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International: How Parisian theatre gains in translation

Scene from Theatre in Paris’ Around the World in 80 Days, now running at Le Splendid, Paris. Photo: Parisianist Scene from Theatre in Paris’ Around the World in 80 Days, now running at Le Splendid, Paris. Photo: Parisianist
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The writing appears to be on the wall, literally, for France’s historic resistance to English as a global language. In culture, as well as business, the younger generations especially are reaching out internationally, and theatre, usually the most conservative of sectors in France, is taking the lead. This is in no small part thanks to Theatre in Paris, an enterprising surtitling company making the capital’s top productions accessible to non-French-speaking audiences in English.

Along with London and New York, Paris is one of the world’s theatre capitals, but its shows, being in French, tend not to be accessible to most of the city’s 15.5 million international visitors (2014 figures). Surtitling is the obvious solution, but while opera and musicals in Paris have joined the international move towards translation for audiences, theatre has traditionally been resistant. At least, it has been on home turf, since high-profile companies such as the Comedie-Francaise surtitle in local languages when playing abroad and clearly benefit from the added exposure that this brings.

French culture minister Fleur Pellerin, minister for economy Emmanuel Macron and Avignon mayor Cecile Helle try on surtitle glasses at the Avignon Festival. Photo: Fabrice Sabre
French culture minister Fleur Pellerin, minister for economy Emmanuel Macron and Avignon mayor Cecile Helle try on surtitle glasses at the Avignon Festival. Photo: Fabrice Sabre

After starting up last year as a ‘cultural tourism’ company, Theatre in Paris has opened this year’s autumn season with surtitling services that showcase an impressive range of French productions: comedies The Lie at Theatre Edouard VII, Around the World in 80 Days at Le Splendid, Cyrano de Bergerac at the Ranelagh, and the musical Irma la Douce at the Porte Saint-Martin.

Theatre in Paris’ director Carl de Poncins came to theatre from working in the tech world via the idea of managing modern-style theatres. “People are starting to adapt Paris theatres into the kind of hybrid spaces that you find at the Barbican – the kind of centres that have multi-usage and which are frequent in the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ world but not so much here.”

This shift in attitudes got De Poncins thinking about the general lack of provision for audiences in France’s venues, more specifically the fact that there is not enough of an international mindset in the performing arts geared towards making audiences welcome. Tourism – attracting foreign cultural visitors – seemed to be the local key to whetting the interest of theatres in surtitling and, to his surprise, the responses from the theatres he approached were encouraging.

“I was expecting more resistance, frankly. But they were faced with the prospect of attracting more audiences to their theatres – plus of course they are all passionate about theatre. Also important is that the French audience reaction was very positive. I think 15 years ago that wouldn’t have been the case. We still have this old vision of globalisation being a threat.”

There are two main ways of monetising for Theatre in Paris. One is selling the surtitling service, ie, content and operation of the surtitling and the technology and hardware involved. Some theatres prefer to be equipped and control what they do, while others hire in the complete system.

The second part involves ticketing, whereby Theatre in Paris takes commission on sales. Since the company is the innovating force in the sector, both services tend to be linked – theatres will happily invest in the system if they know that someone is also working hard to attract people to their venues.

Prices currently range from €29-€79 (£21-£58) per ticket, depending on production, seat category, season and day of the week – Saturdays are usually more expensive.

“We like to compare this to other tourist activities at night – cabaret would be €120-€150 (£88-£110). We are the only distribution channel, and we provide a one-stop shop where you are paying for a package with extras, so it is a premium service. But at only €10-€15 more than normal Paris ticket prices, it’s not a luxury – and it’s still cheaper than theatre in London.”

Audience take-up is easy to track because Theatre in Paris also controls the ticketing for English speakers via its dedicated website, theatreinparis.com. Aside from individuals from countries ranging from the US to China, punters also include organised groups, both corporate and educational, originating from the UK, Netherlands and Germany, often amounting to a healthy 30% of the audience. Fifty different nationalities have come to shows so far.

While there is less demand in the Anglo world (English being the first language of global cultural currency), surtitling is rapidly spreading elsewhere across the globe. The result is that audiences are increasingly appreciative and, indeed, adventurous. Recent innovations include Sweden’s Riksteatern smartphone app, developed with Finland’s Centre for Practice as Research in Theatre, and Imagine Nation’s bespoke tablets at Theater Amsterdam, specially designed for the play Anne Frank.

