Crossing borders with text theatre from Flanders
Stage performances from Flanders tour the world. Language barriers play no role in wordless (dance) productions, but text theatre from Flanders also regularly tours abroad. In this case, how do artists and companies ensure that their theatre production is accessible to a foreign-language audience?
A full range of possibilities are present when theatre productions cross the border. This text discusses the strategies that companies and theatre makers from Flanders use when touring internationally with their theatre productions. Our focus is on the possibilities present in various strategies, but also on their challenges and pitfalls. Input for this text came from conversations with a number of experienced theatre makers and producers active in the field.
by Marijke De Moor (Flanders Arts Institute)
Theatre companies and artists display great creativity and flexibility when presenting works to foreign audiences. In addition to great openness, curiosity and artistic reasons, there are also less romantic – i.e. economic – motives. Dutch is simply not widely spoken. Flanders is small; neighbour and language companion The Netherlands is somewhat larger, but the opportunities for presenting Flemish productions there have declined in recent years. Even if we wish to perform in the French-speaking south of the country, we have to translate. The possibilities for presenting in our own language area are therefore rather limited. From previous research on stage production from Flanders, we at Flanders Arts Institute know that the number of international co-producers as well as the number of foreign venues open to Flemish companies is increasing.
Supertitles: An art in itself
The most commonly used strategy, and thus the most evident, is to work with supertitles. Supertitling is an art in itself, one in which the rhythm and the structure of the text are crucial. Moreover, the original text usually needs to be shortened, because everything will not fit on a small screen and the audience is unable to process too much text at once. If the supertitles are poorly positioned, they distract from the presentation, even for spectators who don’t need the supertitles to understand the performance.
“Supertitling creates a different rhythm, and risks getting in the way of direct contact with the audience. Actors must get used to the audience’s reaction coming sooner or later than when the text is spoken.”
Most productions by Guy Cassiers (Toneelhuis), which tour a lot internationally, are supertitled when performed abroad. These productions are often also textually heavy, and it is therefore not easy for actors to present in a different language. Because technology often plays a major role in Cassiers’ work, and everything is meticulously prepared in advance, supertitling is a logical choice. All this ensures that for the director, the supertitles are part of the work from the early stages of the creation process, and are integrated scenographically. The supertitles are usually ready for the premiere, so that foreign partners and press can attend. A number of loges in the Bourla, home of Toneelhuis, are equipped with small screens on which the supertitles appear, a system that Toneelhuis learned from the Scala in Milan.
Of course not everyone assumes a production will tour internationally from the start of a creation. Valentijn Dhaenens, for example, states that he does not take this into account during creation. Only after a production has first been made and presented in Dutch, does he evaluate whether he will present it abroad.
For some companies, the choice for supertitles depends on the nature of the production. Kristel Marcoen of Toneelhuis explains their basic position: in the case of smaller formats, it is less appropriate to supertitle because the distance to the audience is small; with larger productions, it feels less strange because there is already a greater distance. For the cinematic location performance JR (2018), the collective FC Bergman worked with supertitles, which only increases the feeling of watching a film.
Supertitling creates a different rhythm, and risks getting in the way of direct contact with the audience. Actors must get used to the audience’s reaction coming sooner or later than when the text is spoken. The theatre of tg STAN, for example, strongly depends on that direct contact with the audience. Which is why the company in principle supertitles as little as possible. An exception to this is a production such as Betrayal by Pinter, where supertitles were nevertheless chosen because the text contains many short sentences and periods of silence.
Actors can also include the supertitles and the changed interaction between actors and audience in their acting. Tg STAN is a master of this. In The way she dies (2017), for example, the partly Flemish and partly Portuguese actors themselves must sometimes rely on the supertitles in order to understand their fellow actors.
In addition to the more artistic and (acting) technical considerations, supertitling also requires a financial investment. This includes purchasing the necessary equipment and a considerable personnel cost. The text must not only be translated, but also shortened. Moreover, the (extra) employee who operates the supertitles must be sufficiently familiar the work itself and know the target language.
