PCS Blog

Chinglish: A Musical Without Music

Posted by Alice Hodge | 09 January 2014


"This is essentially a musical without music."


We spoke with PCS Sound Engineer and Projections Operator, Scott Thorson, about what it's like running the surtitles for Chinglish.


A Chinglish slide: one out of 750.

Chinglish, by David Henry Hwang, presented a number of technical challenges for us - the first and most obvious was finding six actors who fit all the requirements specific to each character and speak Mandarin. Thankfully, the cast and crew met that challenge beautifully. Another obvious challenge is that almost half of the show is in Mandarin. Over 750 surtitle translations are needed so our predominantly English-speaking audiences can actually follow the action, get the jokes and understand the play. But running the surtitles? Sounds easy, right?


Hwang’s script has each Mandarin line written in the traditional Chinese characters, “beautiful, arcane, devilishly complicated” (says Daniel Cavanaugh in the play), English and Pinyin. Pinyin is the romanization of the traditional Mandarin characters, created by Chairman Mao Tse-tung during the Cultural Revolution to simplify the language for foreigners.

"The projections for Chinglish, designed by Timothy R. Mackabee, were created in the presentation program Keynote so the English translation could be easily run and edited in rehearsal," says Thorson of the process. "The slides were then exported and programmed into QLab to fit the projection screen. This also allows me to simultaneously run sound and video cues during the show. The subtitle slides are then projected onto a wide banner-like surface that hangs above the actors onstage. Each slide is cued by the operator at the beginning of the spoken line onstage. The audience, similar to subtitles in film or television, is then reading along with the lines in real time as the play is performed."


"Originally, they were looking for a Mandarin-speaking person who could run the translations, but I found that I was able to listen to the text and learn my cues despite not speaking or understanding the language." Despite not knowing Mandarin, Thorson is able to listen to the spoken lines while reading the Pinyin translations to cue each surtitle. “You have to learn to hear what the letters sound like – the letters sound differently than a Western ear would expect to hear, " he says.  By contextually detaching from the language, the spoken sound becomes like music – full of cadence, rhythm and tone. He is not memorizing words, persay, but the sounds of the words. 

Much like working on a musical, Thorson listens for the notes spoken by a specific actor, each with their own vocal patterns, and matches that with the Pinyin in the script. This however, becomes "difficult when multiple actors are speaking lines simultaneously. Sometimes, both English and Mandarin are spoken at the same time” and Thorson has to re-train his ear to ignore the English and focus on the first few notes or lines spoken in Mandarin by specific actors. 


Thorson during Tech Rehearsal for Chinglish.


For all of these reasons, he came into the rehearsal process a week earlier than he would for an average show so that he could have the maximum possible time with the script, actors and sounds. "This is quite a bit different from the usual operation of the show because normally the stage manager calls all of the cues I take - I don't decide the timing." In Chinglish, the timing is so sensitive that Thorson has to take the translation cues on his own. The stage manager then only calls the sound cues that align with the other technical elements during scene transitions.


Chinglish runs January 11 — February 9. Tickets available HERE.
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