Technology Breaking Barriers: New Dimensions To Theatrical Performance
In 1712 Joseph Addison, founder of English daily newspaper ‘The Spectator’, wrote the following:
“There is no question but our great-grandchildren will be very curious to know the reason why their forefathers used to sit together like an audience of foreigners in their own country, and to hear whole plays acted before them in a tongue which they did not understand […] I cannot forbear thinking how naturally an historian, who writes two or three hundred years hence […] will make the following reflection, ‘In the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Italian tongue was so well understood in England, that operas were acted on the public stage in that language.’ ” 
Theatre is a large part of national culture, and the celebrated works of each culture’s playwrights oftentimes lend invaluable insight into political and socio-economic context of the time. Take Victor Hugo’s works, for example, showing in rich detail the daily lives of the common public during the French Revolution with Les Miserables, and with a rather harsh social commentary in Ruy Blas, using the piece to point out all the aspects of aristocracy Hugo himself finds ridiculous. From the decor to the context to the language used, each theatrical piece is a unique view into the world of the playwright, past or present. The pace, rhythm and melody of a language adds an invaluable dimension to a piece of theatre, take away this linguistic layer and the nuance of a piece changes completely.
Cyrano de Bergerac with English subtitles, playing at the Théâtre Ranelagh in Paris – copyright Theatre in Paris
Surtitling has revolutionized theatrical performance, rendering plays once incomprehensible, entirely accessible to international audiences, all without losing any of the linguistic nuances and rhythm of the original work. While the history of using surtitles in theatrical performance remains relatively unclear, the first recorded instances are found in opera, utilizing caption boards for televised performances to render a broadcast as international as possible. These subtitles, or surtitles as they’re referred to in the theatrical world due to their placement on a screen above the stage, have since been more widely adapted, and many playhouses regularly have surtitled performances for a selection or the totality of their shows, from Berlin to Beijing to Canada and beyond.
In more recent years, theatre companies around the world have taken the concept much further. The World Shakespeare Festival’s 2012 initiative, ‘Globe to Globe’, is a perfect example.
Over a span of a few weeks, 37 companies from 37 different countries each performed one of Shakespeare’s plays in their native language at the Globe Theatre in London, using surtitles to communicate the on-stage action.
Three of the companies’ performances then returned to the Globe in 2013, and again in 2014.
But what is the technology and process behind theatrical surtitling, and why is it not more widely used? Surtitles are projected on a screen typically above the stage, granting audiences a view of both the action and the translations without craning one’s neck. With such a set-up, for international audiences the prime positioning within the theatre to visualize the stage and surtitles are the first few rows of the balcony. The application of surtitles to a performance requires the theatre to install both the screen and projector. Generally, venues opt to partner with a surtitle provider, who takes care of equipment installation, and ensures the text is translated and adapted to concise digestible surtitles without losing any of its original integrity. During a performance, surtitles are managed in real-time in order to be perfectly synchronised with the speed of the actors.
This has necessitated the development of the profession of surtitler, an individual incredibly familiar with the piece and the text as well as the rhythm of the performers. This individual is responsible for ensuring the text is adapted into digestible surtitles, and that these audience aids are in perfect coherence with the action on the stage. Surtitlers have gotten creative and the craft has developed to lend its own layer to a piece. Take Spanish company Atresbandes during their UK tour of Solfatara, the original Spanish piece benefited from English subtitles, which took a mind of their own. While at first they faithfully translated the dialogue, the surtitles quickly took on a character all their own, providing a commentary of the performance and an integral part of the stage interactions. Such creative license with digital surtitling proves technology and theatre are complementary and can work in unison, and when they do the result can be electric.
The Lie with English subtitles, playing at the Théâtre Edouard VII in Paris – copyright Alexis Pichot
Many festivals and venues, such as the Festival d’Avignon, are exploring other methods of utilizing technology to make performances increasingly accessible. The Festival d’Avignon and others have experimented with Augmented Reality glasses, enabling audience members to be seated anywhere and benefit from a surtitled performance right before their eyes. Other digitized solutions are being tested, using the aid of a smartphone or tablet screen and a dedicated web application, for example. For the past few years, France has been at the forefront of theatre surtitling. The ‘quatrième salle’ of Paris’ Comédie Française tours the world playing French classics in Asia, Russia and beyond, surtitling plays in the local language, thus bringing traditional French theatre to places that would never otherwise have been exposed to it.
Theatre in Paris is another small company that has sprouted up right in Paris that partners with theatres all over France’s capital to provide surtitling technology for their French productions. With a special English online box-office and dedicated bilingual team, tourists and international travelers can now appreciate French theatre right alongside the locals.
Since its implementation in 2014, Theatre in Paris has ensured accessibility for 430 performances of 15 different productions in 11 Parisian theatres and welcomed guests from over 60 nationalities to French theatrical productions.
The application of digital technology is only strengthening and reshaping how we access live performance, and surtitled theatre has proved Joseph Addison from The Spectator very wrong, historians centuries from now will rather recognize the efforts to break language barriers with performances all whilst maintaining their original linguistic richness. Theatre enables the breakdown of linguistic and cultural barriers all over the world, an incredible time to be a theatre-buff!
For those looking to learn more, Jonathan Burton’s The Art and Craft of Opera Surtitling is a must-read.
Contributor Amanda Mehtala is the International Marketing and Communications Officer for Theatre in Paris.
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 J. Addison, Papers from “The Spectator”: The Opera, The Lotus Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Dec., 1913), pp. 165-172