Through the Eyes of the Founder

The use of theater as a pedagogic tool in the acquisition of second language skills has become more widely recognized in academic circles over the past two decades, particularly in England, Australia, and Europe. In the US, occasionally a fully-staged play in a target language will be performed (e.g., Italian at Notre-Dame University: see Ryan-Scheutz and Colangelo, 2004, Full-Scale Theater Production and Foreign Language Learning. Foreign Language Annals, 37: 374–385). Several differing models are discussed and proposed in the literature but in academe there does not appear to be any long-term established program of multilingual theater offered on a regular basis as an important adjunct to undergraduate SLA. In this paper, we will trace the history, functionality, and adaptability of such a project as it is represented by the International Playhouse at the University of California, Santa Cruz.



As a senior in high school in New York, I was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship from the French government to the École libre des Hautes Études, Centre d'Art Dramatique. Under the direction of an extremely talented former Asociée of the Academié Française, for several years this grant entitled a group of English-speaking students to participate in a fully-staged theater production in French, an experiment which was invaluable in developing many personal, as well as linguistic and dramatic skills. As a result of this preparation, during my career in higher education, I have worked with groups of motivated students at various institutions to interpret French dramatic texts for public performance. When I undertook my doctoral studies at UC Santa Cruz in 1971, although the campus was renowned for its innovative and experimental approach to teaching and learning, there was no program that resembled what I had been doing. It seemed therefore that establishing theatre performance as an integral part of French language study was a natural next step.

In 1972 "Les Tréteaux d'Essai" (The Santa Cruz Stage) was created; our first program was an Evening of French Music and Theater, with songs and scenes from five plays, performed in a concert version. The following year, we presented La Farce de Maître Pathelin as our first fully-staged production. Audiences were made up of students and professors, with a few members of the general public in attendance. Since these early programs took place before the advent of super-titles, we used detailed program notes in English, as well as a Narrator, who described the action, both in French and in English, before the play has begun and during intermission.

Les Tréteaux d'Essai and the development of performance translation

Almost annually between 1973 and 2001, we presented fully-staged programs in French for mixed audiences of students, faculty, and members of the community. (See Appendix i for a list of some of the works presented by Les Trétaux.) As mentioned above, at first we used Narrators and program notes to translate and summarize plot action in English for non-French speakers. As technology improved, we utilized a computer to project translations on two TV screens, placed on the theater floor, down left and right of the stage, and most recently, since 2001, and the advent of the International Playhouse, we have transformed texts into Power Point presentations and projected simultaneous translations, in the form of super-titles, on a screen above the proscenium. This means of communicating the sense of the piece requires training one or more students to be in charge of operating the computer to match the action. Training consists of attendance at rehearsals at intervals during regular class meetings, and daily during tech week; reading the text in the original and translation (sometimes working on the translation and formatting it); and being present at all performances. This element of the production has proven to be essential for the audience’s comprehension and appreciation of the performance and is integral to the success of the pieces, as one can readily imagine. We have found that the director cannot generally be the titles operator, since he/she has too much of a vested interest in the action transpiring onstage to be able to follow the rhythmic pattern of controlling the essential computer keys in a successful manner. It is much more pragmatic to train one or more students for this crucial task and affords an important learning experience to that individual or those involved in it

From Les Tréteaux to the IP

In 2001, several colleagues in the UCSC Language Program expressed their desire to participate in the theater project and in May of that year, with Sakae Fujita, Lecturer in Japanese, as co-producer and 3 other directors, we inaugurated the International Playhouse (IP). Our goal was to offer a group of short multilingual pieces on the same bill, designed to reflect the diversity of linguistic and theatrical expression in a multicultural setting, while at the same time undescoring the commonality of the human experience in multiple cultures.

Our first program consisted of comic works in five languages: Chinese, French, German, Italian, and Japanese, directed by Lecturers in each of these fields. The texts ranged from an original Chinese piece written and directed by Jacqueline Ku, who had formerly belonged to a theater troupe in Taiwan, to an adaptation by Giulia Centineo, who led her students in a modern satiric Italian short story that she adapted for the stage. Traditional Kyogen theater was represented in a piece directed by Sakae Fujita, whose students mastered the challenges of stylized movements and inflections of medieval Japanese language to create an authentic performance. German students, under the direction of Judith Harris-Frisk, interpreted Schnitzler’s Reigen (Round Dance), while French participants offered Marivaux’s École des mères (School for Mothers), reminiscent of Molière’s École des femmes and École des maris, in its light didactic message.