As I write this, I'm on a plane back from Italy where I have spent the last 9 days in residence at LaMaMa Umbria International. I was last in Italy in 2013 for LaMaMa's Directors' Symposium. This time I was in Italy directing an original, one-woman piece entitled Bea and Me. The piece was written and performed by Marybeth Berry, a friend I met during the 2013 symposium. The show explores Marybeth's personal life story dealing with domestic abuse at the hands of her husband who died of cancer. As a means of unlocking this story, Marybeth wrote the piece as a conversation with Beatrice Herford an early 20th century monologist widely recognized as a pioneer of solo performance. The play deals with complex themes and features an equally complex format. We spent most of our time in Italy refining the script so as to improve flow, timing, and message. The piece was performed twice at Cantiere Oberdan, the host venue for the LaMaMa Spoleto Open.
About mid-week, one of the organizers of the LaMaMa program asked us how we were going to address the language issue for Italian audiences. Honestly we were so heavily involved in script edits and staging rehearsals that we hadn't really considered that at all. I reached out to an Italian friend of mine for help, but with time so short, the decision was made to just present the piece in English. We figured that if nothing else, the playwrights currently working at LaMaMa (a group of about 12) would come to the show and the language would not be a problem for them.
Friday night, the night of the first performance, came and we only had four people in the audiences, all Italians (some with very limited English). I gave my curtain speech and had the first in my lifetime experience of having to pause while it was translated for the audience. Marybeth pressed forward with her piece and the audience was absolutely enthralled. As a side note, I've never seen an actress embrace having an audience to play for as much as Marybeth did that night. Her story burst forth from her as if it just needed to be released. The performance reached its end, the lights dimmed, and our little Italian audience absolutely went nuts. They clapped and clapped and then clapped some more. It was clear that while they may not have understood all of the language (or Marybeth's crazy accent which is two parts South Carolina drawl with one part Rhode Island speed), but they were moved. They were moved because Marybeth was moved. The emotional tension in the room was evident and it needed no translation.
Here I am,somewhere over southern France and I find myself contemplating what lessons from this experience I can take with me to my work at home. tKAPOW has always been committed to producing the very best of dramatic literature and that commitment will not change any time soon. What I believe I will continue to explore as a director, however, is performance that is highly expressive and storytelling propelled by strong imagery. I will challenge my actors to consider those audiences members who may not be able to rely on understanding of the language alone. I hope that this approach will help us create productions capable of transcending language all together.
~ Matt Cahoon