Multilingualism on stage “Language is not an end in itself but a tool”

Viktor Andonov and Mégane Kergoat about their first week as Erasmus incoming students at the Theaterakademie joining the workshop “multilingualism on stage” with Anne Bérélowitch and Julie Paucker.

Over the course of this week one of the most important things that have synced in is the value of language and the variety of use of language in the theatrical space. The multilingualism workshop has opened my eyes regarding the wide range of tools I have as a performer with the languages I have at my disposal. Also using a language that is not known by the audience enables the performers to activate a wider corporal and vocal potential to illustrate and reiterate themselves so that they can be understood. Through the exploration of using different languages one thing becomes evident and that is that there is something transcending language, something uniquely human that everyone can understand if it is delivered clearly, precisely and truthfully and that goes beyond movement and mere illustrating. On one improv of a break-up scene the actor delivered the lines of the break-up in French and even without understanding the language the audience understands the pain and struggle that the actor is going through.

Vulnerability that is not performed but actually felt

Another level of meaning is added when the performer does not feel comfortable with the language they’re using. Then they become vulnerable and that vulnerability is not performed, it is actually felt and experienced by the performer. At an improv at a train station for example, performer A was given the task of doing his situation (which was to make the other help him find his lost daughter who he lost at the train station) but performing this in Italian. As the performer did not know any Italian he had to truly experience a level of vulnerability and helplessness.

Language switches can be a useful tool in creating meaning, they can add a comedic level to a given performance, as it was in the confusing and funny dialogues between the mixed up lovers from ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ which we performed, or they can externally show the audience when the character is going into an internal monologue and soliloquy and using their native tongue, which for a Shakespeare text works brilliantly. Also to an audience which does not speak the language using translations of different text can heighten the impact of the scene. For example, the verbal fight between Helena and Hermia from Act III could be delivered with the French and Bulgarian translation of the text especially for the curses that the two characters exchange. This provokes something else in the performers, because using their native tongue for performing a heightened emotion of anger or despair adds another level of truthfulness and for the audience it makes the experience even more valuable because they are not given all the information but create meaning based on what they sense and feel from the language. They have a uniquely human response to the sounding of the language.

Multilingualism can alienate the audience, make the act more intimate or confusing but it provides the performer regardless of their linguistic skill set with a wide range of performative skills, a multi-lingual one.

Making yourself “understandable” beyond intellectual comprehension

During this workshop we experienced the "how to communicate?" 

One of the first things we did when we switched languages was to highlight, to verbalize this change.  The language became the main subject on stage.  But after several exercises and improvisations we understood that the language was not an end in itself but a tool.  So a new door opened to us, what does this tool allow, how is it different from other theatrical tools?  And what does it complete or accompany?  By speaking in a language in which I am not comfortable, which I have the impression that prevents me from going to the end of my thought, from communicating as I am used to, my body and all my sense spring into action to accompany these few words.  The words chosen are often very heavy with meaning. Communication becomes "extra-usual".  It almost always puts the urgency and necessity of the situation at the centre.  Struggling to make myself understood in a language I am unfamiliar with, I realize that I will have to struggle just as much with my mother tongue because the goal is directed towards the partner, the audience, and you have to make yourself "understandable" beyond intellectual comprehension.

Anne Bérélowitch is a theatre director, author and translator, who is committed to the revitalization of Europe through intercultural multilingual creation. She is a founding member of the theatre company Instant Mix and creates multilingual theatre productions, for example in Serbia, France, Germany, Scotland, Cambodia and Tunisia.

Julie Paucker is a dramaturg, author and the artistic director of the Schweizer Theatertreffen. She is a founding member of the Kula Compagnie creating multilingual theatre performances with French, German, Israeli and Afghan actors in different countries.

Want to know more about multilingualism in theatre and as part of our contemporary societies? 

In this exercise participants of the workshop were asked to gather as many different voices as they could find in the surroundings of the Theaterakademie August Everding at the Prinzregentenplatz. You will probably recognize Helena`s famous phrase from Shakespeare`s  “A Midsummer night`s dream” but you might be surprised how its multilingual echo sounds:

Folgen Sie uns!