According to Johan De Smet, artistic director of the KOPERGIETERY, foreign festivals and houses usually assume that the visiting company will handle the conversion to a different language. Conversely, however, a French company playing in Flanders, for example, will not have the reflex to make a production accessible to Dutch speakers. In his experience, this turns out to be the responsibility of the receiving Flemish house.
Reading along or translating live
There are also other strategies in which companies present abroad in Dutch, with the audience being supported in its own language. In the past, opera audiences were accustomed to reading the libretto during a performance. It is unusual for a broad audience to follow the full translation on paper today, but for performances for professionals – where no other method is available and where discreet lighting can be provided – it still happens that the audience can follow the performance using a translated summary or the full text. Live translation via earphones is an elegant but expensive option.
Tom Goossens and Wouter Deltour (DESCHONECOMPANIE) integrated live translation in their production Don Juan (2017): in different scenes the actors simultaneously translate what the singer is singing in Italian. They also play with the extra layer or with the contrast that a translation can add to the production. Theatre maker Benjamin Verdonck prefers not to use supertitles. For languages that he does not master, he sometimes works with a summary of the piece or has someone make a translation live on stage. KOPERGIETERY also worked in South Korea with actors who between the scenes briefly provided crucial information needed to follow the play.
Acting in different languages
Thus supertitles appear not to be appropriate for every production. Companies such as tg STAN and De Koe have a ‘narrative’ acting style in which ‘acted improvisation’, the disconnection of actor and character, and the uncovering of theatre codes are essential elements. If the supertitles would be in the way too much, they would choose, where possible, to present the work in the language of the venue. Actors also play with this conversion to another language: intentionally speaking with an accent, ‘mistakes’ or glitches that become part of the play … Frank Vercruyssen of tg STAN speaks of different ‘tastes’: a production can ‘taste’ very different in French than in English. Sunken red (2004) by Ro Theater/Toneelhuis/Guy Cassiers was presented by Dirk Roofthooft in Dutch, French, Spanish and English. Mission (2007), a production of KVS, the Royal Flemish Theatre, with text by David Van Reybrouck, was interpreted by Bruno Vanden Broecke in four languages: Dutch, French, German and Italian. It is obvious that this requires a lot from the actors involved.
“Actors also play with this conversion to another language: intentionally speaking with an accent, ‘mistakes’ or glitches that become part of the play”
When translating and taking distance from the original text, a certain form of loss always occurs. On the other hand, a translation can also add something. According to Vercruyssen, some languages are easier to transpose than others: “There is little lost when going from German or Swedish to Dutch, while the loss is greater when translating from French into Dutch or English.” But if tg STAN were to decide that translation did not work, their entire raison d’être would disappear: “We have to do it, although you sometimes think: ‘this is not working’. You have to accept that with sentences you sometimes ‘win’, and you sometimes ‘lose’.”
A foreign-language version, rather than supertitles, is often also chosen in theatre for young audiences. Supertitling is often not an option because the young audience cannot read the titles or finds them difficult to follow. At BRONKS, the Brussels production house for a young audience, the preference is always to act in the local language when there are no practical encumbrances. Thus Us/Them (2014) by Carly Wijs and BRONKS is acted in French, Dutch and English. Supertitling is possible in French, Dutch, German and English. Veerle Kerckhoven, artistic director of BRONKS, explains that when creating foreign-language versions, the acting and the message take precedence over a perfect pronunciation. Sometimes a text is also simplified, so that the actor is better able to say it. It is then simply accepted that the actors speak with an accent. It does not seem to stand in the way of the good reception by foreign audiences.
Sometimes the choice depends mainly on the recipient country and the corresponding culture or customs. In France, supertitles are generally less appreciated (just like the French are not used to watching subtitled films). In Germany there is more openness for supertitles.
It requires a substantial investment from a house or company to convert a production into another language. Even if a foreign venue or Flanders Literature invests in the translation, there is still the cost and energy of studying and rehearsing in a different language. In addition, the cues for acting and the technical infrastructure are often different in these other languages. In addition, sometimes a language coach must be called upon.
