‘We all speak improv’ – a celebration of International Mother Language Day

A modelf of a globe on a blue table with two stuck on googly eyes

Intro

As someone who has always been fascinated with language (easily getting lost in poetry, etymology, linguistics, and learning other languages) I was excited to see that the UN officially recognises an International Mother Language Day every year. Driven by this knowledge I began to ponder the inherent differences of improvising in various languages.

I’ve watched shows in languages I don’t understand, very occasionally dabble with scenes in French, and once recently taught a class to D/deaf participants using British Sign Language. However, with English as my first language and living 99.5% of my life in a country with the same dominant language, that is the limit of my knowledge and experience in this field. So in order to celebrate International Mother Language Day in improv terms, I turned to the improv community and asked those who use more than one language to improvise (and indeed to live) for their thoughts. 

Some folks met with me online and I’ve tried to condense the fantastic discussions down as much as I can. Others wrote to me with their responses, which I’ve included below the videos.

Click here for a video of a discussion
on the topic of using different languages in improv

Click here for a video of two shared monologues
with the two different groups I was able to meet with.
They all play the same character and continue one monologue together in a number of languages.

I am so thankful to all those who responded, and I’m aware that there are still many voices missing from this conversation. It’s an important one to be having and something we all need more awareness of in our shows, workshops, jams and any other improv spaces to ensure that we are always playing with all our partners and not at them. 

 

What differences do you notice in how you improvise in different languages?

Sachin Sharma: On a cursory level, English improv is safe and funny for me. I have to get deeper into my feelings to say things that mean something important to my characters, not easy. Hindi improv is comparatively easy but intense. My dialogues aren’t forced, and characters feel much more honest to me personally.

Laura Doorneweerd-Perry: In English I have more references to North American pop culture. (“I’ll be back!”) In Dutch more to children’s songs and sayings. Making me a more retro improviser in my native tongue. ?

Adela Leiro: In English I feel more free in the sense that anything that comes out from me is a direct connection to the innermost part of me, and doesn´t involve any sort of layer of translation or thinking beforehand. It´s about confidence with the language too, because to other spaniards i sound native but i overthink words and sentences – so that affects my confidence when improvising as well, as there is a slight disconnect to my more practiced personality/reactions/point of view. Culturally as well there was a slight disconnect.  Positive point! Practicing improv in Spanish made me more confident when I went back to English, as it sudenly felt easy, so it´s amazing training!

Varoon P Anand: One of the main differences between improvising in English and any other language is a hesitation to curse. In Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi at least the cultural weight of an equivalent curse word from English can tend to become more aggressive than self-deprecating or merely an exclamation. For example, the Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu equivalente of a “goddamn” or a “motherf***” can change the tone substantially of a scene. This is not so much in Spanish, where cursing can be just an exclamation that is not directed at anyone.

Another cultural observation of working in Hindi, Urdu or Punjabi with native speakers is the need to address the inherently competitive nature of the participants. As opposed to non-native speakers of these languages, Indians in India are brought up in highly competitive environments. Scarcity in available positions in a classroom, university and jobs drives a constantly competitive and defensive mentality. So, a considerable amount of time is devoted to emphasizing collaboration and building together. Culturally also we make a point of emphasizing the “make your partner look good” concept, to ensure scenes are not just people making fun of each other for the sake of audience laughter.

Although in any language, Spanish, English or otherwise we try to emphasize that good improv is not about dialogue but all the other aspects that go ignored. Specifically, endowing the scene, establishing the 3 spaces, focusing on scene objectives. That is, we try to keep people from relying on the words to isolate themselves. Whereas physical expression invites a reaction from co-performers and can be interpreted and used as a tool to build together. So, we have fun with mute and gibberish games when we feel language is becoming a barrier.

What do you love about your specific native language?

Sachin Sharma: There are some spaces and feelings that you can’t separate from my language. My language is deeply personal language. It has so many variations that are personal and nuanced for effective communication. It will take another decade or more of intense “living” in English speaking environment for me to get the same nuances in English. (Fall in love, fall apart, hate, getting ill, made fun of, be vulnerable and all those things we call “living”)

Laura Doorneweerd-Perry: My native tongue is direct and dry. It allows for more gut punching scenes, I think.

Varoon P Anand: The fun of doing improv in Hindi, Urdu or Punjabi is the excitement of doing something that “works” in your native language and feels almost revolutionary in terms of performance because it does not have a legacy or history in a culture that has a very rich cultural history. In India, Natyashastra has many interesting ideas and amazing lessons in performance but improvisation as we have learned it from Viola Spolin or Keith Johnstone is not particularly present. For example, the word “Aashurachna” means improvisation in Hindi, but no one would have even heard of it. We certainly hadn’t when we started working in Hindi.

We have had fun adapting ideas from Indian performance into improvisation. For example, we teach a specific course in Navarasa, or the nine “emotions” in Indian Natyashastra that form the basis of performances. I never encountered a scene in any western improv school where I was given “wonder” as a possible emotional cue or provocation. But in Navarasa it is the most natural step to try out emotions like Compassion, Courage, or Calm. You can read more about Rasa theory here: https://onlinebharatanatyam.com/2008/03/10/navarasa-the-nine-moods/

 

Have you ever improvised in more than one language in one show / rehearsal scene etc?

Sachin Sharma: Yes.

