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Elise Thoron
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These notes are an attempt to describe and assess a recent phase in a cross-cultural theater exchange at the O'Neill Theater Center, in Waterford, Connecticut, August-September, 1993. The project entailed a month long residency of a company of Russian and American actors to develop a bilingual performance of a new Russian play, FIRST SNOW, by Oleg Antonov.

The immediate goals were to explore the possibilities of Russian-American theatrical collaboration by developing a performance of a new work in two languages simultaneously. Larger goals included recording and analyzing the cultural similarities and differences that arose in a working together, thus using theater as an educational model for exploring cooperation and communication between the two countries in the new Post-Communist era. This overview is accompanied by a much more detailed log of our daily experience and observations.

The questions I entered into the work with, while diverse, were clustered around concerns of artistic practice and reception. Could Russians and Americans work together on the same material to develop a performance that encompassed their different cultural perspectives? What defined these perspectives? What could artists learn from this experience about their craft and ability to communicate on stage while speaking different languages? What does an audience gain from watching the play of two languages and two interpretations of roles on stage simultaneously? Does it enhance their appreciation of the play and/or illuminate their own context from which they watch?

The answers I received during the work and from people who observed rehearsals, participated in our demonstrations, or watched the presentations, surprised me in that they were most frequently stated in terms of "translation." For once the word was not being used in its standard definition of a secondary text that allows a reader/viewer from a different language to understand the meaning of the original. People were using the term to speak of an ongoing, living process, a mediation between two cultures that was occurring on stage before their eyes through the presence and interaction of Russian and American actors.

As a translator, I had never heard people talk so intelligently and passionately about the act of translation. In America, at least, translation is often regarded as a necessary evil, and, as in my mother's adage about house cleaning, is only noticed when it is not done: when the interpreter is late and people are left naked and dumb founded by their inability to talk. In theater, translation is usually completed before actors come to a play. For audiences watching a foreign performance, translation occurs on the sidelines as whispers into ears or words cast on the screen of peripheral vision. Translation is heralded when it is marginal or invisible and gives the illusion of complete ease.

In conventional "successful" translation, the translator conceals the amazingly complex human process of mediation between two languages and arrives at series of accurate equivalencies that an "audience" accepts in good faith. She renders the gap between two languages invisible or blatantly humorous; she makes the vast field of difference between two cultures seem readily traversable. In our bilingual work with Russian and American actors on FIRST SNOW the invisible became visible: the gap between the two languages was brought into the foreground as the source of the theatrical event; the field of cultural differences was the terrain explored daily by actors, directors, translators, and ultimately audiences, both in and out of the rehearsals and presentations.

The actual process of translating or interpreting is a thrilling challenge. The translator holds two languages, two sets of meanings simultaneously and feels the constant pulsing movement between them. Like watching a good play, translating allows you in one instant to experience two radically different points of view and be forced to assimilate them. Translation is an inherently dramatic act, one of intense communication, which belongs in the sphere of theater. Those scenes in our presentation of FIRST SNOW in which the Russian and American actors were in the closest proximity to each other, with their speech overlapping, interweaving, alternating and echoing, were by far the most exhilarating. These were the moments that excited and challenged audiences beyond their usual experience of watching a play. A goal for our future work is to move the whole performance into a seamless fabric of this fluid bilingual interaction.

In post-play discussions audiences responded enthusiastically to the work as containing the seeds of a rich new dramatic form of translation that could be applied to plays from other cultures, (in particular classics: Chekhov, Moliere and Lorca were mentioned). I think audiences were responding to having the process of translation opened up to them. Actors and audiences alike were allowed to participate in the extraordinary energy produced by the simultaneous presence of different forces of language and culture unmediated by a single sensibility of a translator. The collaboration on stage at its most exciting moments embodied, or dramatized, if you will, the process of translation between two cultures, in which language is only one element. Our month long residency was indeed an experiment in translation, in the very largest sense of the word: translation that extends beyond the limits of language into the essence of our shared human instincts and experience.

In many respects, creating theater always involves a form of translation: a director translates written text into live performance; an actor translates a character's speech into action; a designer translates a play into the vocabulary of image. In our bicultural practice translation occurred both at the level of language and in the other non-verbal realms of theater. In fact, it was wordless moments of silent interaction, sound, and movement, in and out of rehearsal that gave us a "common language" which enabled the actors to accomplish the complex task of playing a scene very precisely and intimately with each other while technically speaking different languages. By the end of the month the scope of our understanding of translation had broadened from a primarily linguistic focus to one that involved a deep sharing of non-verbal cultural and individual contexts, which ultimately could only be presented in live performance and group interaction.