“Sometimes the choice depends mainly on the recipient country and the corresponding culture or customs. In France, supertitles are generally less appreciated. In Germany there is more openness for supertitles.”
Sometimes makers choose to create directly in a different language and not (first of all) in Dutch. This can be for strategic reasons (when companies focus mainly on the international market), as well as for personal or artistic reasons. For example, Mokhallad Rasem chose to create his performance Dagboek van een leeg bed [Diary of an empty bed] (2019) in Arabic, his mother tongue. Language and poetry play a central role in the performance, which mainly consists of memories, dream images and observations. Theatre maker Hannah De Meyer, for example, writes her monologues in English. This has everything to do with her method and artistic considerations. She composes her texts by bringing pieces from different (English) sources together, rewriting and restructuring them, until a text remains that bears her signature, while within it the echoes of the source material still resound. Another reason she mentions for creating productions in English is that English provides a certain distance with respect to the subject matter and the character, and smooths out certain autobiographical references. Finally, according to her, English communicates in a more physical, visceral way than Dutch.
With other makers there are often slightly more prosaic reasons, such as increased opportunities for presenting abroad or to support a multilingual cast. Ontroerend Goed presents more abroad than in Belgium, and often works with multilingual casts, so it is usually taken for granted that a production is created in English. Ontroerend Goed also presents its productions in Flanders in English, and according to manager David Bauwens, this is accepted by the audience. It demonstrates ‘Flemish flexibility’ with respect to language. A French maker who presents a production in English in France? That is difficult to imagine.
For productions with only a soundtrack (such as Pjotr and the Wolfski (2014) by DE MAAN, or House (2018) by Inne Goris/LOD/hetpaleis), it is a bit easier. A one-time foreign-language version can be recorded, and can then travel.
With this last comment in mind, we will take a short diversion. Why is it that Flemish theatre makers use different languages so smoothly, flexibly and eagerly – apparently more so than companies and artists in neighbouring countries? We already referred to the economic necessity of crossing the borders of our small language area. Here we consider a number of hypotheses about the breeding ground for that smooth handling of language in the theatre.
Unlike many neighbouring countries (France, Germany, UK), there is no single ‘grand repertoire’ to which artists (must) relate. This is both a limitation and a liberation.
The Flemish are known as polyglots. Because Dutch is not widely spoken worldwide, Belgium is small and the country has three official national languages, the need to speak other languages is great. This creates an openness and flexibility in dealing with other languages. Unlike in some neighbouring countries, for example, foreign-language TV programmes or films are not dubbed but subtitled. Non-Dutch music prevails on all radio stations. English makes it easier to communicate at the workplace, in universities and colleges. As Frank Vercruyssen puts it: “One of the great aspects about Flanders and the Netherlands is that our nose faces outward. We absorb and find everything interesting. When giving directions to a Russian, we will try to do so in Russian. That is a big difference compared to the monocultures around us.”
But there’s more. Theatre is traditionally a medium in which the text is central, and it is an important carrier of ‘high culture’. It is the art of the spoken word. Dealing freely with text and language is therefore not obvious. However, in Flanders this is different than in other regions. Theatre as we know it today has its roots in the work that has been internationally known since the 1980s for its experimental and hybrid character, and the mixing with other disciplines (visual arts, dance, etc …). Text does not have to be the starting point of a production, but stands alongside other meaning carriers such as music, image or the body. It is no coincidence that many big names from that period came from disciplines other than theatre (Wim Vandekeybus is a psychologist by training, Alain Platel an orthopedagogue, Jan Lauwers a visual artist). Language and literature are not the cultural reference point in Flanders. Unlike many neighbouring countries (France, Germany, UK), there is no single ‘grand repertoire’ to which artists (must) relate. This is both a limitation and a liberation. Or in the words of Frank Vercruyssen: “I always say to the French: ‘Your big advantage is that you have Racine and Molière, your big disadvantage is that you have Racine and Molière’.”
