Improvisation – the common language. by Shawn Kinley 2013
I just got home from my first contact with Slovenian Improvisation a few days ago. My impro friend Vid Sodnik from Ljubljana, told me about the desire to set up Maestro shows in their next season and it’s apparent that language is no barrier to development and interaction when it comes to Impro. They plan on inviting participants from all over Europe to play.
Have you ever wondered about the other improvisers in the ITI community? Have you ever considered joining each other for international impro shows? International collaborations happen often and with the growth of the artform, there’s likely to be an improviser from far away visiting your city soon – and a chance for you to visit theirs.
The last Maestro show I directed in Germany had improvisers of 4 different nationalities. One in Norway had three. Festival shows can have upwards of 8 different cultures or more. But some groups are scared about the possibility of mixing it up with performers who speak a different language.
There are two types of people when it comes to the idea of working on stage in a foreign language. There are those who say it’s impossible and then there are those who know how to improvise.
Good work transcends language barriers. Here are some tips to help you connect and work together onstage in another language:
Be confident. Don’t pretend to be confident in what you don’t know. It’s crazy to pretend to be confident in Japanese when you don’t know the difference between a Katana and Sakana. BUT… it’s worthwhile to be confident in the made up’ Japanese you are speaking.
Don’t apologize and don’t feel bad about not understanding all the words. There’s only so much you can do. You are going to make mistakes (like any good improviser) so don’t try to protect yourself by trying to know all the details of the scenes. Just be confident doing what you know and present what you don’t know with enthusiasm.
Be Vulnerable. Italian improviser Tania Mattei spoke almost no english in a Maestro in Calgary at the Loose Moose theatre. She was confident in playing with those who spoke english and she made brave choices based on what she understood about the attitude of those in the scene with her. It’s a vulnerable thing to put yourself at risk knowing that you might be wrong. She failed admirably many times and smiled and laughed constantly. She easily won the Maestro that night. Nobody in the show would have had it any other way. She expressed the perfect balance of vulnerability and confidence.
Do some scenes in your language. I remember watching Argentinian improvisor Marcelo Savignone working in broken english in Germany. He struggled until he discovered that when he did the work in his native Spanish, the audience loved him. Of course they didn’t understand everything, but Marcelo’s performing was much improved and the audience caught on enough to appreciate the stories and engage in his presence.
Certain games might come in handy when all else is failing around you.
– Dubbing – have the foreign speaker dub your voice and their own or vice-versa in the native language. BUT remember, if your voice is being dubbed, make strong physical offers.
– Gibberish scenes. Have them speak in their language and YOU do the scene in the gibberish of their language. The audience loves to see you at risk and they like to see the tables turn and the foreign speaker given the advantage. (Or both of you work in Gibberish… )
– One word sentences – to limit the language.
– Split scenes – Do a romantic meeting scene in the foreign language and then do the translated version in your native language.
– No talking unless in physical contact
Of course it goes without saying when you are working in a foreign language that you barely recognize, you can help yourself by avoiding language dependent games: rhyming, questions only, etc. And when you are hosting foreign improvisers, be sensitive to the fact that they are in another world than you. Give them focus and play with them. And listen to YOURSELF – are you making local references and using slang that even your own audience has a hard time understanding? If so, there’s a good chance that your guest from Copenhagen probably didn’t catch the intention that “Souping up the truck” had nothing to do with a hot broth poured over your vehicle.
There’s absolutely no way to avoid errors and misunderstandings. Luckily this is improvisation and the errors are like candy for children. Make them, enjoy them, devour them and let them give you a boost.
Audiences love to see a spicy flash of French thrown into a show or any other input that will add variation. Be brave and treat your audience to a smorgasbord of linguistic diversity. Translation: It can be great in your show.
Contact some of the other groups in the ITI. Open your doors and doors will open to you.