An evening without subtitles (by Kathleen Green)

Last week, I attended the play J’Accuse, by Annick Lefebvre, at the Centre du Théâtre D’Aujourd’hui in Montréal.

The play is made up of a series of five monologues by five different (fictional) women. Each monologue is an expression of the character’s inner rage (mixed in with some joy and humour and sadness), and a sense of feeling misunderstood. The play is in French.

I live much of my life in French and I sometimes watch TV in French, but there seemed to be something intimidating to me about the idea of watching a play in French. In a live play, my look of incomprehension or confusion won’t cause the actor to rephrase herself. In a live play, I can’t press pause to have a quick discussion about what the heck just happened or to give my brain a chance to catch up and try to process the words and expressions speeding by. In a live play, I don’t get subtitles. (Side note: I feel like I should write a whole other post about subtitles. Has anyone ever noticed that Quebec slang gets translated to more standard French in subtitles?!)

To deal with my anxiety about watching a play in French, (and because I’m particularly interested in language and texts and how they get interpreted), I decided to track down the script and read it before seeing the play. This, it turns out, was a marvelous idea. (This should not have surprised me in the least – a friend of mine, Russ Hunt, created and taught a course for many years based, in part, on the relationship between written scripts and how they get performed and how those performances are received. You can read a bit about his intentions and experiences with that class here.)

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The simplest reason that reading the script was a marvelous idea is purely linguistic – it gave me the chance to look up the words and expressions that I wasn’t familiar with and couldn’t figure out from context alone. Another major reason that I’m glad to have read the script is that the play was saturated in cultural allusions. To understand the play, you need to know who Isabelle Boulay, Jeff Fillion, and Stan from Les Boys are. It also helps if you have seen the show Passe-Partout and are familiar with Quebec cinema. It was very much worth my while to look up some of the people, songs, shows and books alluded to in order to better understand what the play’s characters were talking about.

But beyond that, I was reminded, very soon after the play began and over and over again throughout the production, of some of the more overtly social aspects of watching a live play with a live audience.

The first time the audience laughed, I felt left out. I felt like they’d caught something that I’d missed. Despite my planning and my research and my preparedness, I’d missed it. In fact, I missed lots of the jokes. Some jokes I found funny and I laughed along, some jokes I understood but didn’t laugh at, some I got just a moment too late, realizing they were meant to be humorous only as I heard other members of the audience laugh. There was even a whole monologue that came across as quite humorous on the stage, but that I had read without realizing that it could come across that way. No matter my personal understanding of the humour, though, all of the jokes felt different in the live play than they had when I read them in the script. Part of that difference came from the actors’ timing and delivery; part of it came from the reactions of the audience; part of it came from my own self-consciousness at laughing or not laughing along with the group.

There was also a bit of laughter I hadn’t expected at all. Maybe it was nervous laughter to break the tension in the room? During a particularly tense and angry monologue, as a character was saying some pretty racist and xenophobic stuff, several audience members let out laughs. It startled and confused me at the time. Having read the script, I was braced for the seriousness of her words and it seemed to me that our job as audience was to bear witness to her rage and to try to understand it. It hadn’t even occurred to me to laugh. But I guess that’s another difference between reading a script and watching a live play in a room full of other people – it’s not just a difference of being surprised by the words when you haven’t already read the text, it’s the sense that, if you don’t react out loud, maybe your silence will be interpreted as tacit agreement.

In all, I very much enjoyed my theatre experience and hope to make time for more such experiences in the coming months and years. For now, I’m interested in hearing about other people’s experiences as playgoers (or moviegoers), in any of their languages. How do you experience the reactions of the rest of the audience? Is it more noticeable to you in certain languages or places or cultures?

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