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Multilingual Playwriting; or, English is Not a Default

When I sit down to write a scene or a play, the first thought that comes to my head is usually not, “What’s the plot,” or, “What do these people want from each other?” Call it bad technique, call it what you will, but the first question that usually pops in my mind is, “Is English these characters’ first language?” If the answer is ‘no’, and for me it often is ‘no,’ then how do I proceed from there? Funny you might ask.

For me, a person who’s always been interested in foreign languages, the question of a character’s native language is often the key to unlocking that person’s personality. Having grown up learning Spanish, Hebrew, German, and Dutch, I’ve encountered quite a wide variety of linguistic styles and the cultures behind them. What has always fascinated me is the way that a language can change a person’s demeanor within a matter of seconds. Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Seeing someone switch into their native tongue is unlike anything else in the world– Their eyes light up, their face and hands get more expressive, and the ease with which they go through life increases dramatically. So, when crafting a play about people for whom English is not their first language, what effect can a scene have in which they are forced to speak English? They can become more reserved, shy, unsure, etc. Much like Luis Valdez does in Zoot Suit, I often try to pepper my plays with phrases in the native language of the characters, never making any effort to translate them for an English-speaking audience. In doing this I am intentionally forcing the audience, in some small way, to feel what it is like to be a person living in a linguistic environment which is not their own.

Although this linguistic fluidity is really just my taste, something that I do because I like how it influences the characters’ world, I do believe that it has a particularly loaded function in the modern moment. In a Trumpian America, one in which immigrants are told they are less-than, forced to assimilate and lose their cultural and linguistic heritage, I feel that it is important to make some effort via my place as a native English-speaking artist to imbue my work with the struggles of those not born with my same privilege. A beautiful example of this technique is in Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman’s Indecent (now available for free streaming on PBS), a play which seeks to show the struggles of being an immigrant whose native language is not English through incredibly intelligent theatrical means. These means not only get the message of the play across clearly, but they effectively use the power of the form in order to teach largely white, non-immigrant audiences about the struggles of those coming into this country, a wonderful example of the use of privilege as a means to a positive end.

In short, do not disregard a play just because it contains a language you do not understand. Perhaps this absence of English is trying to say something to you, it’s just your job to figure out what.

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