Laura Doorneweerd-Perry: Yes

Adela Leiro: I don´t recall actually improvising in both languages in the same scene or show

Varoon P Anand: Yes, all the time. The colonial history of India dictates the strong presence of English all over the country. English phrases, terms and vocabulary inevitably find their way into scenes. It is also a lot of fun when we have to do scenes that hark back to ancient times or mythological settings, which would have strict chaste Hindi and then throw in a random English phrase for absurd humour.

It did happen in 2014 that Calambur Teatro from Spain visited India and we performed games with three improvisers speaking English, Hindi and Spanish. Once comfort was established it lead to some glorious work! In 2019, we visited Madrid and were able to bring our work to Calambur teatro. By then we had evolved our focus in improv to performer safety and mental health. It was really gratifying to see that we could translate ideas of performer safety into Spanish, and that culturally, Spanish performers were less aware of safety for female performers because of how they approach acting. It was an eye-opening experience and very rewarding.

 

Have you ever improvised with another person speaking a different language where neither of you spoke the other?

Sachin Sharma: Yes

Laura Doorneweerd-Perry: Yes

Varoon P Anand: On occasion, yes. But it’s not particularly memorable. It’s nice to make someone smile, and to make them feel comfortable. I also appreciate it when people do the same for me without being condescending. But, I know how uncomfortable my students feel when they had to improvise in a language they either didn’t speak or barely spoke. The need to protect oneself is paramount, and the lack of awareness of why people laugh at something their scene partner said is always uncomfortable. It makes it very hard to be “present” in the scene.

An example of doing improv in a language I don’t understand was when I was asked to teach an improv for mental health class to a group of office workers in Chennai, India. I speak English, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Spanish but I do not speak Tamil. I had to conduct the class through an interpreter to explain the instructions. During the class, I realized that the students had not been prepared for what was about to happen. The relationships between men were defined by aggression. So, if I gave the men a ball and asked them to throw it to each other as a “gift”, their first instinct was to hit each other with it aggressively. And the women in the session felt simultaneously like they HAD to do the work even if they were uncomfortable, and judged themselves as failures because they believed there was an expectation they were not meeting in the performance. Any therapeutic effect of self-acceptance, not judging oneself and feeling free to make mistakes or create a comfortable collaborative environment was completely lost. I think improvising with people in another language can have value but expectations need to be clearly communicated so that people know what they are getting into.

Four people on a video callAdditional Thoughts

Sachin Sharma: My experience improvising in Hindi (mostly at Hinprov) has been extremely revealing of my own biases around language and people who speak it. My Hindi speaking characters are rough and powerless. As a child I longed so much to be able to speak English that it has given me a lens to hate my own previous self. It is much more deep than what I am able to type. 

Adela Leiro: I am bilingual/native in both english and spanish but have mostly been socialised in English, and its the language i mostly improvised in when i was trained/first learnt and did shows. When i moved to Spain i was terrified to improvise in spanish, it was especially difficult with play on words or in warm up games if it involved rhyming or naming expressions/sayings (I would not know some of them) In scenes onstage recently actually in Spain i had to ask directly “What does that mean?” during the scene (as i have also had to do in the UK for british expressions) which can be embarassing but necessary! 

Varoon P Anand: Gaurav, Ramita and I work together to create applied improv for language learning in Hindi, Punjabi and Spanish as Kaivalya Plays . We also perform in these languages. We are currently working with Instituto Cervantes, Vanderbilt and Duke U in their language departments. You can read about some of our improv work in the following blog from Vanderbilt: https://www.vanderbilt.edu/cdr/module-2/cultivating-joy-and-connection-in-online-classrooms-icebreakers-and-beyond/?fbclid=IwAR2sxPj2h85tSsZsMAYkM5J6gmQPzRJWNcUXPJY7KbMFxieidOcRtVMG-GA

Hazel Salminen: I’d like to start a project with people who, for one reason or the other, are not improvising in their first language (maybe never have). For anyone interested in this, they can contact: [email protected]

Jennifer: Following the themes which arose in this blog of the effects of colonisation in contemporary improv, I highly recommend this panel from the ImprovisAsian online festival last year: Destroying Colonial Mentality: Improvising With Your Colonisers (the panel itself is just under an hour, and is followed by improv shows from the same day).

by Jennifer Jordan

Contributors

Summer Banks

https://www.facebook.com/groups/325428788440344

Hazel Salminen

www.stjarnfall.fi

https://studentteatern.fi/imp

Peter More

http://www.mrpetermore.com/

https://sproutideas.co.uk/

Varoon P Anand

http://www.kaivalyaplays.org/

Laura Doorneweerd-Perry

https://www.lauradoorneweerd.com/

Sachin Sharma

Hinprov

YAP (Yes And People)

Adela Liero

Insta: @adelaleiro 

Website: www.adela-leiro.com

Bogdan Untila

https://recul.art/

Marie de Waal

https://www.mariedewaal.com/

http://facebook.com/mdwimprov

Runs ISL Improv with Claudia (links below)

Claudia Novati

https://www.facebook.com/islimprov

Insta / Twitter: @islimprov

Monika Ozdarska

https://www.facebook.com/WePolakImpro

Joe Bill, who I chatted with on this topic (and is mentioned by Bogdan in the video) but due to time limitations I wasn’t able to include in this piece. 

https://www.integratedimprovisation.com/

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