All of you are amazing! What joy to see Improvising Outside of Your Mother Tongue interests others! The response after sharing it on an international improv group was incredible. I will make a short summary of some of those experiences in this post. There are so many lessons to learn! There are too many, actuallo. So I decided to split them into bite-sized posts! In this one, I will focus on experiences teaching us how to be more inclusive.
Feel free to read the second part of this compilation!
Disclaimer: I already announced that I was going to publish these experiences and asked most of you for permission. But, please, if you feel you want me to take any part of this down or change your name at any point, just tell me. I appreciate how much you trusted me by sharing this, and I don’t want to break that trust by any mean.
“I’m eternally grateful to a teacher who banned making me a tourist or English teacher.”
Leah is an English-speaker who learned improvisation in Italian, long before she was fluent. In the beginning she felt vulnerable, even trying to avoid some cast members on stage. It got to the point when a teacher had to ban the team from casting her as a tourist or English teacher! She described how different it felt when the cast acknowledge her struggles. Playing with a empowering group allowed her to embrace her uniqueness.
Leah also shared how increasing her knowledge of Italian affected her improv. It killed part of her charm! Some of her tricks didn’t work anymore, but that just resulted in her evolving her performance.
Leah’s tips: If you struggle with the language: play high status, as they speak the least; start monologues, so you can take your time; or just have a silent scene, they can be so powerful!
“English was always too much technical language for me.”
Wolfgang is Ukrainian and only uses English at work. In his work environment he needs to measure every word , since you wouldn’t want to cause any misunderstanding! Now that he is learning improvisation, he struggles expressing spontaneity and emotions in English. Sculpting a pencil is more difficult if you have only used it for writing before.
I know many people in Wolfgang’s situation, including myself. When you only use English for business, much of your inspiration on scenes come from having a corporate pose and voice. This can create a tendency of playing more authoritative characters!
Tip: Don’t panic! Being spontaneous will become more natural the more you perform in English. In the meantime, using your mother tongue to react with expressions that carry emotions to you can also serve your improvisation. Think of Italian Americans yelling Mamma Mia on the movies! The audiences will love it! Also, as was mentioned before, don’t underestimate the emotive power of silent scenes.
“Sometimes I come up with responses in my native language that would have been funny but wouldn’t in English.”
Kris shared some of her struggles as a beginner improviser in a second language. She described that many situations ended up going one of two ways.
Sometimes, you get the inspiration for an amazing joke and realise it will be lost in translation. I am thinking of tricks like words with double meaning, similar pronunciation or a cultural reference.
Other times, your native-speaking scene partners bring jokes that escape your understanding. When the audience laughs and you can’t really understand the joke, you feel that you can’t honour that gift.
I have discarded many jokes that wouldn’t land well in English. I grew up in a family who loves witty sarcastic comments. Wordplay can be hilarious! I miss feeling capable of doing it, but I am aware that it requires an extensive command on the language and years of cultural references.
Tip: If the reference will make you laugh, use it anyway. Follow your guts. Even if only one audience member gets the joke, it will make their day. If no one finds it amusing, and it doesn’t steal the scene, you can generally use it as a gift for your character. An unexpected remark can easily set the direction of the show!
“If they use phrasal verbs or idioms and you don’t understand them, call them out!”
We started an amazing debate about calling your partner out if there is a word or expression you don’t understand. Performing for an international audience, if you didn’t understand probably neither did many! Don’t be scared of saying “I didn’t understand that” or “what did you say” while in a scene. These are HONEST responses and can usually create more of an honest relationship in the scene.
Such a misunderstanding happened to Giorgia and became the show’s cornerstone. “I remember a scene starting with my partner saying that something was arriving”, she described. “I didn’t have a clue of what he was talking about, so I made the blind decision to react filled with joy and anticipation. He was actually talking about some kind of apocalypse- monster!” hilarious.
Tip: Playing a character who takes idioms literally is a lot of fun. You can heighten the situation and think of many ways to engage such a character! Just be mindful, making such a strong choice due to “not understanding” can be scary. Being such a loud choice, it can also easily steal the thunder of many shows.
How using a second language can make us more pragmatic.
Ronald shared this amazing article on How Speaking a Second Language Affects the Way You Think. I found it surprising, but also in line with my personal experience.
The article touches on how using a second language puts us in a more rational and pragmatic head space. I love knowing this! Now, I can decide if I want to use the critical mindset on my advantage, or if I should actively work on moving to a more intuitive or emotional mode.
Some exercises that may be unintentionally difficult.
Monika shared how challenging she finds exercises like Mind Meld. Mind Meld is our go-to game for warming up and building a group mind, even if I remember some of my classmates struggling with it. We have been using it so much, that I didn’t realise that it might suppose an extra challenge for some non-native speakers.
Realizing the hidden extra challenge of some exercises, I started thinking: Is there other games that we are using too often and we should replace with more inclusive variants?
Talking about group mind, I have compiled a list of board games I love playing with my assembly! They helped me to build a common understanding and to get to know my team. You can also play them for fun. Sometimes I do that as well.
What about you?
I am sure you have plenty of experiences as enlightening as the ones from this post. Have you ever improvised in another language? Have you performed with an international cast? Do you tour teaching workshops to other countries?
I would love to hear your stories! The last post sparked so many genuine conversations, that sadly, only people from the Facebook group could enjoy them! I will be active on the comment section down below if you are interested on improvising outside of your mother tongue. If you want someone to talk to without sharing it with everyone, you can also find my email at the bottom of this page.
Lastly, I have just started using MailChimp to notify people when I publish a new post. If you would like to stay on the loop, please check my subscribe page. I have some new articles almost ready, and I think you would love them!