As dramaturge Peter Anthonissen describes in his essay about the theatre text in Flanders (2019),  many theatre texts are written today by ‘writing makers’. Or they are created on stage from improvisation or collectively written, edited, and so on. In this sense, the status of the author in Flanders is not very high. Text is ‘material’ with which makers and actors go to work. Theatre maker Valentijn Dhaenens puts it as follows: “It is part of our freedom that we treat our authors quite carelessly and that they enjoy little respect. (…) The kind of authorship that we, as actors, appropriate, is a problem in the UK, for example.” There the author and his or her work are central, and the work should preferably be performed as much as possible without changes.
Multilingualism in a diverse world
The breeding ground for the internationalisation of Flemish theatre is of course not only Flemish soil. The world is becoming more diverse, and multilingualism – both among individuals and within a city or community – is increasingly becoming a reality. In Flanders, 27.5% of the children born in 2016 did not have Dutch as their first language. Brussels is officially a bilingual city, but recent research shows that more than 20% of Brussels residents grow up with a language other than Dutch or French spoken at home. Furthermore, Brussels residents in particular are very flexible with language and use different languages depending on the context (school, work, shop, private). This cosmopolitan and multilingual reality is reflected in the theatre.
In the first place there is the multilingual audience to relate to. Houses that work for a young audience feel the growing diversity first, especially in the cities. After all, via performances at school they are faced with an audience that has not chosen to come to the theatre and that is not necessarily proficient in Dutch. According to Johan De Smet, multilingualism is self-evident for children and youth. They grow up with multiple languages and often use multiple languages at the same time, sometimes in one and the same sentence. For houses and companies in Brussels, multilingualism is a daily reality that needs to be taken into account. At the biennial festival Export/Import organised by BRONKS and Montagne Magique there are many multilingual or non-linguistic productions on the programme. A recent example is Tsjick (2018) by Skagen and BRONKS in which one actor speaks Dutch and the other speaks French. However, according to De Smet, multi-language or foreign-language productions that KOPERGIETERY makes in Ghent are not always appreciated in the Flemish cultural centres when KOPERGIETERY goes on tour.
Multilingualism in productions often also has to do with the individuality of the makers or the companies, which themselves are diverse and have a connection with different languages and cultures. There are many examples of multilingual productions. Needcompany has been working multilingually since its inception in 1986, both on and behind the stage, whereby the (in)capacity for communication and/or translation is often thematised in its productions. Productions in which confusion of speech and miscommunication play a central role often use multiple languages to thematise that confusion. Thus French, Dutch and German alternate in België ondertiteld/La Belgique sous-titrée [Belgium subtitled] (2019) by BRONKS, a portrait of Belgian identity. Kuzikiliza (2017) (‘being heard’ in Swahili) by Pitcho Womba Konga, a production about Belgium’s colonial past, also uses French, Dutch and sign language. In the case of Tristero, multilingualism is in its DNA. The Brussels company regularly collaborates with French-speaking artistic partners. In his BigMouth (2008), Valentijn Dhaenens used bits of speeches in the original language to show how different languages work rhetorically. In her production w a t e r w a s w a s s e r (2017), theatre maker Dounia Mahammed strings together words and sentences from four different languages in an associative and poetic way. In the aforementioned The way she dies by tg STAN and the Portuguese Teatro Nacional D. Maria II, the Flemish actors speak Dutch among themselves and the Portuguese actors Portuguese, while French is used to communicate collectively. By switching between languages and the game with words, this production about Tolstoys Anna Karenina at the same time becomes a production about (un)translatability. As an audience, are we perhaps being served different versions of the same story? Can a translation be trusted? Isn’t every translation an interpretation?
The growing diversity among makers is not the only factor behind the increasing number of multilingual productions. The phenomenon of the growing number of international co-productions and co-creations (and therefore the number of multilingual teams) and the pursuit of international distribution also play a major role in this.
Multilingualism thus becomes a daily reality and a source of riches. We are gradually getting used to not always understanding (or even having to understand) everything. In Studio Sheherazade (2018) by Haider Al Timimi, the sporadic parts in Arabic are not subtitled.
