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Interview: The many languages of Europe

Francesco Baj & Flavio Marigliani on Teatro Multilingue and Goodbye Papà

Teatro Multilingue are a new European based theatre company presenting plays in multiple languages. We caught their last play, Mrs Green, when it stopped off at Camden Fringe in August, whilst their latest work, Goodbye Papà will be making a visit to Bristol’s Alma Theatre (8 Dec) before reaching London and The Hope Theatre (11 & 12 Dec). We think they are doing some fascinating work and bringing us a taste of continental Europe, so were thrilled to chat with co-founders Francesco Baj and Flavio Marigliani about all things Teatro Multilingue and Goodbye Papà.

Before we dive into asking you about Goodbye Papà, first tell us a little about Teatro Multilingue and your presentation of shows in several languages?

Teatro Multilingue is a Pan-European project born in 2020 out of the idea of combining several languages within the same story; organically, in a way that makes sense. You watch one play and you “hear” it in more than one way. Why? First, our world is increasingly multilingual but our stages aren’t; and second, if we look at recent years, we find that a lot of the struggle inside and outside Europe is presented as a clash of cultures whereas if you just take one step and go beyond the opposition “mine”/“yours” or, in language, between “native” and “foreign”, lots of barriers simply collapse and new worlds of understanding open up right away. This is what we aim to explore, and that’s why our theatre has no subtitles. Thanks to a carefully devised multilingual script, we believe that theatre is a powerful enough medium to make that connection happen, to have audiences go beyond the barrier of language and, therefore, meaning. In a way, it’s nothing new: multilingual scripts were part of the commedia dell’arte and have sometimes been used in cinema and plays; what we do is, however, a little different: we don’t take language, whatever language, for granted and build layers of story telling and meaning based on this.

Goodbye Papà plays at The Alma Theatre in Bristol and then The Hope Theatre in December, what can audiences expect?

A full immersion into our work! We invite them all to come and be surprised at how easy it is to follow the story even though you don’t speak all the languages! Compared to Mrs Green, our first UK product which focused on the implications of Brexit, Goodbye Papà works on a more intimate and personal note. It all starts with a rather bizarre family story and grows into a quest for meaning through language and music. It is, we guess, the work which best represents the philosophy behind our multilingual project. It’s a monologue in English, Italian and Modern Greek, and the people that have seen it when it played in Rome and in Kingston upon Thames have told us of how easy it is to just embrace the story and “forget” the language the actor is using. Goodbye Papà may work on the personal level but it’s nonetheless an all-encompassing journey, real and imaginary, through borders, cultures and languages.

What’s the writing process within Teatro Multilingue? Does a show get written in one language and then translated for another…? We assume, but please do correct us if we are wrong, that this lends itself to a collaborative approach?

FRANCESCO: It is a collaborative approach, but no, there’s no translation involved. Once we have an idea, we either already have in mind which languages we’re going to use, or these get sorted out shortly afterwards, so that by the time I actually sit down and start working on the first draft, the script is in those languages. The balance between them is so important (for the story and for the audience) that it wouldn’t work in translation. And that’s why, when we start rehearsing, some things inevitably end up not working or needing readjusting as the actors “speak” because that’s when you really “hear” the languages at work. I don’t mean readjusting as in grammatically correct or incorrect – this depends on the story – but in how naturally the balance flows throughout the script. Also, I tend to write multilingually but I’m no expert in all of them, so a little helps is always needed!

Goodbye Papà is in English, Italian and Modern Greek – do you speak all three? 😉 Are there extra challenges as an actor when acting or reacting to multiple languages?

