(Mis)Understanding: The Benefits of Bilingual Theatre

We spoke to academic and director Michael Richardson on the benefits of seeing, performing and participating in multilingual theatre.

Central to The Gods of Strangers by Elena Carapetis is language. Its centrality to our lives and how imperfect it is. How it fails to capture the depth and breadth of the human experience. How that experience, expressed through language, wildly shifts between cultures. It’s a trilingual play that brings the language and spirit of Greek Cypriot and Italian immigrants to the stage. Michael Richardson is a writer, director and academic who researches theatrical language. We spoke to him about the experience of seeing a multilingual work.

Writer Elena Carapetis and actor Dina Panozzo working on translation in the rehearsal room.

What underpins a lot of the theoretical discussions of bilingual theatre is the concept of ‘heteroglossia’, can you talk us through that?

The idea of heteroglossia, in its most simple definition, is the use of more than one language within a performance. So, this could be that one of the character slips into another language — in lots of Shakespeare there are some bits of French, for example. It could be of assistance to someone whose first language is another language other than the dominant one being performed. Or it could be much more complex and involve the use of two languages as an artistic or aesthetic device in the performance.

In terms of aesthetic or artistic devices within a show, bilingualism has historically functioned as a means of achieving verisimilitude, sometimes as a comic punchline and also as a means of spotlighting minority issues. How does bilingualism add to the experience of a theatrical performance when it is used as an artistic or aesthetic device?

The company that I’ve spent a lot of time with in Paris, Theatraverse, are writing pieces that are performed in French and English. And the idea behind their work is not to make any linguistic point but just to add to the way that meaning is created onstage. They create language rules that, for them, help to define the characters and drive the action forward. Each language is not chosen for a cultural reason and that creates a really interesting scenario for audience members in which some of the audiences are understanding everything in English and some of the audiences are understanding everything in French and a smaller part of the audience is following what’s being said in both languages. And what they do to support understanding, then, is to make their performances very visual so that everyone gets the gist of everything.

When minority languages are used in a performance, or when languages are chosen for specific a cultural or artistic reason, it kind of subverts the normal power relationships between the dominant culture and the minority culture. Members of a dominant culture are more likely to be monolingual, whereas members of a minority culture are more likely to use their own minority language but also be proficient in the dominant language. This idea of the bilingual audiences understanding everything means that the benefits of the theatre accrue to them and not members of the dominant culture. This changes the typical power dynamics you see in the theatre, because theatre is usually funded by the dominant culture, created by the dominant culture and is in the language of the dominant culture. Changing that is very interesting.

Director Geordie Brookman talks about bringing a tri-lingual performance to the stage.

The Gods of Strangers very much speaks to Australia’s incredibly anglocentric view of history and of its identity. It pluralises things in a really interesting way. How can audiences from a dominant culture benefit from experiencing bilingual theatre?

I think the really valuable thing when it comes to audience response is the broadening of the mind that happens post-show. This is coming from a typically anglo-perspective, but it’s constantly reinforced that the majority of people are monolingual, which is obviously not true. And I think one of the really good effects of bilingual theatre is that it shows people that this is a norm for many people around the world, and helps people understand that bilingual people - especially those living in countries where they’re considered minorities- are actually having to do quite a lot of work to live, exist and communicate in the anglocentric world.

Can you speak to an experience of bilingual theatre that has had a profound impact on you?

I saw a show in Paris once and it was at the International Visual Theatre, which is a receiving venue for deaf and bilingual theatre. It was performed by two women, one hearing and one deaf. The hearing woman spoke French, and my French is okay so I understood most of it, and the deaf woman spoke in French sign language, which is quite different to British sign language so I only had some access to that.

What I found really fascinating about it, which kind of flew in the face of everything I thought before, was that they didn’t attempt at all to give the two parts of the audience the same experience. The hearing woman performed very much for the hearing part of the audience and gave them her version of the events, and the deaf woman did something slightly different which involved a bit of mockery of the hearing woman. There were times of unanimity between the deaf performer and the deaf audience who were laughing at the hearing audience… I guess it’s kind of like when Shakespeare wrote for the different tiers of The Globe. Some of it was directed at those who could afford the more expensive seats and some of it was written for the groundlings.

The piece I saw worked deliberately to split the audience and that gave them different, but complementary experiences. It was a real eye-opener to me because it was this acceptance that every spectator would respond to a performance in their own individual way and then using bilingualism to play off that. To ensure that we went in different directions… I was in a position of relative bilingual gain, and to be part of that audience was really profound.

The Gods of Strangers opens in Adelaide on November 14 in the Dunstan Playhouse. It’s performed in English with sections in Italian and Greek (with English surtitles). Get your tickets here.

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