Multilinguality in Plays and the Audience

by Marcy Arlin

in Audience & Community Engagement

Post image for Multilinguality in Plays and the Audience

(This post is part of the Audience (R)Evolution online salon curated by Caridad Svich for the TCG Audience (R)Evolution Convening in Kansas City, MO in 2015.)

Years ago I produced a wonderful play by a Romanian author that took place in Romania and New York. When the characters were in Romania, speaking Romanian to each other, the director (not me) had them speak like really bad Draculas, the director’s idea (and probably the actors’) of what a Romanian accent was. The protagonist spoke the same exact way when she was in New York. I VANT TO VACH ZEE TEEVEE. The audience didn’t flinch from bizarre accents. I mean, we’ve all heard Dracula, right?

People usually have an accent when they speak a second language, as the muscles and language centers of the brain interpret letters, syllables, according to the rules of pronunciation and stress of their first language. When they speak their own/first language, they don’t have an accent. They just speak.

In New York, we have a very multicultural, multilingual audience. Students who come from immigrant families are often totally bilingual in English and their native language. Some questions and answers for the theatre:

Why in plays do (bad) productions have speakers who when, in the story, they are not speaking English, speak English with an accent?

1. To portray that they are foreigners or immigrants

2. To show a certain amount of otherness, ie. they are not ABLE to speak good English

3. It is fun to pretend to have an accent if you actually do not have one. EET EES FUHN TO PRRReeeteent, etc.

What is wrong with this:

1. To get an accent correct takes a lot of time and work. Most productions don’t have the budget for dialect/accent coaches

2. People don’t speak with an accent when they speak their own language. It is condescending to do this.

Why don’t playwrights/directors write the lines for non-English speakers when they are speaking their language in the play, in that language? My answers:

1. The majority, if not the entire audience, does not understand that language

2. The playwright doesn’t know that language (unless they do).

3. The actors, director, producer, etc. do not speak that language. Unless they do, which is quite possible in a city like New York with multilingual actors.

What are the alternatives? Plus my response to that alternative

1. Have the entire program in the language and provide simultaneous translations.

Positive: Native-speakers of the play’s language get to see a play in their language.

Non-speakers get to hear the original rhythms and sound of that language. Drawback: As a bilingual person, I often find the simultaneous translation, like bad subtitles in a film, lacking in nuance, accuracy, and often lag way behind    the play.

2. Provide supratitles

Positive: If in a good location(s), can give the non-speaker audience the meaning and sound of the language, especially if it is unfamiliar. Mnouchkine did brilliant projections for her show on Afghan refugees when they were speaking Kurd or Farsi.

It can free the writer to write sections in the native language.

Drawbacks: Can be distracting, as the audience member is torn between watching the supratitles or the action. It can be expensive and requires a certain level of technology

3.  Write and present plays that are a mixture of English and other languages.

I remember Dolores Prida’s COSER Y CANTAR, which had characters moving easily between English and Spanish, with actors who could do the same. The play was so beautifully constructed that even if one was an English speaker who didn’t speak Spanish, the meaning of the Spanish phrases was made clear from context, some repetition in English, and the wonderful acting.

4. The Alluring Little Shop, by Radmila Adamova, presented in English in New York.

This new play dealt with a young Vietnamese-Czech student in Prague, born in the Czech Republic, whose family had a small store in a Czech village. The secondary plot was about a Vietnamese contract factory worker whose life is little better than an indentured servant. Both stories were based on interviews with real young people living and working in the Czech Republic that I and Susan Hyon conducted on TCG/Artslink grants.

In the play there are interludes of Vietnamese poetry, in Vietnamese and, originally, in Czech, spoken by the two main (Vietnamese) characters. Our production was in English, with the poetry in Vietnamese.

Our two American-Vietnamese actors knew the poetry, fortunately, and helped us with the translations. When the poetry appeared in the play, one read it in Vietnamese and the other repeated it, as if in another “space”, in English. One actor had a Vietnamese accent, as she had come to the U.S. as a teenager; the other young man did not, as he had come to the U.S. as a baby. Also in the cast were actors from Bulgaria, Macedonia, China, Guam, and the U.S. Most spoke unaccented English.

When portraying Vietnamese immigrants who were speaking Czech (English), they spoke with Vietnamese accents. When speaking to each other, they dropped the accents and spoke unaccented English.

We had one scene were the characters were speaking fast Czech (English) that the main character did not understand. The two actors spoke very fast Bulgarian (which they both knew. One actor’s real English was heavily accented), and which nobody else in the audience understood either. That way we as the audience could identify with the confusion and frustration of the main character.

During the talkback, no one commented on the trilinguality of the show. They did comment that they liked the poetry.

If I had my druthers for a full English-language production:

When characters were speaking Vietnamese to each other, they would actually speak Vietnamese. We would use supratitles or some kind of projection to show an English translation.

When characters were speaking Czech (English) to each other, there would be projections in Vietnamese.

The main storyline would be spoken in English, with Czech supratitles (the original language of the play). When the Vietnamese characters would be speaking Vietnamese, there would be Czech and English supratitles.

The play would be completely comprehensible to speakers of those three languages.

To engage the young bilingual audience of today (at least in many urban centers), I suggest looking for plays (they are written, I have read them), that might include such easy and automatic bilingualism as Dolores’ play, or the technology-enhanced bi/tri-lingualism of translations. Both allow the beauty of two, or even, three to weave through the play and the audience.


Marcy Arlin is the Artistic Director of Obie-winning Immigrants’ Theatre Project. Marcy has directed over 200 productions/readings at theaters throughout the U.S. and Europe. Curator/Director Czech Plays in Translation, After the Fall: New Plays from Romania. Unexpected Journeys (plays by women from Muslim cultures), Eastern European Playwrights: Women Write the New. Publications include: Czech Plays: 7 New Works (Martin Segal Publ.), blogs for tcgcircle.org on Immigrant Theatre Artists, Conversations on the Prague Quadrennial (theatre.cz), “Oldish Woman Leaves Earth” (Man.In.Fest journal). Fulbright scholar to Romania, Czech Republic, Slovakia. Member: Theatre Without Borders, No Passport, Lincoln Center Theatre Directors Lab, League of Professional Theatre Women. Lectured on Immigrant/Community-based theatre at Yale, Brown, U. of Chicago (alma mater), CUNY, University of Koln, Masaryk University. Teaches Theatre for Social Change at Pace University. Grants include: TCG/Global Connections, CEC ArtsLink, NYSCA, DCA, LMCC, Ford Foundation, Puffin Foundation.

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Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.

  • Troy

    Interesting post. I totally agree with you. It’s time for all of us to get used to understanding things from context as well as from the words. That’s the life of a real New Yorker anyway. Your discussion reminds me of those 19th Century productions with Edwin Booth where he played Iago in English and the Italian actor Tommaso Salvini played Othello in Italian. Booth then went to Germany and did Hamlet in English while the rest of the cast spoke German. Both of these productions were very successful in their time. I’ve always wanted to do the same thing.