I have been in Santiago Chile for a little over a month working on a new piece with ITW. The play, Un Castillo de Cartas, is a translation of Charles L Mee’s The House of Cards and a co-production with Cia de Subsuelo, a Chilean company headed by ITW’s Associate Artist, Juan Diego Bonilla.
The play is an incredible challenge for me. Foremost amongst the many obstacles of the material and the production, is the issue of language. When I arrived in Chile a month ago, I spoke very little Spanish and had to almost immediately begin working on a dense text-based script. You are probably thinking what I should have been thinking: that is impossible or at the very least unadvisable. Now, after any given rehearsal I am inclined to agree with you, but I can also say it has been one of the more interesting impossibilities I have embarked upon. I have been adapting to what I now see as three different languages: Castilian, Chileno, and the Language of (this) Rehearsal.
This is the fancy word for traditional Spanish. If you have studied Spanish, you know that the language spoken in Spain is very different than what is spoken in Latin America. What many of us are taught in schools is Castilian, with some acknowledgments of variations for Latin American Spanish (particularly the omission of vosotros--a huge difference). I’ve been studying this version in my language immersion course in Chile. This class prepared me to explore/experience Chile but also created a foundation for long-term learning.
This is the version of language learning that feels natural and easy for me. It is a mix between a game and a classroom. How can I say a lot with a limited vocabulary, and what can I draw from context clues? I enjoy studying, so a room where I can use what I learn to excel is very comfortable for me (saving how it translates to the outside world for later.) What would I do in the situation where I needed to learn a language without a classroom? What would I do if I had to do so without access to English?
As I said before, the language of Latin America is incredibly different from what is spoken in Spain, and even more so than the United States and The United Kingdom iterations. The history of Latin America is the story of melding three cultures; Indigenous Populations, European Conquerors/Settlers and African Slaves. Each of the three brought parts of their languages into what is now a predominantly mixed culture. In each region or country the populations mixed differently to form different versions of Spanish. In some regions, there were more Africans (such as the Caribbean and Central America) and in others more indigenous populations (such as the Andies and South America) This results in countless regionalisms, slangs, speech patterns, and legitimate changes to the language. So much more could be said on this topic. For example, when I asked SIRI to switch my phone over to Spanish, she asked if I wanted Spain Spanish, Mexican Spanish, or Chilean Spanish. Which brings us to…
Early Chilean Spanish developed through a mix of a large indigenous population and a small ruling class of Europeans. This ‘mestizo’ mix was amplified by a geographical distancing from the rest of South America through the massive Andean mountain range. Chileno has a reputation for being very fast and full of regionalisms that even the Chileans have a hard time explaining to me. (For instance adding “po” to the end of just about any word for emphasis, or the ubiquitous use of ‘weon’). I spend 4 hours in my (Castilian) class room feeling super confident and after 20 minutes in a carrete (chileno for party) I feel like a stupid gringo.
Somehow the Chilean’s manage to have a hard wall of language and yet are incredibly welcoming and generous. After carretes my head is dizzy from bobbing up and down, because if a moment goes by without a nod from me I am barraged with a swarm of “entiendes?”
Language of Rehearsal
Un Castillo de Cartas is a translation of Chuck Mee’s The House of Cards. The translation was beautifully done by Andrea Pelegrí Kristić, a Masters candidate at Pontfica Universidad, Catolica de Chile, and Paris Nanterre (Paris X). When I first got the translation, I was looking at it as one might direct an opera. The language was foreign and I had to go through making direct translations (with the help of the original) to make my plan for how the play might look. In the rehearsal room, when we started, I had to work from my gut and direct on instinct. How does the shape of the sound play? What are the universal elements of speaking? How do these natural phenomenon blend with the story/stories I knew from studying the play? This was my way into the play, observing the confluence of phenomenon of performance. I had to pull directly from my training with SITI Company in The Viewpoints (the deconstruction of the phenomenon of performance in real time, by the artist) and Suzuki Method of Actor Training, which focuses so specifically on the mechanics of speaking. (This felt appropriate as Charles Mee is a member of The SITI Company and Juan Diego a fellow alumni of their conservatory.)
Rehearsal is, of course, the most difficult place to actually speak Spanish. I feel that I am pretty specific, verbally, and have a strong handle on the functions and possibilities of English. In the rehearsal room this means that I can try to find the right word that could both instruct and inspire. At least this is the goal. In Spanish, I am reduced to a finite vocabulary and the universal language of sound/gesture. In the beginning, I would speak English (exclusively after saying hello) and the Chileans would switch back and forth while mostly speaking Spanish and Juan Diego would translate. This could have worked if the translator was not the actor responsible for all of the text of the play. He simply had too much to do in the rehearsal room and couldn’t worry about translating for the gringo. I made the (unconscious?) shift to require English in the rehearsal room. This was equally ruinous. It left my collaborators frustrated and overly quiet, which left me most frustrated of all. Ultimately, we have shifted to a system where Spanish is the “default language.” I start the day in Spanish and keep us there as often as possible. I have different linguistic relationships with each member of the team depending on their experience with English and the effect they have in working in it. It is impossible to describe how humbling this is for me as a director. I am the “authority” in the room and I am using the language of a child. It is so fun, really. I only wish I had more time to refine and rehearse the process. I also wish I could say we rehearse completely in Spanish. We don’t because I can’t. I mostly speak to Juan Diego in English and go back and forth with the rest of the team. That said, we are making the effort. I see it as a sort of perfect analogy for how the company strives to collaborate internationally. The experiment of cross-cultural collaboration is, for me, about trying to understand each other so we can build things together. Tadashi Suzuki once said, “international cultural exchange is impossible, therefore we must try.”
Ultimately, I have learned that the process of working in another language is a huge lesson in trust. I have to trust my collaborators. More than if we were all in the US, because I don’t always know what they are planning or saying or arguing. I need to listen more and speak less, while also listening to myself to make sure I am not being too quiet.
Years ago on Block Island after a month of watching me fumble my way through Italian conversations with Annika Vestel, Charlie Coursey lamented to me that he didn’t speak Italian because he would like to know that side of me. He commented that I laugh more in Italian, gesture like crazy and have ease unlike my English speaking self. I think this is why I like languages, they force me out of my comfort zone and present problems with communications otherwise simple and the result, for me, is often hilarious.
Like I said in the beginning, Latin American Spanish is all about mixing. Mixing languages, cultures and peoples. It is therefore fitting that my own Spanish is being met in this way, in a mix. Una Mezcla.
Eakin, Marshall C. (2007) The history of Latin America: Collision of cultures. St. Martin's Press: