Translating English…into English, by Christopher Blair
I think it is very important for actors of all ages to understand exactly what they are saying, be it a foreign language, Shakespearean prose, or 19th Century topsy-turvy English. I can’t tell you how many adult actors I have worked with who were merely reciting their lines, but truly had no idea what some of the words they were saying meant.
Sometimes when you teach theatre to children, you forget things. You forget that middle school kids have never lived in a world without a million television channels at their disposal, or cell phones, or personal computers, or even Miley Cyrus. Cue Mr. Chris looking off into the distance reminiscing about simpler times when he only had 3 channels on the TV, that had a dial to change the channel, a phone with a rotary dial that was bolted to the wall, and a game of Pong that was WAY state of the art. Oddly enough, the Pong game also used a dial on the paddle to move your bumper. Dials were big in the ’80s.
No, no! I promised i wouldn’t make this entry some sappy collection of days gone by. Now I’ve lost my train of thought. Ah, there it is! All aboard!
I’m here to talk about what’s going on today, and the point that I’m trying to make is that sometimes I forget how young these kids really are. I forget that they’ve only studied English to, at best, an 8th grade level. Thus, when you give a middle school kid a line like this one:
“Hold monster! Ere your pirate caravanseri proceed against our will to wed us all, just remember that we are Wards in Chancery, and father is a Major-General!”
You get a reaction like this one:
You are met with a look that suggests what they have just read is Greek, or maybe Martian. CD2’s fall class musical, The Pirates of Penzance Jr, is full of stuff like this, as well as references to old British etiquette that don’t really make sense to your average 21st century 12-year-old.
As Directors, this gap in understanding presents Miss Maggie and me with some challenges. We have begun to translate this very English show into…English…with a modern take!
There are a couple of ways we do this. Sometimes it’s easy. A term like “you lot” can be translated to “all of you” or our own Southern version, “y’all.”
The other way requires a direct modern reference. When the young maidens are dipping their bare feet in the ocean and Frederic bursts onto the scene, they scream, “A man!” Our young actresses didn’t understand that they had to be frightened and embarrassed by this. They didn’t understand that showing your bare feet and ankles was simply NOT done in polite company at the time in which the play is set. At first, all they took away from that knowledge was that girls in the 19th century had it rough. It didn’t really change their performances much, so we had to give them a modern equivalent to guide their choices. We asked them what they would do if a boy accidentally walked into the girls bathroom or invaded their slumber party. Light bulbs started going off above their heads and wonderful new choices started being made.
I live for those light bulbs. They light my path and make what I do so very rewarding. Admitting that you don’t understand your own language is a difficult thing to do! Fortunately, Ms. Maggie and I have a long history with Gilbert & Sullivan’s beautiful writing style, and we are well equipped to guide these new performers. As the Pirate King says, I wish for our students to “Speak out! I charge you by that sense of conscientiousness to which we have never yet appealed in vain!” In other words, share with us your insecurities. We’re really good translators.