The AT&T Performing Arts Center has been experimenting with something no one else is doing with Broadway tours. Wednesday evening’s performance of Motown at the Winspear Opera House will have a simultaneous, Spanish-language translation of the live show. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports it’s more complicated than it sounds.
It’s only minutes before curtain time for last Friday’s performance of Motown. Four Spanish-speaking actors run their lines as they sit crowded together in a darkened sound booth on the mezzanine in the Winspear. These actors won’t sing any songs; they’ll just speak the Spanish dialogue into mics. During this Wednesday’s performance, theatergoers will be able to hear them through headsets, but tonight, it’s just a rehearsal. The only people hearing them will be in the booth itself, their Spanish dialogue pumping out of a little speaker so they can check how they’re doing.
In these last moments before the show starts, the actors — Jose Armendariz, Rodney Garza, Monica Gomez, Frida Lozana — sound impossibly fast, babbling over each other, concentrating on their scripts. Getting up to speed is one reason this is the fourth performance of Motown they’ve rehearsed with: During the show, each voice actor must wait until his character on stage starts to speak, that’s the cue. Then the Spanish-speaking actor must finish his lines before the next actor responds or the next song comes along and drowns him out. In effect, the Spanish speaker starts behind but has to beat the English-speaking actor onstage to the finish line.
Typically, in Motown, this is what theatergoers hear when Berry Gordy, the founder of the record label, is introduced to singer-songwriter Marvin Gaye:
Gaye (announcing himself): Your sister’s future husband!
Gordy: Excuse me?
Gaye: And your next big star! But I don’t want to sing that Motown stuff. I want to sing real music like Sinatra.
Gordy: Excuse me?
But if you’re wearing headsets Wednesday, this is what you’ll hear:
Gaye: Tu futuro cuñado.
Gaye: Y tu próxima estrella, pero no quiero cantarlo de Motown. Quiero cantar musica de verdad como Sinatra.
Gordy: ¿Qué dices?
The project is called Broadway en Espanol. Mike Richman, vice-president of marketing for the AT&T Performing Arts Center, says the reason for the program is simple. Forty percent of our area identifies as Hispanic or Latino. And when it comes to speaking Spanish, “about 450,000 are Spanish-primary or even Spanish-exclusive, and we thought it’d be a good idea to reach that group.”
So last May during the musical Newsies, the Arts Center tested a live translation for twelve listeners — with a Q&A afterward on how it went. Then they expanded the test during Annie in June. In each case, they had to get permission from the show’s producers first and get an original translation written. The Elevator Project — the season-long use of the upstairs space at the PAC’s Wyly Theatre by a handful of smaller theater troupes — didn’t survive because of scheduling changes and rumored organizational resistance. But it did have this positive result: The AT&T PAC contacted Cara Mia Theatre Company for the Spanish-speaking actors it needed. The Arts Center already had a good relationship with them through the Elevator Project.
With those first Spanish experiments, it was clear this wasn’t going to be a UN translator scenario: Some solo guy whispering into a headset, translating as he went along. For one thing, there’s the nature of Spanish vs. English in the context of stage dialogue.
“Spanish is just more syllabic than English,” says Richman,”so to convey a concept in Spanish typically takes longer than English, so you have to speak very quickly to keep up with the dialogue onstage.”
With their first rehearsals, the Cara Mia actors say, they have ended up falling behind. “The first rehearsals are a mess,” says Lozana. So they started looking for linguistic shortcuts in the scripts.
What’s more, there’s no ‘singular Spanish’ — especially with all of Latin America to consider. For some of the street kids in Newsies, they translated their lingo into chilango, Mexico City slang, and got feedback: Some listeners simply couldn’t follow it. Now they aim for a kind of ‘universal Mexican Spanish.’
And then there’s the fact that a plain reading, without different, “acted” voices, quickly becomes confusing (not to mention a little dull). How can a Spanish listener tell the characters apart in a crowd scene if they’re talking at each other but all sound the same? So this live, simultaneous Spanish ‘translation’ of Motown is, in effect, a separate acted version of the show, done in step with the full-blown original on stage.
“We have to be aware of the different textures in the different voices,” says Jose Armendariz. “I’m playing, like, twenty characters.” Any of them famous? He grins. “Well, I’m playing Smokey Robinson.”
Frida tops him. “I’m doing Diana Ross,” she says with a laugh. “So I’m a star!”
And yes, playing so many multiple characters means that, in some scenes, a voice actor will actually argue with himself in a scene — in different voices.
But Rodney Garza explains that even the simplest scenes involve complex logistics.
“You’re using your eyes and your ears in split directions,” he says. “You have one eye on the stage, one eye on the script. One ear on the stage and one ear with the rest of the actors in the booth. And it’s just a constant going back and forth.”
All of that is why the Cara Mia actors have already run through three performances of Motown before this. The company’s artistic director David Lozano has even worn a headset and texted notes to his actors: You’re too close to the mic, hit that line faster.
The AT&T Performing Arts Center currently has 800 headsets. They’re multi-channel, meaning a theatergoer can toggle between the hearing-assisted version and the Spanish-language version. Richman says he’ll be happy if, ultimately, a couple hundred are used by Spanish speakers for these special performances. Some Broadway theaters in New York offer recorded, computer-tracked Spanish versions of shows, but Richman says, as far as he knows, no one else offers live, simultaneous translations like this, certainly no one on tour. And so far, no musical producer has refused his request for a Spanish translation of a show. Industry people, he reports, have been curious about the results of the experiment.
“Our intent is to do this for every show on our Broadway season, plays and musicals,” says Richman. “So we’re hoping the industry catches on and will follow our lead.”