In the Ghent city theatre NTGent, multilingualism was anchored in a manifesto under the direction of Milo Rau: at least two different languages must be spoken on stage in each production. Michael De Cock, director of KVS, the Royal Flemish Theatre in Brussels, notes an evolution over the past ten years: when he made Belga in 2009 with ‘t Arsenaal (with a text by Rachida Lamrabet), switching from Dutch to Berber was still an issue. Ten years later, this (fortunately) is very common.
Finally, there are productions that bypass the multitude of languages precisely by ignoring language, by using a made-up language: In Babel (2015), Frank Adam wrote a libretto in a non-existent language that contains elements from 70 existing languages, as a result of which the text often sounds familiar. Ballet Dommage and fABULEUS used a similar process in Klutserkrakkekilililokatastrof (2017): elements from different languages and dialects were mixed into a language hodgepodge in which everyone recognises something.
Because artistic teams consist more and more of people with different mother tongues, creation processes are also often multilingual. Here, translation cannot be ignored. Thus a working translation of the Catalan version of Monsieur Linh and His Child (2017) by Guy Cassiers/Toneelhuis was made because the lighting designer spoke only Italian. This working translation would then later serve as the basis for supertitles. According to Veerle Kerckhoven, it is crucial to always have one person on the team who knows all languages, and can act as a kind of link.
All the previous strategies and examples assume theatre makers who will present their own work abroad. However, you don’t need to tour to make work accessible abroad.
The most obvious way to give a work a life abroad is to ‘give it away’ by allowing the translation of the theatre text to lead a life of its own, independent of the author and the makers who may have created the previous staging. For example: between 2009 and 2018, Flanders Literature supported the translation of 54 Flemish theatre texts into another language. Texts by Jan Sobrie, Tom Lanoye, Paul Pourveur … are leading a life of their own in multiple languages and are available for performance by foreign companies.
A practice that is becoming more common is that of remaking a production with a local cast.
Not only the text-as-text can be sent autonomously into the world. Ontroerend Goed publishes ‘script books’: All Work and No Plays (2014) and Pieces of Work (2019). The bundles contain blueprints of productions for those who want to get started. The books are not intended as documentary material, but as toolkits “to play, adapt, oppose, relive, challenge and inspire”. Sometimes companies go their own way with the text, sometimes a decision is made to collaborate, as in Russia (see below).
A practice that is becoming more common is that of remaking a production with a local cast. In this case, the director who initially made the production remains in charge, but he or she works with a local team and a local cast.
In 2018 Guy Cassiers created a French version of Monsieur Linh and His Child. Later a Catalan, English and Spanish version followed. The text, based on the novel by Philippe Claudel, is about refugees, loneliness and the need for communication. For each version, Toneelhuis started a process with a local partner and actor, so that each production has its own identity. The European dimension is thus not only reflected in the content (the refugee theme), but also in the work process.
For his production Kamyon (2015), Michael De Cock also opted each time for a new collaboration with a local partner. A local cast was used in each case. Crucial according to De Cock is an in-depth collaboration with the local artistic partner, who is on the same wavelength and who takes co-ownership of the project. In the meantime the production has been presented in seven countries in five languages (Hungarian, Italian, French, English, Dutch and Slovenian).
The theatre experiences of Ontroerend Goed are often so intimate and interactive that the use of English can form a barrier for an audience that does not have English as its first language. Which is why they regularly opt to work with a local cast. This resulted among others in a Russian and Turkish version of Fight Night. But Ontroerend Goed is also increasingly opting to recreate the more large-scale productions in foreign-language versions. There is an English, Cantonese and Mandarin version of £¥€$ (2017). While presenting in English may not be an obstacle in Hong Kong, the touring possibilities are immensely greater with the Cantonese and Mandarin versions, explains David Bauwens.
Creating a production with a local cast presents makers with new challenges. Cultural and language differences sometimes delay the work process. It takes energy to find a partner who is on the same wavelength, and to get all the nuances right. To bridge language differences, it is sometimes necessary to work with an interpreter during the work process, which is cumbersome. It is therefore not a simple ‘translation exercise’, but in many cases results in a ‘new’ production. In any case, it is an exercise in letting go, at least in languages that you as a maker do not master.
