Wednesday 21 November 2018

Performing for a Foreign Audience

You are very excited because you have been invited to play at the Fargleskarg International Comedy Festival. You're all rehearsed, you know your format or set, you have your tickets. Could there be anything else you need to think about? Actually there is... It's worth taking time to think about how well you will be understood.

This blog has come from more than 10 years of performing and teaching in many countries. It will be performance-focused and will mostly be about improv, but much of it also applies to stand-up, theatre and other types of performance. At least with most of these others, you have a chance beforehand to review the text and see if there are things which potentially could trip you up.

It is intended for any performer or group intending to perform for a foreign audience in their own language or a second common language.
Whether you are performing in your own language to people who may or may not have a good understanding of it; or a second language, which you and the audience could be at different levels at, there are a number of issues that may arise. Even performing somewhere with the same official language as your own can be open to problems. Let's have a look at what a few of these things can be.

1. Speak Clearly

This may sound obvious, but a native-speaking audience will almost certainly be able to follow you, no matter how fast you speak, what accent you use, or how lazily you pronounce words. Not so an audience for whom it is a second language. If you speak quite fast, you might find you need to slow down a notch or two. If you tend to mumble or slur words, you might also need to pronounce them clearer. And some accents are harder than others to understand. I've done scenes in certain strong British accents and been told later many people didn't understand a word. If you have a strong accent, it's worth checking how well people get it in the country you are performing in. You might have to soften it. You might not want to hear that, but if you speak a (second) language you are not fluent in, you know how difficult it is when someone doesn't speak clearly and with the pronunciation you learnt it in.

Another side of this is grammar. Grammatically it is highly possible, as many of you will appreciate, to do highly complex things with the structure of what we will call, as most people do, a sentence. Even to a native speaker, that was a complex sentence, spoken to someone who doesn't speak English so well, it might be received by a blank expression. Better to keep it simple.

In improv it usually is better to keep sentences simple anyway. Add a small bit of information at a time and together build something that will become complicated enough. British improvisers, especially, often pride themselves on their verbally dexterous loquacity, and although this plays well to a home audience, it can lose audiences abroad. Be prepared to adapt.

2. Vocabulary

This is an extension of the above, but big enough a topic to get it's own section. Even if you are going to another country that speaks your language, there can be a differences in the words used every day. A lot of the time, this situation won't be a problem. Brits, for example, know a lot of American words and slang thanks to movies, and also Americans hear more Britishisms than they used to. But it is something to especially be aware of if your audience is not fluent in your language. They will most likely not know slang words, old-fashioned or rarer words, or the more complicated word for something where a simpler word exists.

Some of this can be obvious. If you are feeling your audience, you can often sense when something you have said is not clear to them. And it's always possible to fix it if you realise you have used a slang or complex term by saying the standard or simpler word, and/or by describing what you mean.
“Let us go to the refectory. I mean the canteen. You know, where we can get food.”
Maybe that was a little too much, but it is usually better to over-explain than to not be understood.
Of course, it's fine if an audience doesn't get a couple of words during a show and you don't have to second guess yourself with every single thing you say, but if they don't get words key to understanding the plot or relationships, that's a different matter.

Professor Stanley Unwin, eminent scholar and linguist 
(see cultural references)
Common expressions, sayings and euphemisms very often don't translate well and are not understood except by very good speakers of a language. I studied Dutch for a few years, and I can sometimes understand all the words in a sentence but have no idea what it means because they are using one of the many, many Dutch expressions where the literal meaning has nothing to do with what they are really saying.
“And now the monkey comes out of the sleeve.”
What monkey? Whose sleeve? Why was there a monkey there, anyway? (It means “and now the truth is revealed.”)

It's worth remembering that found that whilst most adult native speakers know about 20,000–35,000 words in English, non-native speakers have an average of 4,500 words. So you should be avoiding most of the fancy words you know.

Now of course, a lot of genres come with their own vocabulary. If you are doing a Shakespeare show, for example, there is an expectation of a few obscure words thrown in. And I say, verily, do so, but if your audience is not native, you can get away with doing it a lot less than you would for a show at Ye Olde English Society.