Theatre in Paris has taken much of its lead from Germany and has partnered with Kita, a theatre translation company based in Berlin. As De Poncins explains: “Kita started after director Thomas Ostermeier, of the city’s Schaubuhne, came back from a tour in Korea and asked, ‘Why am I not surtitling in my own country? We have foreign audiences here too.’ As in France, people said that it was a bad idea, then they all became jealous, and now a lot of German theatres are doing it as well.”

System integration comes from Atos, a multinational with a software lab in Toulouse. Hardware-wise, while Theatre in Paris is interested in any new technology, it in effect uses only what the job requires, says De Poncins. “We currently use Panasonic projectors, but in six months it could change. And at the moment we don’t do audio – it’s more interesting for Kabuki-style theatre, where you have very little text and so need to describe what’s happening. However, we are now looking into the possibilities for adaptations for the blind and partially sighted.”

Scene from Theatre in Paris’ A Farewell Dinner, staged at the Theatre Edouard VII in Paris last year. Photo: Theatre in Paris
Scene from Theatre in Paris’ A Farewell Dinner, staged at the Theatre Edouard VII in Paris last year. Photo: Theatre in Paris

Surtitles comes with a choice of LED or projection – the needs of the space rather than budget being the determining factor. “I’ve seen excellent quality systems using both,” says De Poncins. “The LED can be a bit smaller, a bit more noticeable, so a theatre owner has to accept that the screen will be visible even when it is off. Essentially we are about service innovation rather than technological innovation. We select the best solution.”

Balancing creativity with customer satisfaction is a regular headache in Paris, and often there is a palpable sense that audiences are merely tolerated in venues. Change usually comes with a push from abroad, a handy example being the Mogador theatre, which was bought 10 years ago by the Netherlands’ Stage Entertainment. After taking over the 1,800-seat venue, the Dutch had to bring in a consultant to train French staff how to smile and welcome people to the venue. Stage Entertainment also saw the wisdom in spending money on a major renovation of the interiors as well as programming a string of West End/Broadway musicals. The prices are higher than average, but the quality of the experience is measurably better.

“The Mogador is well organised and shows a very ‘Anglo-Saxon’ approach,” says De Poncins. “There’s an interval, you can have a drink, it’s beautiful inside, and you can see where the merchandising is. But, again, Stage Entertainment had a lot of resistance. We’ve designed Theatre in Paris to partner with other theatres to introduce that sort of experience, but the difference is to work side by side with them.

“In fact, Theatre in Paris has recently been designated as a ‘responsible travel company’, meaning that we promote local activities without endangering them. We are helping our local theatre community to flourish by making it more profitable by attracting new audiences.”

The irony is not lost on De Poncins, given the size and economic power of that ‘local’ community.

An outward international step for Theatre in Paris has come with the mighty Avignon Festival taking its own steps into the English-speaking world. For this year’s brace of centrepiece productions, Theatre in Paris introduced multilingual surtitles supplied via Wi-Fi to augmented reality glasses produced by French company Optinvent. It was a “big revolution”, says De Poncins, and formed part of a Euro-culture tech accelerator programme The Bridge.

Olivier Py’s French version of King Lear and Ballet Preljocaj’s dance/text piece Retour a Berratham were both staged in the Cour d’Honneur of the Popes’ Palace. Surtitling screens were judged to be at odds the aesthetics of this 14th-century courtyard. However, since the festival attracts so many foreign promoters and venues it knew these productions needed surtitling regardless of the space’s constraints. They approached Theatre in Paris, who created a system incorporating Optinvent’s glasses with surtitles for Lear in French, English and Chinese – it is co-produced with Taiwan’s National Theatre – and surtitles for Retour a Berratham in French, English, German, Italian, Spanish and Polish.

It is a worthwhile investment for any international festival, since revenue per ticket is not as significant as gaining prestige and selling the production on. If surtitling makes a production accessible and gets it dates in Japan or Canada, then it pays for itself quickly. This works for Theatre in Paris, too. After its first summer at Avignon, the company now has enquiries from countries such as the UK, Ireland, the US and Korea.

De Poncins sees an irresistible logic in it all: “At the Avignon Lear, an audience member told me, ‘I’m from the National Theatre of Japan but I don’t need the glasses – I’m the only French-speaker in the theatre, which is why I’m here. All my other colleagues are on their way to the Edinburgh Festival.’ That makes you think how, otherwise, no matter how marvellous a production is, it may never find the international audience it deserves simply because the one person empowered to select it might not speak the language.”

Carl de Poncins

For more information visit www.theatreinparis.com