As a translator of plays, I do not yet know how to convey this wealth of extra-linguistic information in a written dramatic text, except with extensive footnotes or narrative descriptions, which are tedious at best. Audiences' excitement over the bilingual work and their desire for the whole performance to move further in this direction, (English was still the dominant language in many scenes to tell the story of the play), springs from their being put in the position of "translator," of having to integrate the play of cultural differences and similarities, nuances, sounds, gestures. Rather than observing a translated play as an intelligible, but foreign entity occurring apart from them on stage, they were actually participating in the process of translation and thus were more dramatically engaged than if they were merely witnessing the result. Our work gave some audience members the illusion that they could understand Russian and that the boundaries between the two languages were transparent. In others it produced feelings of frustration and disorientation, when they perceived conflicting interpretations among the American and the Russian actors playing the same role.

Translation implies an inherent difference, a crossing from one place to another. It is for the most part an imperfect act. Like a simile or metaphor, there is no static one to one equation between two different languages only constant movement between two worlds. In our work in living translation, there was a tremendous release of energy which we as participants experienced in waves throughout the month. It's as if all the contradictions of the act of straddling two worlds that are frozen in any translated text unleashed in the interaction of the American and Russian actors and allowed to freely romp. As a result, the mood of the company fluctuated between frustration at the endless potential for misunderstanding and ambiguity, and elation at the possibility of communication across the gap of language.

Bilingual theater rises out of the gap in understanding between two (or more) languages and plunges into this dramatic space where there is potential for both terrible misunderstanding and miraculous communication. This atmosphere, in which confusion is rife,but understanding possible through intense focus and invention is the material of theater in any language, but it is heightened by the presence of distinctly different tongues. In addition to mapping conflict, bilingual theater can convey the pleasure of moving between two modalities, two ways of thinking, behaving, expressing, and being; from one you always gain perspective on the other. Life has a double richness, when you know that there is another way to accomplish the same task, another approach to a problem, another phrase, texture, sound or rhythm to inhabit.

In the United States, there is a lingering nostalgia for a country in which people of all cultures are melted into one common English-speaking conglomerate. But for anyone who travels in the New York subways or on airplanes the world is fluid, polygot, with many cultures intent on coexistence and perhaps learning the English language and American capitalist idioms for economic survival, but not necessarily on blending. The growth of "Multi-culturalism" recognizes this condition, but at times neuters the forces of diversity in an attempt to present different cultures as all being equally accessible and intelligible. Without wrestling with language and difference, multi-cultural work can resemble a plate of hors d'oeuvres on the table of the dominant culture, which an audience samples with delight. Cross-cultural work and collaboration involves conflict, compromise and constant negotiation. Performance through the barrier of language can embody the complex dynamics of this relationship.

In many ways "translating," in the fullest sense of the word I have been exploring here, whether mediating between different languages or vastly different human experiences, is a good model for multi-cultural work. Translating as a present action occurring among different people or cultures, does not tolerate appropriation or expect assimilation, but focuses intently on the need for understanding and communication. It is a practical activity that requires, work, patience, and trust. As we move further in our work as a company both together and apart, translation will become something we explore with our lives. Our next working session together in Russia should bring us closer to an equal distribution of the two languages in the performance of FIRST SNOW, and deeper sense of how to integrate our interpretations.

Throughout our work exploring cross-cultural collaboration the company oscillated between two sentiments: 1.) the fundamental similarity of all people no matter what their cultural background; 2.) the fundamental differences among people of different cultures. Tender testimony of how at the most basic level of the individual all people are the same no matter what their culture, gender, race etc. alternated with the bald truth of there being a tangible shell of cultural identity, both real and perceived, which could not be disassembled and, at times, became an obstacle to communication.

Our common artistic endeavor and shared profession gave us a rich context in which to observe the play of this dialectic, which I believe is inherent to most cross-cultural work. The desire of the acting company is to identify with each other, to believe that the individual transcends all cultural boundaries, that the scene partner is a unique person with whom you have developed a specific acting relationship, regardless of whether they are from Mars or the North Pole. Participants, fearful of positing "cultural types" and acknowledging real differences, often bend over backwards to please each other, minimizing conflict in an effort to feel united.

Conflicts take on a subterranean force and erupt under the pressure of imminent performance or of large amounts of alcohol. Building a safe container and impetus for consciously discussing cultural and individual differences is one of the most challenging aspects of a cultural exchange. Without recognizing the full pendulum swings of this ongoing dialectic of similarity and difference the work is shallow and knowledge incomplete. It is often the differences that can enlighten and allow us to question our own entrenched habits and beliefs.