional/semi-professional spheres, shows have preview performances. We sell these to the public as a sort of  “VIP sneak-peek” or “cheap tickets for seeing it early,” but really previews are entirely for the actors’ and technicians’ collective benefit. Previews give us the chance to test out the show in front of an audience before the official Opening Night. Without previews, opening night is Opening Night, which creates some problems. See, a show develops in rehearsal under the watchful eyes of a director and a stage manager and occasionally a guest or two and as it continues to grow, it reaches a point at which it needs an audience in order to reach its fullest potential. The very first audience it meets, however, intimidates the tender, young play. This first audience is confusing because it laughs at things that were never funny in rehearsal and misses all the jokes that were. This audience also strikes terror into the hearts of the artists, thus causing fear of rejection and harsh criticism run rampant on opening night and create butterflies in the tummies of the actors. The butterflies result in generalized nervousness which results in less focused performances. Now, someone has to be the in the first audience, otherwise there would never be a second or third or fourth audience. Hence, the preview. It’s a sort of test drive for the play; changes to just about anything from tech to text can be made based on the responses of a preview audience.

The thing about Fringe is…

…there are no previews.

There are no previews and most companies are working on a pretty tight rehearsal schedule. Sure, there are those shows that have been touring to Fringes worldwide for the past 5 years and are therefore as close to perfect as a show can possibly be because anything that failed the almighty audience test has been changed or thrown out. It’s fun to be that show, but it’s a long road to get there, and even those guys started off just like the rest of us: going in to opening night wishing for at least another week of rehearsal. But alas, try as we might, we won’t get another week of rehearsal, we’ll get an audience. To be fair, an audience can be just as beneficial as a week of rehearsal if its collective reactions are gauged and utilized appropriately. But this leaves the troubling situation of opening night patrons paying an opening night price for what is, truly, a preview performance.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But it’s Fringe! Everyone knows that Fringe is different from other kinds of theatre, and Fringe audiences tend to be more forgiving than normal audiences, especially on opening night!”

You’re right, at least partially. Fringe is a different way of doing theatre–and that’s what a lot of people love about it. But the difference between being slotted as one of the Good, the Bad or the Ugly might very well be the difference between opening and closing night performances in a no-preview situation! Can You Believe?, for example, had a very receptive and responsive and positive opening night audience, which was great. But the best performance so far was tonight’s performance, the third performance. As a result, tonight fell more like a proper Opening Night than our opening night did. Does that make sense?

The thing about actors is…

…they are so great.

I love my actors. I’ve considered myself very lucky throughout the process of working on this show, and I couldn’t be more proud of the work they’ve done and how far they’ve come since our first read-through. That being said…

…the thing about actors is…

…almost all of them have day jobs.

This is actually a good thing. See, the day jobs pays the bills so that the actor can act and do theatre that is appealing and interesting and fun rather than theatre that pays well. In my experience, the two are almost always mutually exclusive! The problem with day jobs and actors, however, is that there’s not a grand database of actors and rehearsals that the bosses log in to when they’re scheduling shifts (although that would be nice!). Thus, when the director (that’s me!) has made the stupid decision to schedule the final rehearsal for five days before opening night and attempts to remedy that error in judgement with a last-minute throw-together rehearsal… it’s almost impossible to schedule because everyone’s work schedules are different. Again, this is not something that’s bad. I would never suggest that someone shouldn’t have/get a job! It’s just a lesson I learned: schedule too much rather than too little. It’s easier for someone to pick up an extra shift than it is for that same person to make an existing shift disappear, especially on short notice.

Also, always back up your tech. And have a plan B for everything.

There are, of course, gazillions of things that I learned this weekend, both about my work and about myself, but those three are the ones sticking out in my mind at the moment. I’m sure there will be a post similar to this one after closing detailing a bunch of other things I learned from the whole Fringe process, but for now…it’s bed time. At last!


Fringe Attack!!!

WARNING: This post is aimed mostly at those who have not experienced / know little-to-nothing about the Toronto Fringe and Fringe festivals in general. So, Julian Munds, you probably should read no further on pain of boredom. You have been warned.


I sustained some minor war wounds from my encounter with the official Toronto Fringe opening today, which involved well over 100 people dashing madly at an 80-foot wall designated for poster display. The rules? No covering someone else’s poster and no more than 8 posters all in the same spot. Nothing in the rules prohibited violent use of poster to inflict paper cuts!!!!

Despite my flesh wound complaints, the spirit of Fringe was in full force at the Fringe HQ behind Honest Ed’s today. I spotted more than one company wearing bikinis made out of their show’s postcards (as CYB cast member Laura said, ‘Why didn’t we think of that?!’ ), several exotic headpieces with feathers and neon colours and so on, and one very conspicuous version of Stephen Harper! I discovered at least half a dozen shows to add to my “must see” list and even found a few to add to my “avoid at all costs” list. If anyone cares which are which, I can send you my super-secret lists 🙂 And no, my standards for gauging good Fringe do not adhere to those of Mr. Bruce DeMara, despite my recent Facebook post. (Although I still think that the word ‘dramaturgy’ is overused and incorrectly used all-too-often in Fringe theatre).

I’d like, however, to ask the same question as Mr. DeMara, but in its positive form: how does one spot good Fringe? The free Fringe program’s advice is to 1) start at Fringe HQ behind Honest Ed’s to catch the buzz there, 2) ask the volunteer ushers at shows, and 3) take a chance on something that’s been poorly reviewed.

Not that I in any way object to beer tents, but Fringe HQ is not necessarily where I’d start my hunt for good Fringe shows. It’s definitely a fun spot to catch up with artists and audiences and check out what’s being talked up (or down!) on any given day. There’s also cheap food/beer and free entertainment. But in terms of separating the wheat from the chaff, I’d trust the volunteers over the ether at the beer tent.

The volunteers are an awesome source because they see so many shows. For every show a volunteer ushers, he gets to see another show for free. There are also designated Volunteer Appreciation Nights for most shows in the festival, and so the volunteers can, if they want to, see an awful lot of theatre for free…the good, the bad, and the ugly! Nothing wrong with pulling out the ol’ Fringe program and asking the usher at your current show which of the shows you’ve highlighted as potentials are actually worth it.

The last bit of advice from Fringe is a double-edged sword. Let’s be honest, people: it’s Fringe! Shows are selected via lottery and a great many shows are underrehearsed, miscast, misdirected, unedited, or otherwise unprepared for an audience. Don’t get me wrong–some of the best theatre I’ve ever seen has been Fringe. But so has some of the worst. I recall on particular production of The Jew of Malta in Edinburgh… I shudder at the memory. But I also saw my favorite production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Edinburgh. The lesson is: you never know at the Fringe. You just never know. Even if the critics loved it, it might not be your cup of tea. The shows the critics smash are often audience favorites, and vice-versa. There’s also the issue of self promotion…some people are just better at it than others. I’ve seen awful, awful shows that had beautiful posters and intriguing descriptions and amazing shows that seemed totally boring based on their advertising. Remember the trailer for Stardust? It was vomitous. (Yes, that’s a real word. I think.) And yet the film was incredible. I challenge you, therefore, to see at least one show at the Fringe whose advertisements make the show seem totally unappealing or snore-worthy. We can’t all be good at everything, after all.


And now, the mandatory shameless advertisement for the Fringe show that I’m involved with: Can You Believe? starts Friday at 5:15pm at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse (walking distance from Fringe HQ!). See you at the Fringe!