The opposite movement: foreign-language work on Flemish stages
Internationalisation is not a one-way street. Until now, we have focused on Flemish companies and makers, and the strategies they use to make their work accessible to foreign audiences. To conclude, we will also look at how receiving houses in Flanders and Brussels handle visiting foreign-language productions. And how do we make Dutch-language productions accessible to a foreign-language local audience?
Brussels organisations that explicitly address all language communities (such as Bozar or Kunstenfestivaldesarts) supertitle all productions anyway in Dutch and French (and English). The Royal Flemish Theatre, the Flemish city theatre of Brussels, also chooses to supertitle all Dutch-language productions in French. The responsibility for this is placed with the companies. BRONKS would like to see all Dutch-language productions for 16+ supertitled in French, but states that it is unable to allocate a budget for this. This does happen during the Export/Import festival, and the house deliberately commits itself to attracting a foreign-language audience from Brussels. In other cities in Flanders, supertitling of Dutch-language productions is not (yet) common. An initiative such as that of ITA (Amsterdam International Theatre), whereby on Thursday, all productions are supertitled in English, does not yet exist.
To make foreign productions accessible to a local audience, supertitles are mainly used. Houses in Flanders or Brussels that invite foreign-language productions handle the supertitling in Dutch. deSingel (Antwerp) for example invests in supertitles in Dutch and French for foreign-language productions. According to Cees Vossen, programmer at Moussem, the Brussels public is very flexible, as long as it is well communicated in which language(s) a production will be available. Moussem varies in this. Sometimes it offers French and Dutch supertitles with Arabic spoken productions, sometimes only English. Kaaitheater (Brussels) also varies in the languages that are offered: English-language productions are not always supertitled, French ones are (in Dutch or English if available). For supertitles in foreign-language productions, the house tries to share the costs as much as possible with other European partners.
Then there is also such a thing as a ‘cultural translation’. Moussem is a nomadic arts centre that focuses on artists with a link to the Arab world. Cees Vossen: “When we consider programming a production, it’s important to estimate whether or not the local connection is too specific. Touring then is difficult. The audience will not understand or will misunderstand a lot of local and political references, and the interpretation of the entire production can vary considerably. For the productions that we programme, we feel we need to provide even more a sort of contextualisation.” This often happens through introductions, post-performance discussions or programme booklets.
Many foreign theatre texts, both classics and contemporary work, have translations into Dutch. This makes it possible for an international repertoire to find its way to our venues. However, there are a lot of blind spots. Few texts from the Arab world have been translated into Dutch. There is also very little knowledge in the Flemish theatre sector about authors and the repertoire from the Arab world. Moussem therefore started a special trajectory in 2015 to make Arabic theatre texts accessible and known in Dutch. The aim is to annually translate a number of theatre texts from Arabic into Dutch, and use these to get students and companies to work with them. This makes it possible to further crack open the tradition of white, Western writers. A first text translated in 2015 was Rituals of Signs and Transformations by the Syrian writer Sa’d Allah Wannous. This was also the first time that the renowned author was translated into Dutch. However, it is not only the classics that are discussed. Texts from new and young voices are also translated.
The previously formulated questions about ‘cultural translation’ also apply to text editions. Cees Vossen: “If someone from the Middle East talks about ‘67’ then everyone knows which war it’s about. In Dutch, a footnote is needed. We have to deal constantly with this.” This translation is a continuous concern for Moussem, and a constant topic of conversation between writer and translator. The diversity in the different regional variants and dialects of Arabic in North Africa and the Middle East poses a real challenge for translators – and for Moussem in finding suitable translators for each of their projects.
 The Only Way is Up? Een cijferanalyse van de internationalisering van de productie en de spreiding van de Vlaamse podiumkunsten (2000-2016) [A quantitative analysis of the internationalisation of the production and distribution of the Flemish performing arts (2000-2016)]. September 2017, Simon Leenknegt. In Cijferboek Kunsten, pp.41-68.