We are ATRESBANDES, a theatre company from Barcelona, and our work takes us all over Europe. We’ve been working internationally since our second production A l’Altra Banda/De l’autre côté which we made in three languages, Catalan, Spanish and French. The language of theatre is universal, but there are some considerations when working in a foreign country.
We came to the UK for the first time in 2012 when BE Festival in Birmingham invited us to present our third production, Solfatara. We faced quite a challenge, because the entire show is in Spanish, so we adapted it slightly for our English speaking audience and decided to use surtitles. However, sections of very rapid dialogue and characters speaking over each other meant that straightforward translation was problematic. Surtitles have to be cued live and it was really difficult for the technician to keep up, and they changed so fast they were impossible to read. We dealt with this in a creative way, creating text that shifts between translation and narration, making comments about the characters and what’s happening on stage, for example, telling the audience that the silly argument between the couple doesn’t need translating because we’ve all been there.
The surtitles became a fourth character in their own right and added an extra element of comedy to the piece that we really liked – they were even mentioned by several reviewers. Having an open mind to the need for translation has meant that the piece is more flexible and as a result, has toured around Europe, translated into Italian, French and Bosnian, proving that the “language issue” can be an opportunity.
We are currently touring Locus Amoenus which is in both English and Spanish, and it’s been a challenge for all of us as actors to work in a foreign language. We’ve had lots of help from English friends about pronunciation and rhythm to practice our delivery. It’s also about finding the right words for different kinds of speech – Google translate can produce something you’d understand but doesn’t resemble the way that people actually talk or express the deeper meaning of what you want to say.
It’s not just the performance itself where language can be in issue. Technical rehearsals can be very difficult, especially because we’re used to having a lot more time for them in Spain. We’re getting to know the English words for different things, but terms like stage left and front of house don’t translate directly. British accents can be confusing too – when we took Solfatara to the Edinburgh Fringe, the technician was from Glasgow and we couldn’t understand her at all for the first week.
Misunderstandings can happen in the other direction – we surprised people when we first came to Britain by wishing them “molta merda” before they went on stage. It’s the equivalent to “break a leg” in English but in Catalan, it literally means “lots of shit”. It comes from the time when travelling players used to perform in the courtyards of inns and much of the audience arrived on horseback. You knew you’d had a good turnout by what they left behind.
The way that theatre works in the UK is different from Spain in lots of ways. Venues set their programmes much further in advance than venues do in Spain. We have to juggle different lead in times for different projects, so our work in the UK is planned a year or more in advance, but we have dates in Spain being booked at a few week’s notice. Marketing is also different as public and the bigger private venues take care of all the marketing – we were very surprised to have to produce our own flyers and posters, for example. There are various regulations in the UK that we don’t have in Spain or are very different, so it was new for us to produce things like a risk assessment and have public liability insurance.
It’s been really useful for us to work with people in the UK who can help us with practical things and also connect us with venues and networks. We work with a UK based producer, Sarah-Jane Watkinson (who also helped me to write this!) who has produced two national tours for us, both with funding from Arts Council England. We’ve had lots of support from organisations, people and venues like BE Festival and Porl Cooper at Slung Low who have been great advocates for our work. It’s really important to make as many connections as possible if you want to take your work to another country and there are lots of international festivals that can be a great way in. It’s been a fantastic experience to be able to take our work to different countries. It can be difficult and complicated, but not at all impossible if you are positive and are prepared to be flexible.
Locus Amoenus from ATRESBANDES is touring from 25 January.