Supertitles are introducing American audiences new worlds of theater but remain far from perfect.
The future of American theater may be as much read as watched. Presenting organizations, following the lead of their counterparts in the dance world, are bringing growing numbers of international ensembles to festivals such as this week’s RADAR LA. American companies, meanwhile, present work in Spanish for audiences beyond those who speak the language.
Many means exist to bridge the language barrier, but by far the most common are supertitles: projected translations that force viewers to shift their gaze from the stage to the screen and back. While supertitles are helping expose audiences to work they would otherwise be unlikely to see, the technique is fraught with challenges for producers and audiences.
Supertitles, also called surtitles by some in the industry, first appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1980s. Long used in Europe, supertitled productions have proliferated in the U.S. only in recent years, thanks to development of inexpensive digital projectors.
Turning a translated script into supertitle slides is tedious work. “It takes a process because you have to do templates of three-liners,” said Cecilia Garcia, Assistant Director for Los Angeles’ Bilingual Foundation for the Arts. The performing organization start supertitling all its productions a year ago and helps other producers to do the same.
“I had one lady come in who has a play that is about an hour and a half, that was already translated,” Garcia said. “She’s been in making slides for four days.” You don’t just push the button, you perform the supertitles,” said Jay McAdams, Executive Director of 24th Street Theater, where a supertitled production of La Razon Blindada has run for 10 months. “Sometimes it’s about not putting the next title up, because you’ll ruin the pause,” he said.
“My basic philosophy is to treat it as video design,” he continued. “It’s an element that you’re adding, like light and sound.”
Like the other elements of theater, supertitling entails a lot of risk. If the slides display too early, the audience may laugh ahead of a punchline. If they are too late, they will lose track of who is speaking. That can be frustrating both on stage and in the audience. “We try to do it right and we mess up every time,” said Chilean director Guillermo Calderón, whose Neva played at RADAR LA.
“It takes so much attention,” he said. “It’s harder than driving. When you mess up once, people come up to you after the show and say, ‘the supertitles were a mess, they were off the whole time.’ It’s painful for me.” Neva — which has played to Portuguese-, Russian-, Korean-, French-, Italian- and English-speaking audiences — an excellent example of the challenges of supertitles.
“Our first idea was to project four lines of text at a time,” said Calderon, “because there are a lot of words in the show and we had the idea that people would read very fast and go back to the action. In Italy, people who work on supertitles in film told us it’s impossible. If there are two lines you can do what’s called photographic reading, but if there are three or more you have to read line by line. By the time you get to the third line you forget the first.”
Neva’s opening night in L.A. was plagued by technology failure. “There was a problem with the computer, so we were not able to see the next slide [in Powerpoint]. I got a laptop on the side and I was operating on there so the tech person could see the next slide,” Calderon said. (Despite the jury-rigged arrangement, the supertitles ran nearly perfectly.)
More than translation, rehearsal time or screen placement, software seems to be the greatest challenge for producers of supertitled theater. Most use PowerPoint or Keynote, programs designed for business presentations to manage their slides.
These programs “are not really made to preview [the slides] on screen,” according to McAdams. “You can’t jump from slide 15 to slide 20. If an actor jumps ahead, you have to click through them really fast, which looks crappy.” Some arts-specific products are available: Multilingual seatback computers made by Figaro Systems, for instance, are used at the Metropolitan Opera, Santa Fe Opera and La Scala. But they are far more costly than small producers can afford, so producers await an affordable, flexible and widely available supertitling.
Artists are nonetheless finding room for innovation with the constraints of current systems. In Amarillo, a production of Mexico’s Teatro Linea de Sombra playing at RADAR L.A., some translations are worked into the show’s constant stream of background video in enormous letters behind the performers, while more appear in much smaller type nearly 20 feet above. The smaller projections intermittently stop, leaving the audience helpless. This actually serves the work, which deals with the crossing of literal and metaphorical borders: those who don’t speak Spanish are disoriented, wondering what the rest of the crowd is laughing at, making them feel alien.
Another RADAR L.A. show, Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner and the Farewell Speech by Japan’s Chelfitsch, uses supertitles to interject contextual explanations in addition to translations. They come across as jokes in an already very funny show—banal comments elucidating a script consisting of banal conversation.
La Razon Blindada, the second production at 24th Street Theater to use supertitles, places the projection squarely behind the actors. “We were worried in rehearsals because it was so fast, so when the playwright, Luis Vargas, came to do the final week of tech, we said, ‘we’re concerned that people won’t be able to keep up with it,’ ” McAdams said. “He said, ‘Let’s just cut some of it, let’s just paraphrase.’ He went through and cut about 20 percent of the slides out.”
As theater producers become more comfortable and creative with supertitles, audiences must also adapt. “It’s a challenge just trying to get English speakers to a see a foreign language show with supertitles,” McAdams said. “You’d be surprised how many smart people say, ‘No, I can’t do that.’ A lot of people are just freaked out about the concept.”
“People should get used to [supertitles],” Calderón said. “It’s the future of theater — it’s as simple as that.”