The economics and politics of multilingualism

Contemporary theatre and translation practices

Monday 14 December 2020

This seminar featured a range of speakers based in the UK, US, Canada and South Africa. They were invited to provide a short provocation that considers how performance processes engage with, and are shaped by, the politics of multilingualism within the context of performance.

Their discussion and debate that followed ranged across issues of race, ableism, identity, economics, power, immigration, exile, cross-culturalism, audience reception, the performativity of language, threatened states, sociotechnical systems and ethics, pedagogy and curriculum, agency, and utopian spaces and practices.

The seminar opened with the Chair, Professor Yana Meerzon, stating that “multilingualism has become the new norm”.

The first speaker, Maria Delgado, stressed the dominance of the English language, particularly in academia.

The second speaker, Víctor Ladrón de Guevara, discussed the ways in which “foreign accents” in the theatre industry are viewed as something to be “fixed”.

The next speaker, Margherita Laera, stated that “if we are going to change the world in any way, we have to start with kids”. Laera spoke about the ways in which she grew up learning multiple languages, something she is now passing on to her own children. She further said that her every day life is multilingual.

At home, Laera speaks a mixture of Italian, Spanish and English with her children.

Laera is launching Performing International Plays in early 2021, an open-access platform for secondary-school pupils and teachers to engage with twenty contemporary plays from five different continents, written in over fifteen languages.

The next speaker, Tonderai Munyevu, asked two important questions with regards to the politics of multilingualism. Firstly, who is the “viewer” and the “viewed”? Secondly, can the writer or actor reclaim language and the stage?

Munyevu explained the ways in which it is not enough to merely translate a work, but to embody the cultural context of where it originated.

Munyevu claimed that “there are some stories that cannot be told in English, and that’s okay”, ending his provocation with a question: “how do we set up foreignisation as a standard in British theatre?”.

Tonderai Munyevu’s multilingual adaptation of Natalya Vorozhbit’s ‘The Grain Store’, which featured Munyevu (right) and Sibusiso Mamba (left). Photography by Ikin Yum.

The next speaker, Karin Coonrod, discussed the use of language in her adaptation and direction of The Merchant of Venice in the Venice Ghetto in 2016 and the transfer to North America in 2017 and 2018.

Production shot from Coonrod’s The Merchant of Venice.

Coonrod said that “silence became a very important language in the play”.

The final speaker, Kaite O’Reilly, explained how it can be considered ableist to consider “multi-lingualism” as something that is only voiced. O’Reilly stressed the importance of making performances accessible, something that, in O’Reilly’s words, changes the process of making performance itself.

Sophie Stone performing in Kaite O’Reilly’s play ‘In Water I’m Weightless’.

The intervention section of the conference ended, and the speakers moved swiftly onto the roundtable discussion portion of the event.

Delgado stressed the importance of listening; where we listen, how we listen, and what it means to listen. However, O’Reilly provided a counter-argument as to how the term “listening” is audist, and how we should find a new word. O’Reilly stressed the importance of expanding our horizons and challenging the form of theatre. Delgado provided a differing perspective by stating that “there is a difference between listening and hearing”.

The panel moved onto a discussion around the idea of “the language of success”. Art Babayants said that both English and Arabic are seen as “the language of success”, and questioned why “success” is equated to the languages of colonisers.

Laera closed the session by saying “there are so many layers to language”. She added that people are multi-lingual without realising it.

This seminar was part of a series, which was a collaboration between DMU’s Drama, Dance and Performance Studies Research Institute, the University of Central Florida, and Reflections on Contemporary Performance Process — a new book series for Bloomsbury Methuen Drama by Julia Listengarten and Alissa Clarke.


Maria Delgado is Professor and Director of Research at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London and Co-Editor of Contemporary Theatre Review. She has published widely on non-English-language theatre, performance and film cultures.

Provocation: As we all grapple with whatever a post-Brexit Britain might look at, this provocation looks at the politics of multilingualism in the shadow of the dominance of English as the global language of commerce. What does it mean to think about multilingual performance in an economy where the inscription of English as the language of value pervades the cultural sphere?

Víctor Ladrón de Guevara is a lecturer in Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Plymouth where he runs the MA Performance Training programme. His scholarly work is centred on acting training processes, the use and understanding of the body in performance and the interrelationship between theory and practice.

Provocation: London is considered to be one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Its overwhelming vote to ‘remain’ appears to signal its strong and active links with the rest of Europe. International (or ‘overseas’) students are a sizeable percentage of those enrolled in theatre and performance degrees across the UK higher education sector. Yet, the significant absence of ‘foreign accented actors’ in the London stage scene and the rare hiring of academic staff who have a foreign accent is perplexing and requires further analysis. In this provocation, ‘accent’ is treated as a sectionality that reveals both sites of resistance as well as deep and entrenched racist practices in both academia and the theatre cultural industry.

