- Feeling Double:The Psychophysical Activation of Personality in Bilingual Performance
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
—Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
In September 2007, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Stuttgart, Germany, I mounted my first bilingual theatre production, Outside Inn.1 Intended as a bicultural exploration of stereotypes, our team brought together a cast of bilingual actors to perform a commissioned play in both German and English. We hoped to advance cultural understanding in the two target countries (Germany and the United States), and to use the rehearsal and performance process as a laboratory for discovery. Our plan was to unearth myths about each culture, and then share those discoveries with the audience. For this experiment, our partner theatre, Theater Rampe Stuttgart, provided the two bilingual German actors, and I hired two bilingual American actors to comprise the cast of four who performed the roles in the play.
Austrian Andreas Jungwirth wrote our play, Outside Inn, which was then translated into English by Gabriele Schafer. Outside Inn, told in first-person narrative, concerns the adventures of civil engineer Paul Schneider, a simple German gentleman who happens to love American movies. Paul’s primary problem is that he hates both his American wife and his German boss and the life they have constructed for him. On a business trip to Philadelphia, Paul’s boss, Kalowski, takes him to one of their construction sites to disclose plans for some nefarious business in the Middle East. While standing on the edge of a precipice, Kalowski suddenly slips and falls to his death. Instead of reaching out to save him, Paul grabs hold of and retains the suit jacket Kalowski was holding. Paul tells no one about the accident. Instead, he steals the passport and credit cards he finds in the jacket and heads to Vincetown, Arizona. There, he calls his German mistress and asks her to join him. They have dinner in a restaurant called Outside Inn, where tourists can enjoy a burger and fries while watching the border patrol pick up illegal immigrants. Once these two have negotiated with the American criminal underground and procured new passports, they fake Paul’s death and head to South America to begin a new life. The lost man who began our story is now living his fantasy by becoming the hero-outlaw from one of his movies. In this complicated, image-rich story, Jungwirth provided us with his (Austrian) perception of culturally specific ideas: corporate greed, immigration, Hollywood, identity theft, racism, colonialism. It was then our job, over the course of five weeks, to rehearse this challenging play in both English and German. We mounted our production in late August/early September 2007 at the University of Pittsburgh and played for five preview performances (three in English, two German), before taking the play to Stuttgart for a month-long engagement in October.2
Rehearsing and performing in two languages proved challenging and created much anxiety for the four actors in the play. We were so busy mounting our double production that it was not until our post-show discussions that the actors shared something unexpected about their performance [End Page 197] experience. Although they were telling the same story each night, whether playing in English or German, the actors felt as though they were performing two different characters onstage. The people they were playing had slightly different relationships to one another and to the circumstances of the play depending on which language they were using in performance. These distinctions were subtle and perhaps not even discernible from the audience’s perspective, but they seemed significant from the actors’ points of view. This dual personality was an unanticipated byproduct of our cultural experiment. Some multilinguals recognize a sensation of feeling like someone else when speaking for an extended time in a second language; I also experience a sense of Otherness when speaking German. Yet, it never occurred to this multilingual group of artists that a personality shift might transfer to the development of character. Our production provided a unique environment in which...