Last week, I went to see a four-and-a-half-hour show in French at Théâtre français de Toronto.
While I speak and understand the language, it had been a long day and I was happy that I had English surtitles to fall back on as the evening progressed.
The experience made me think about all the Torontonians who more regularly go to see shows in their second language and don’t have that option – and linguistic minorities who might be avoiding the city’s primarily English-language theatre scene altogether. (According to the 2021 census, 42.5 per cent of the city’s residents have a mother tongue that’s not English or French.)
Surtitles (projected translations, sometimes called supertitles) were invented in Toronto almost exactly 40 years ago by the Canadian Opera Company. They’ve since become common in the international and multilingual opera world (though “surtitling” smartglasses have been emerging as an alternative).
Surtitles in theatres have also become common in other parts of the world. When I travel in Europe, for instance, I will often plan my itinerary entirely around when English- or French-surtitled performances are scheduled at that continent’s many great repertory theatres.
Ideally, surtitles would be used in Canadian theatre not just to persuade the English-understanding majority to watch theatre in other languages – but to make certain performances accessible or more enjoyable for linguistic minorities, too. You find that much more often in Quebec than in the rest of the country.
This month, however, Toronto’s Factory Theatre is presenting several performances of The Waltz (running Oct. 22 to Nov. 13) with surtitles in Tagalog (Oct. 30, Nov. 3 and Nov. 9). This romantic comedy by Filipino-Canadian playwright Marie Beath Badian is a sequel to Prairie Nurse, her hit about a pair of Filipino nurses working at a Saskatchewan hospital in the 1960s.
More than 82,000 Torontonians speak Tagalog as their mother tongue, and it’s the third most-spoken language at home that’s not English or French after Mandarin and Cantonese. I e-mailed the play’s director, Nina Lee Aquino, a couple of questions about how these surtitled performances came about (and have condensed and edited her answers).
What motivated the Tagalog surtitles for this particular show – and how are you getting the word out to theatregoers who might not come without them?
Back when Prairie Nurse had its run at Factory in 2018, we witnessed a massive turn out from the Filipino community. The staff who were around during that time remembered what a special experience that was, and thought that including Tagalog-surtitled performances for its sequel would allow even more audience members from the Filipino community to come out and experience Marie Beath’s latest show.
Since The Waltz is suitable for almost all ages, I think it’s quite lovely that an entire Filipino family might be able to come out to a performance and experience the show together without anyone missing out on plot points because of a language barrier.
The marketing and PR team at Factory are working directly with Filipino community organizations and Filipino media to help spread the word, which has included translating promotional materials, press releases and show descriptions into Tagalog as well.
Why is this so infrequently done in theatre when other accessibility measures such as ASL interpretation, audio-described performances and relaxed performances have become common?
Translating a show into any language requires a lot of time and resources – and all that is heightened when it’s a live production and especially when it’s a new work. There’s an artistry to translation. Translators need to be gifted writers themselves and they really do become a full member of the creative team. They need to be looped into the rehearsal process from the start; they need to have conversations with the playwright and dramaturge to ensure the translation captures the essence of the dialogue and the play; they need to help establish how the translation is styled etc. All that needs to be considered and it takes time in the process, but it can’t be treated like a footnote or the translation will not serve the story and let the audiences – for whom the translation is for – down.
I personally believe that providing any kind of translation of a theatre work goes beyond accessibility – it’s a radical act of love. It’s the process of creating a bespoke experience for a core audience. When the idea of doing Tagalog surtitles for The Waltz was proposed, I was actually quite moved by the gesture because, for me, this inclusion makes the show an even bigger love letter to the Filipino community.
On stage across Canada this week: five Globe and Mail reviews you can (re)use
- Bad Parent, a new comedy by Kim’s Convenience creator Ins Choi, is now onstage at the Cultch in Vancouver (to Oct. 23). Here’s my review of director Meg Roe’s production from when it played in Toronto earlier this fall.
- Un. Deux. Trois. is at Duceppe in Montreal this week (October 20 to 22). Here’s my review of the cacophonous francophone supershow from its Toronto stop.
- The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale, a solo show about financial affairs and affairs of the heart by Haley McGee, is at Soulpepper (Oct. 18 to Nov. 6). Here’s critic Martha Schabas’s rave for an earlier Toronto run of the show from 2019.
- Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, a worldwide hit musical from Halifax’s 2b Theatre, is currently tour at Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon (to Oct. 23). Here’s critic Martin Morrow’s prepandemic rave. (NB: Some cast has changed since that review.)
- Serving Elizabeth, Marcia Johnson’s popular play about the House of Windsor, in fact and fiction, is at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton (Oct. 19 to Nov. 5). This is a brand-new production directed by Esie Mensah, but, for more about the play, here’s my review of the Stratford Festival’s production of it with a different creative team and cast in 2021.
What the Globe is reviewing this week
I’ll be checking out The Year of the Cello in the recently renovated Backspace at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille (to October 29) on Tuesday night; I recently interviewed the play-with-music’s writer (and TPM artistic director) Marjorie Chan.
Then, on Thursday, I’ll be at Toronto premiere of Indecent by Paula Vogel, a Studio 180 production that is part of the Off-Mirvish season at the CAA Theatre (to Nov. 6). Robert Everett-Green interviewed the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright when the play, about an infamous case of censorship on Broadway in the 1920s, had its Canadian premiere in 2019.
My Sister’s Rage, a new play by Yolanda Bonnell, also opens on Thursday night at Tarragon Theatre in association with TO Live and Studio 180 (to Nov. 6). The Globe and Mail will be there as well.
Look for all our reviews later this week.