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I Don't Understand, But I Totally Get It

Date: Jan 02, 2018

Why this theatre lover enjoys seeing shows in languages he doesn't know


When I tell people that one of the best productions I've ever experienced was a five-hour adaption of Shakespeare's history plays performed entirely in Dutch, they sometimes assume I'm an idiot, full of sound and fury. But I find seeing theatre in a language I don't understand quite liberating. Thankfully I live in New York City where I can see shows in lots of languages besides English -- and so can you.

Watching a show in a foreign language does require a bit of extra work, but I find that it's usually rewarding. Supertitles, when provided, can make the experience less daunting. But even when they're not available there's much to be gained. I admit, being a monolingual American, I was initially filled with dread this past summer while studying in Croatia, when I was required to attend several plays with no English translation of any kind. But to my great shock, I was enthralled.

Of the shows I saw at the Croatian National Theatre Ivan pl. Zajc, I was particularly captivated by an updated revival of a 2008 piece by provocative theatre-maker Oliver Frljic. A sustained blast of raw brutality, TURBOFOLK: RiLOUDID is his artistic response to the residual trauma of the Yugoslav Wars. Even though I didn't understand the dialogue I certainly got the message -- war and its aftermath are hell -- and I found myself extremely moved.


Because of the language barrier, I focused on the design and physicality of the performance. As Guardian critic Andrew Haydon once pointed out, "In many ways, not having to worry about the precise nuances of language can free us up to enjoy the visual and emotional spectacles that theatre makes available to us." I also listened more carefully to the audience. Why were they laughing? What just happened? Why did the person next to me gasp at that line? Putting the puzzle together of what I was missing never felt like work; it was a constant thrill.

In honor of the New Year, I've made a resolution to see more foreign-language theatre here in NYC. I'm kicking things off at The Public's Under The Radar festival this month with a Japanese Noh take on Othello, Cuba's Teatro El Público's radical interpretation of Antigone, and Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental & Wang Chong's Chinese Thunderstorm 2.0 (admittedly all with English supertitles). Also on my to-see list: Spanish shows at Repertorio Español and Thalia Hispanic Theatre, and Yiddish productions at National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and New Yiddish Rep. Still looking for other languages? Various cultural centers around the city (Japan Society, Czech House, French Institute Alliance Française, Scandanavia House, etc.) present brief runs of shows in their respective languages. BAM and La MaMa also frequently host foreign-language productions. NYC even has a bilingual Spanish-English children's theatre: Teatro SEA. Buying a ticket is a lot cheaper than hiring an au pair!

For me, seeing theatre in a language other than English is the next best thing to traveling abroad. It allows me to experience another culture up close and in person. So come take a trip around the world with me -- we don't even have to leave the five boroughs.

Have you seen any shows in a language other than English? Tell us about it in the comments!


Ned Moore is a dramaturg and theatre writer. Follow him at @nedmooretheatre. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Antigonón, un contingente épico at the Public's Under the Radar festival. Photo by Lessy Montes.

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