Foreign and Familiar

Fix & Foxy’s A Doll's House. Photo by Per Morten Abrahamsen

In the UK, only 3 percent of plays written and produced are plays in translation. Of that 3 percent, the vast majority is composed of “classics” like Chekov or Ibsen, with the tiny minority made up of contemporary plays originally written in languages other than English. In this global age, cross-cultural theatre is experiencing a kaleidoscope-like trajectory that is generating an invigorating new catalogue of experimentation.

While Toronto’s inherent multiculturalism has resulted in some organic and groundbreaking cross-cultural theatre, such as the work produced through Harbourfront’s World Stage Festival or the international Indigenous discourses generated by Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s percentage of new plays in translation is not much higher than that of the UK’s. There are two text-based projects running in London that I believe our homegrown theatre-makers may find particularly inspiring as we try to shift that number a little higher.

Translating Theatre is an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)–funded project designed by Dr. Margherita Laera, a specialist in theatre translation and adaptation. Using the practice of theatre to inform research, Translating Theatre has commissioned three plays from migrant playwrights living in Europe in three of the four most spoken European migrant languages in the UK: Spanish, French, and Polish. The goal of the project is to experiment ways of translating and adapting these scripts into a robust performance in English, while retaining their distinct cultural “otherness.” The project was born, describes Dr. Laera, from a dissatisfaction with the “over-domestication” of these precious few translated texts.

Domestication turns the unfamiliar into the same. Dr. Laera refers to the theorist Venuti whose work inspired the project. Now, while Dr. Laera stresses the complexities of Venuti’s theories, I believe there is a simple understanding that Canadian theatre-makers will fine useful: Venuti writes that when a piece of text is translated and we do not give attention to its unique cultural or linguistic context, it can be considered an act of cultural colonization. Comparable is wearing an Urban Outfitters T-shirt described as “Navajo” while knowing nothing about the tribe or its aesthetic. Venuti proposes foreignization as an alternative strategy that would highlight difference. Foreignization translates the language of the original into that of the target culture, while retaining its “otherness,” its source culture’s integrity.

Even if Canada has a higher volume of contemporary French plays, our reliance on old translations of classic texts is troubling. We also fall victim to a Beckettian cycle of classics, often calling on established translations that domesticate its source text. The cross-cultural work of Translating Theatre presents a challenge that Toronto theatre-makers are well-equipped to take up. “It is impossible to be ‘faithful’ in translation,” closes Dr. Laera. “The challenge is to be creatively and programmatically unfaithful.”

Theatre of Europe, a London-based company directed by Henriette Morrison, brings a wide range of contemporary theatre work from the continent to Britain. And the method by which they bring over the new work is unique. While many companies would commission a production tour to a host company, Morrison invites only the creator or director and their dramaturg. The script or concept is then “translated” during rehearsals with a UK-cast under the guidance of the source culture’s theatre-maker.

Art shouldn’t be polite, we are not in this game to please each other.

I worked as a project assistant on their newest project from Denmark, Fix & Foxy’s highly immersive A Doll’s House. This particular adaptation of Ibsen’s classic is set in the home of a real-life couple. The action of the piece is propelled by three trained actors who play the minor roles, while the rest is fleshed out by the real relationship of the two hosts. Danish theatre-maker Pelle Nordhøj Kann led the production to a highly praised run in London, which plays until December. When I asked him if there were any crucial differences between the show in Copenhagen and the show in London, his response was surprising: “I didn’t notice any significant differences in the production. What was surprising was the audience’s reception. In Denmark, the audience tends to stay very long after the show and talk to the hosts, enjoy the party. In the UK it’s more received as a show and after a show you leave.” Later he further observed that there was a politeness between the actors, and the actors and the hosts, which he was unaccustomed to in Denmark.

By bringing a dramaturg to the UK that is at once “foreign” and familiar, Theatre of Europe is doing what the best theatre should do: it is presenting stories in a way that is at once foreign and familiar. Both sources have authority, so both are compelled to accommodate each other. Devised theatre that is deliberately cross-cultural in its scope is shamefully rare. But what this adaptation of A Doll’s House revealed to me was how fluid and flexible its process can be, two essential characteristics when engaging in cross-cultural theatre work.

In Toronto, we might benefit from this model. By bringing over a “foreign” dramaturg and theatre-maker, we cannot create in a vacuum. Instead, we are obliged to exchange on an equal plain, and together move to an unpredictable harmony.

I recently dramaturged a translated Scandinavian play on climate change for London-based theatre company Empty Deck. After the show, I overheard an audience member comment, “I haven’t seen a show like that before. I found it really abrasive, I don’t think the translator was very good.” Sometimes it can feel uncomfortable to engage with cross-cultural theatre: it means being a part an entirely new way of narrative, of character, of theatrical language. But in the prosaic words of Nordhøj Kann, “Art shouldn’t be polite, we are not in this game to please each other.” Although in its history cross-cultural theatre has been wrought with failure and misappropriation, it is capable of rupturing the mechanisms of our everyday life. It exposes its viewer to an entirely other way of being, and within all of its chaos and discomfort, cross-cultural theatre has the capacity to create new identities and unify others.

Written By

Lucy is a Canadian theatre-maker and dramaturg interested in spaces of cultural exchange and working with non-professional performers. She splits her time between the UK and France and loves flying home to Toronto for theatre and micro-breweries.


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