Karin Coonrod is the Artistic Director of Compagnia de’ Colombari, born in Orvieto, Italy, based in New York City. Coonrod directed off-Broadway, around USA, Italy, Russia and Romania.

Provocation: I would like to focus attention on the use of language in my adaptation and direction of The Merchant of Venice in the Venice Ghetto in 2016 and the transfer to North America in 2017, 2018.

Margherita Laera is a Senior Lecturer in Drama and Theatre at the University of Kent, Canterbury. She specialises in translation and adaptation for the stage, and contemporary European performance, especially in Italy. She is also a professional arts journalist and theatre translator. Margherita is the author of Theatre and Translation, Reaching Athens: Community, Democracy and Other Mythologies in Adaptations of Greek Tragedy, and editor of Theatre and Adaptation: Return, Rewrite, Repeat.

Provocation: With my AHRC-sponsored public engagement project, Performing International Plays, launching in early 2021, I have created an open-access platform for secondary-school pupils and teachers to engage with twenty contemporary plays from five different continents, written in over fifteen languages. One of these plays is Mongiwekhaya Mthombeni’s I SEE YOU, which is originally written in English, Afrikaans, Xosa and Zulu, and specifically centres around multilingual politics in post-apartheid South Africa. Another play we selected, Natalya Vorozhbit’s The Grain Store, about the great famine in Ukraine during Stalin’s era, was adapted into a Zimbabwean context for us by Tonderai Munyevu, who used both English and Shona. The Performing International Plays website aims to raise awareness of, and respect for, foreign plays by enriching published international drama with learning and teaching resources, including video extracts in the original languages so that teachers and students can feel empowered to explore theatre from cultures and contexts different from their own.

Tonderai Munyevu is an actor, writer and creative director born in Zimbabwe and raised in England. He is the co-artistic director of Two Gents Productions. He is adapting his play MUGABE, MY DAD, AND ME for Audible. He has recently received the Peggy Ramsay Foundation Grant for his next play: Black Museum.

Provocation: The politics of Multilingualism: who is the “viewer” and the “viewed”? Can the writer/actor reclaim language and the stage?

Tonderai Munyevu’s multilingual adaptation of Natalya Vorozhbit’s ‘The Grain Store’, which starred Tonderai Munyevu and Sibusiso Mamba. Photography by Ikin Yum.

Kaite O’Reilly is a multi-award winning poet, playwright and dramaturge, who writes for radio, screen and live performance. Prizes include the Peggy Ramsay Award, Manchester Theatre Award, Theatre-Wales Award and the Ted Hughes Award for new works in Poetry for Persians (National Theatre Wales). She was honoured in 2017/18 by the international Eliot Hayes Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dramaturgy for her work between Deaf and hearing cultures. She has received a Hawthornden Fellowship, four Unlimited commissions and two Creative Wales Major Awards from Arts Council Wales, the latter leading to The Beauty Parade, a performance at Wales Millennium Centre in March 2020 featuring spoken, sung, projected and visual languages, co-directed with long term collaborator Phillip Zarrilli. She is known for her pioneering work in disability culture and the aesthetics of access. The ‘d’ Monologues and Atypical Plays for Atypical Actors is published by Oberon/Bloomsbury. Her first feature film is in development with Mad as Birds Production Company.

Provocation: The form, politics and processes of multilingual performance are immediately subverted when they challenge ableist assumptions about the modes of communication in play. What if multilingualism includes languages that are not spoken, but visual and/or projected? How do the aesthetics of access shape performance processes, and impact on notions of multilingualism on stage, taking it outside the issues of migration and exile?

Production photo of ‘The 9 Fridas’. Photography by Phillip Zarrilli.

Professor Yana Meerzon chaired the seminar. She teaches for the Department of Theatre, University of Ottawa and she was appointed a President of Canadian Association for Theater Research in June 2020. Her research interests are drama and performance theory, theatre of exile and migration, cultural and interdisciplinary studies. She is the author of three books, with the latest volume Performance, Subjectivity, Cosmopolitanism published by Palgrave in August 2020. She co-edited several collections, including Dramaturgy of Migration: Staging Multilingual Encounters in Contemporary Theatre with Dr. Katarina Pewny and Migration and Stereotypes in Performance and Culture with Dr. David Dean and Dr. Daniel McNeil.




PhD researcher investigating women in biographical musical theatre. Fan of cats, vegan food and healthy work practices. (She/Her)

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Leah Wilkes

Leah Wilkes

PhD researcher investigating women in biographical musical theatre. Fan of cats, vegan food and healthy work practices. (She/Her)

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