FLAVIO: Being born in Italy, I guess I can say that I speak Italian 😉 I’ve studied and worked with English, and as for Greek, I studied Ancient Greek in school so Modern Greek has been a fun and interesting challenge for me! I know the language, though, and actually Francesco and I met while we were both in Athens! Personal note aside, yes, using several languages may be a challenge particularly within the structure of a monologue where it’s all on you on stage, but I think of it more as a chance. As an actor, it has allowed me to focus on what real theatrical communication is and how far that can go beyond speech itself. The gestures, emotions and body language that accompany a word very often carry more meaning than the meaning of the word itself, and this helps to blend and unite what you’re saying in whatever language that is. An actor’s body, and voice, also change according to the language and this is important to notice and embrace as it broadens the spectrum of your expressive possibilities: there isn’t only one way to say one thing.

How do you find the casting process? Do you look specifically for multilingual speakers or do you work with a cast to learn the lines in a language they don’t know?

It depends, to be honest; each project is different. If we need a “native” speaker, we look for one; otherwise we much prefer to go for the actor and what they can bring to the story with their own personal background. Sometimes, it’s just a question of how they “sound.” Apart from the balance of languages, one piece of feedback we often get is how beautiful it is to hear a particular accent or intonation and how that alone gives more meaning to the story being told. And this can be “native” or “foreign”, we don’t really pay too much attention on that, unless the story demands it. We don’t aim at purity, rather at clarity and how organically each sound blends into the story. As for the actors being multilingual, you know, the secret is not so much in how many languages they can speak, as in how in sync with the multilingual project they are or can grow to be. Exactly what Flavio was saying about being an actor in a multilingual project.

Just before Goodbye Papà plays theatres in the UK, you have a new short film called Making My Day coming out. What can you tell us about that and where can people see it?

Making My Day is a short film we’re co-producing and it’s part of the Film/On Demand sector of Teatro Multilingue. When we started back in 2020 in Rome theatres were all closed so we created the trilogy #Europe21, a hybrid of theatre and cinema. We found the medium of film so interesting that we decided to explore it even further. The creative process is a bit different, as in films you have to have subtitles so the work we do with languages is a bit less rigid than when we’re live on stage. The spirit, however, is exactly the same. Making My Day is also an example of commissioned work, i.e. the writer of the screenplay asked us if we wanted to turn it into a film and rework it multilingually. And that’s how it all started. Making My Day will be available online as of 27 November – if anyone’s interested they can get the details at our website.

Normally, we’d like to ask what you have coming up next but here, you are taking Goodbye Papà to Italy and Greece, tell us about that and anything else you have planned for 2023?

Yes, Goodbye Papà will go (back) to Italy and will also travel to Greece, and we couldn’t be happier about all this. We are also working on a new batch of short films, on another commissioned project (this time from the Balkans!); we have a few exciting ideas planned for Madrid, and then our brand new full multilingual show: La Reine de marbre, a modern revisitation of the commedia dell’arte with a strong social and political message. It’ll debut in Rome in March and will then start travelling around Europe. This will also be the first show in which we don’t tell the audience which languages are spoken in the play. It’ll really be: come and be surprised by the multilingue effect!

Finally, as a bit of a fun question, if you count up, how many languages do you think are spoken within the Teatro Multilingue Company?

Hmh… we’ve never really counted them! So far we’ve worked with five: Italian, English, French, Spanish and Greek. But the list is expanding. One of our actresses, originally from Colombia, is also mastering Quechua which, sooner or later, we will have to include in one of our plays! 🙂

Go raibh maith agat (that’s thank you in Irish!) to Francesco and Flavio for taking the time to talk with us. You can visit Teatro Multilingue’s website here and follow them on Twitter here.

Goodbye Papà plays Alma Tavern & Theatre in Bristol on December 8 and then plays The Hope Theatre on December 11 and 12.

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About Dave B

Originally from Dublin but having moved around a lot, Dave moved to London, for a second time, in 2018. He works for a charity in the Health and Social Care sector. He has a particular interest in plays with an Irish or New Zealand theme/connection - one of these is easier to find in London than the other! Dave made his (somewhat unwilling) stage debut via audience participation on the day before Covid lockdowns began. He believes the two are unrelated but is keen to ensure no further audience participation... just to be on the safe side.