3. Cultural References

Everyday, you say things, do things, eat things that are culturally specific. There are facts you know without knowing you know. Facts that other cultures don't know or maybe even disagree with. You are usually so immersed in your culture that sometimes it is hard to imagine that people don't share the exact same experiences and set of knowledge as you all over the world. But people don't share them. Not every culture eats Wheatabix / hagelslag / Skorpor / Pfunchlacks for breakfast.

It's often a shock when you go somewhere and nobody understands your joke about Ant McPartlin / Gordon / Gunde Svan / Paavo Väyrynen / David Levy / Lazlo Philosovic. Even though it would almost certainly get a laugh back home. Every country has its classic comedy go-to celebrities. B-listers whose names you mention and that will nearly always get a laugh. These are rarely celebrities that are known at all outside of your own country.

This even goes for bands, films, etc. Some bands and movies are internationally known, but a lot aren't. Just because Frambleplank are huge in your country, doesn't mean they made it anywhere else. In fact, I learnt a long time ago, just because I think a band are awesome and one of the greatest bands ever, doesn't mean anyone else has heard of them. Even people on my street.

If you are going to make references to people, things or events, they have to be well known internationally. This can be hard to judge if you haven't spent a lot of time out of the country in the company of locals.

Madonna, Brad Pitt, the current US president (whoever that is at the time of publication) are all suitably international that most people in most audiences will know who they are. Others you don't really know until you try, and it can vary country to country.
Even local references can be problematic. You might want to throw in that you know who the queen of Denmark is and that will work fine if the audience is made up of Danes, who will nearly all know who their queen is, but if the audience is international (visiting improvisers or local expats (who are only there for a short while and often don't get too involved in the local culture)), it might fly over their head.

Lazlo Philosovic, probably.
Overall it is best to avoid a lot of cultural references (and not just at international festivals). They are a particular type of spice you can add to a scene, but they are almost never necessary. Scenes ultimately should be about the characters and the relationships in the scene. References anyway, whilst funny, often take the scene and the actor out of the here and now and into the head world. They are often anachronistic (meaning out of place), which again can be funny, but it is something else which breaks the reality of the scene and improv seldom needs more of them.

4. Do more than just words

So far we've mostly looked at things to avoid or be careful of, but what are things we can focus more on. Most of the complications as we have seen have been about words. Improv tends to be a very verbal medium.

One approach for festivals is to do away with language. Or at least learn to not rely on it. French and Italian groups are great at doing this. Partly because English is often not so well spoken in those countries but also because they have a very strong physical theatre tradition. They tend to perform very physical shows where emotions, characters, relationships, etc., are not explained but shown. (Which is, after all, what your improv teachers kept going on about anyway.)

Play clear, true emotions, physicalise your characters, heighten your relationships, find and play games that are not word based.
A good story is always about the characters and relationships. As the great Hollywood story guru Robert McKee says, “All stories are 'character-driven'” [Story, Methuen, 1999]. You should always be focussing on characters and relationships. References, jokes and word-play are sprinkles on the top, which are not necessary. If your scenes are all just confection on the top, your audience is going to get diabetes pretty quick.
A clear character and well-defined relationship can also be something that is shown and not told. Sure, the specifics of a relationship might be hard to convey, but you can tell if two characters love each other, hate each other or whether one is jealous of another who doesn't even notice them. Likewise, we can usually see if a character is confident, shy, adventurous, thoughtful, romantic, fearful, etc, by just looking at them and seeing them interact with the world and others.
A great story can be told without words, and yet as improvisers we cling to words like they are everything.
In fact if you concentrate on the physical, the emotions, the character, the relationships, make it clear what's going on, you don't need words at all. I have seen groups struggling to express themselves in a second language who when allowing themselves to slip back into their own language or no language have suddenly freed themselves to really play.

The Italian team Teatribu often perform in Italian. They use simple Italian and use their great mime skills to make sure we can follow, and everything else is super clear. And the fact it is in Italian makes it all the more beautiful. It's funny that I know almost no Italian, but watching their shows I feel I am fluent. That should be your goal, to make sure the audience completely understands you no matter how well they speak the language you are using.


To summarise, the main points are these...

1. Speak clearly
2. Use simpler language
3. Avoid slang and expressions
4. Avoid references that are not universal
5. Focus on character, relationship, emotions and physicality.

The bottom line is, be aware of what you are saying and doing and be aware as much as possible of your audience. And this is not just good for festivals, this is good for all shows.
Do that and you'll keep the horse from eating the spanners.