“Surtitles”… what sounds like a dry technical term is really the Open Sesame to some the best theatrical events in town.
As a non-French speaking visitor or even expat in Paris, your cultural nightlife options tended to be somewhat limited – dining out, a foreign-language movie, or maybe a pint or three at the Irish pub. Theatre lovers, on the other hand, were mostly out of luck… until recently, that is, when young French tech startup Theatre in Paris flung open the doors to the capital’s Thespian temples for the international community by presenting shows and plays with English surtitles. A formula whose arrival has been long overdue and is readily embraced, as TIP’s growing success proves.
The concept is simple and most everyone is already familiar with its twin from the movies and TV, known as captions or subtitles. In theatre, while the play is performed in its original French language, the translated text is projected either directly onto the stage or on the proscenium directly above, hence surtitles. This allows non-native speakers to follow the show in real-time, immersing in one of the most authentic and quintessential Parisian experiences. In fact, the same principle has been adopted in opera houses around the world since the 1980s and is a staple in countries with more exotic national languages but so far has rarely made an appearance on French stages, despite vocal requests from Anglophone travellers and residents for a wider cultural offering accessible to them.
The plays that TIP offers surtitled versions of, run at some of the most prestigious Parisian venues and include a wide range from the great French classic like Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, comedies like Le Mensonge (The Lie) starring Pierre Arditi, one of the best French actors, or ever-popular musicals like Irma La Douce, to name but a few. Another theatrical highlight is currently being prepared for the new season, premiering in September 2016 at the historic Salle Gaveau: Oliver Twist, a spectacular French musical production adapted from Charles Dickens’ literary classic, which is already the buzz of the town months before its premiere. And new shows are constantly added to the catalogue.
Theatre in Paris is the brainchild of three friends from very different walks of life – Carl de Poncins (pictured below, left), an engineer turned marketing director with a fascination for all things African, Christophe Plotard (pictured below, centre), a former travel journalist who knows the globe like the back of his hand, and Romain Beytout (pictured below, right), a classically trained singer who has performed on great opera stages internationally – but all united by a love for theatre and the entrepreneurial spirit it takes to create and manage a tech startup. Positioning itself in experiental tourism, along with other forward-thinking companies that currently revolutionize the world of travel, TIP’s hard work is already paying off: in just two short years since its February 2014 inception, visitors from over 50 countries have already heeded the call to experience the magic of French theatre without the language barrier. “For us, surtitling really works as a bridge between cultures. Seeing foreign visitors rubbing shoulders with the locals in our wonderful, historical playhouses is an ever-renewed pleasure,” according to TIP CEO Carl de Poncins.
But TIP’s service goes far beyond surtitling plays and selling tickets to captioned shows. It also includes a personal welcome to the theatre by an English speaking host, along with an introductory presentation of the play and the venue, and a programme in English, and last but not least the guarantee to get the seats in the auditorium that allow for the best view of the surtitles. It is this complete package that puts visitors from around the world at ease and garners rave reviews. And in true tech entrepreneur style, TIP is also exploring other innovative alternatives to traditional surtitling: at the 2015 Avignon Festival, TIP presented a software solution for multilingual augmented-reality surtitling through “connected glasses” built by digital innovation leader ATOS, as a first taste of the continually enhanced captioning technology waiting in the wings.
Surtitling, either by projection or through smart glasses, also opens up a whole new world to hearing-impaired Anglophones who so far also have very few options available to them to enjoy Paris’ performing arts scene: theatrical captioning finally allows them to experience live shows even when no sign language translator can intervene.
French-born international actor and director Marc Duret, perfectly multilingual himself and with a 30 year film and stage career under his belt which includes high-profile roles in international film and stage productions such as Le Grand Bleu, Nikita, La Haine, Dobermann, Cyrano de Bergerac, Angelo Tyran de Padoue, Napoléon, Borgia, or Outlander, is one of those who wholeheartedly support this opening of Parisian theatres to foreigners. “France is so proud of its rich cultural heritage, and it is a joy to share it with the world. With English surtitles – or other foreign languages for that matter – our great classic plays, contemporary comedies, or vibrant musical shows are just as easily accessible to visitors or the expat community as the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower. If I were in, say…. Russia, without speaking the language, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to go see a surtitled play. It’s fun, it’s convenient, and what better way to be a part of the local audience enjoying its own culture?”
So for your next night out in Paris, ditch your fear of not being able to follow a play in the language of Molière and join a theatre hall full of Parisians for one of the best, most entertaining local experiences to be had. The Irish pub will still be there the next day, promise.
All images courtesy Theatre in Paris; lead image © Alexis Pichot; photo of TIP founders © Le Parisien; photo of Marc Duret © Art Côte d’Azur
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