In Translation: Teaching Internationally

Laura Josepher and David Sisco
Laura Josepher and David Sisco

Greetings from Fredericia, Denmark! We are very fortunate to be artists in residence at Den Danske Scenekunstskole (or The Danish National School of Performing Arts, Department of Musical Theatre), one of the country’s premier centers for musical theatre studies. Located about 2 hours west of Copenhagen, DDSKS was founded in 2000 and offers an impressive 3-year program that gives their small body of students unparalleled experience and exposure. The list of guest artists who have visited before us is an impressive who’s who in musical theatre: John Bucchino, Adam Guettel, Victoria Clark, Liz Calloway, etc… We are thrilled to be sharing their air and spend time with the dynamic students and faculty.

During our two weeks here, we’ve put up a workshop production of Benj Pasek & Jason Paul’s Edges, the modular theatrical song cycle, which put the talented writing team on the map long before Dogfight and Dear Evan Hansen (Pasek & Paul, by the way,  have also taught here). Each night over dinner, we find ourselves sharing how this experience has been similar or different from our previous teaching experiences (and why). We thought this might open up interesting conversations for you, our readers, who also have a host of learning and teaching experiences under your belt.

Creating a Meaningful Workshop

Workshops like this can be challenging because they require a lot of forethought and preparation. Given that we only have two weeks, it was imperative the four wonderful students we’re working with came in with their music mostly learned. That meant we had to hear them sing and get a good sense of their personalities before selecting their material a month before the workshop began.

The challenge becomes: how do you create structure in a modular show with students you haven’t met you while still allowing for flexibility in rehearsal?

Given that we’ve done these kinds of workshops before, we’ve been able to avoid large-scale changes, but we’ve had to rethink the show order, add transitions, and make adjustments to the scores to tailor the piece to the students’ gifts. This requires knowing the material well enough to think quickly on our feet and the willingness to try many different things until the right choice bubbles up. It’s the kind of teaching that excites us most because it relies both on a solid foundation of technical and artistic expertise while leaving room for what the students bring to the process.

One of the most practical ways a workshop differs from most teaching experiences is that it’s a more intense process. Working with the students 8 hours a day allows us to be immersed and fully invested in their growth while also teaching them how to prepare for professional situations. The stamina required for a 8-hour rehearsal day is not to be underestimated. This intensity can also highlight technical issues in the acting and singing for a student and gives us a chance to help them navigate through those challenges to find a more authentic means of expression in their performance.

A World Full of Yes

One of the blessings of being an visiting artist is that you are more often allowed (or even encouraged) to think outside the box in order to give the students the best possible real-world experience. This has not always been our experience when being on faculty at an institution. Sometimes politics can play into casting and other artistic decisions that limit the ability of the creative team to design an opportunity that doesn’t feel as if it lives inside a vacuum.

Being from the outside also gives us a fresh take on the students. It highlights the fact that we all have different skills and that it takes a lot of different relevant voices to help develop a student into a knowledgeable artist. One of the most enjoyable parts is seeing how different people teach and learn, and how we can learn from each other. We’ve had some really exciting moments of collaborative teaching during this process, which we will definitely take back with us.

Differences of Language

Laura: My first challenge is the fact that the show is being performed in both Danish and English. The students are all fluent in both but I am not, and this is the first time I am directing a show not in my native language. The school already had some of the songs from Edges translated, but the students were assigned to translate the other songs themselves. I quickly realized that translation really is its own art form. Since some of the language in Pasek & Paul’s show is colloquial (and quite American), the Danes needed to translate it to make sense in their culture as well as in their language. This necessitated a “back translation” of the text: So I would have the original English version, the Danish version, and then another English version, which was a literal translation of the Danish. This way I could accurately follow along and give notes.

David: One of the challenges in working in Danish is the difference of where the language is placed. As is true with other languages, like German, many sounds are made in the back of the mouth (as opposed to more dental languages, like Italian). And did you know (I didn’t until this experience) that Danish has something like 72 different vowels? SEVENTY-TWO, I tell you! This means that, when singing in Danish or English, the Danish students have had to focus more on getting the language forward and releasing the back of the throat. This creates more vocal freedom and also can give the appearance that the performer is creating the lyric in front of the audience for the very first time. It always inspires me when technique helps create better storytelling, and singing with forward language is a prime example of how that can happen.

The Gift & Challenge of Time

Laura: While the experience of theatre around the world may be universal, how it is crafted often is not. Our Danish students (as well as the faculty) seemed amazed at the quick pace with which we taught and staged the show. When we said we would be having a run thru at the end of the first of our two weeks here, we were met with surprise and, from the students, some fear. It seems that here, much more time is often spent learning the music in rehearsal, which makes for a slower process for everything else.

David: It never feels like there’s enough time in these kinds of workshop experiences, even when you plan ahead. I think it feels that way, in part, because we can get wrapped up in product over process. Workshops, by their very design, are about process. Yes, there may be a presentation at the end, but it’s to allow others to be present in the artists’ process, not to see a final performance. There is no such thing.

I came into this experience sharing my techniques on how to achieve more vocal freedom. The students have been wonderfully receptive while also expressing how challenging it is to incorporate new technical information, learn new songs, staging, etc… I’ve watched as their brains have scrambled a bit: a necessary place for growth. And while they don’t have the perspective of their own growth because they’re in the midst of it, it’s been thrilling to see how far they’ve come in such a short amount of time. It’s the ultimate reminder that good things happen when we continue focusing on process over product.

Some Things Don’t Change

Laura: While the words I choose to communicate my adjustments and notes to the students sometimes need to be explained, the technique rarely does. Beats. Objectives. Characterization. Stakes. When I speak of these things I am always understood. And I was thrilled to find that when an actor performed a song in Danish with strong intentions and acting beats, the story was crystal clear, even though I didn’t understand a word he said.

David: In my last blog, I wrote about how common it is for singers of all ages and experiences to manipulate their sound in the hopes of matching a perceived sonic goal. Often times, the goal is related to a particular style of music. In our case – Edges being in a decidedly contemporary musical theatre style – it’s been a good challenge for the students to figure out how to create a meaningful performance without manipulating their voice for the style of the songs. I cannot over emphasize how the way we listen to ourselves often limits our own ability to communicate a song. It is not for us to receive – that is for the audience. Much of my work in the last week has been centered on getting the students to consistently release their sound and lean into the vulnerability they feel when they do that. It’s made for some very exciting discoveries and performances.

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We always look forward to these kinds of teaching experiences because we love sharing what we’ve learned and continue to be students ourselves. Thank you to Thomas Agerholm, Lone Baltzer, and everyone at Den Danske Scenekunstskole, who made us feel right at home! A special thank you to Kirstine, Monica, Frederik, and Lars for your outstanding work. This time with you four has been incredibly special to us. Thanks for sharing your lives with us for these last two weeks!

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