Languages & Creativity: Guide to directing foreign-language plays by Noah Birksted-Breen

The European Literature Network is delighted to be collaborating with Creative Multilingualism – a large-scale research project led by the University of Oxford, which studies the interconnection between linguistic diversity and creativity. In our new series of blogs entitled Languages & Creativity, ELNetter and post-doctoral researcher on the project Heike Krüsemann will curate a selection of Creative Multilingualism posts for a fascinating glimpse into the world of language research. Over to you, Heike!

It’s official – languages and creativity go together! Who knew? Well, clearly not everyone, so the Arts and Humanities Research Council gave us money to do some research and spread the word. Don’t you just love it when things fall into place like this? Our intrepid research teams right now are busy studying the creative power of metaphorthe construction of a meaningful world in nature (that’s naming plants and animals to you and me), intelligibility between languages and communitieslanguages in the creative economyworld literaturescreative possibilities in translation, and creativity in language learning. While we’re doing that, we’d like to share some of our findings and related musings with you, dear ELNetters, in bite-size chunks and blog post format. Do let us know what you think – we’re always happy to hear from you!

By Heike Krüsemann

Heike Krüsemann is a UK-based researcher, writer and translator with an interest in Language, Culture and Education. Blog: German in the UK, Twitter: @Dr_Heike_K. Heike’s #RivetingReview of Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf; Heike’s #RivetingReview of Bühlerhöhe by Brigitte GlaserHeike’s Short Story with a translation twist: German Cinnamon

Blog post 20:

Noah Birksted-Breen on the do’s and don’t’s of directing foreign-language dramas. 

Guide to directing foreign-language plays

Dear future theatre directors!

Here are a few thoughts about directing foreign-language dramas. I have tried to be honest about my experience as a play director and translator of new Russian plays. I hope to be encouraging, while also being realistic.



  • Expect it to be an easy path. I worked for three years unpaid to stage new Russian plays in fringe theatres. I had a full-time job and I used my free time and holiday allowance in order to produce, translate and direct a team of 25 unpaid theatre professionals to make it work. It paid off eventually. After five years, I was raising professional budgets to work at exciting venues like Soho Theatre, the Arcola and New Diorama. Soon after that, major organisations became interested in my work so I began collaborating with Theatre Royal Plymouth and BBC Radio 3. It’s worth it in the end! But you need to be realistic about how you will support yourself through paid employment, while you figure out how to create a ‘brand name’ for yourself as a director of new foreign-language plays.


  • Travel to the country where you want to find new plays. For me, that means travelling at least once a year to Russia, to identify the most talented young Russian playwrights, interviewing Russian directors, attending Russian theatre festivals, etc.


  • Just stage the foreign playtext as if it were written by a British playwright. The most exciting thing about foreign-language plays is that they were born in a foreign performance culture. Go and visit the theatres where the play was staged originally. Be a detective: what is the theatre like? What are the audiences like? What is the atmosphere like? Is the play staged naturalistically or anti-naturalistically, or a combination of both? These experiences will allow you to find a unique ‘voice’ for yourself as a director who can navigate between two cultures, creating a distinctive vision which accommodates aspects of both.


  • Find allies among other directors and translators. You will need to support and encourage each other because you have chosen a difficult path.


  • Make the mistake of considering foreign-language plays to be totally ‘foreign’ and therefore totally different to British plays. In my experience, new Russian plays are often much ‘wilder’ in spirit and form than a lot of contemporary British dramatic writing. Nevertheless, there are many Russians plays which are broad comedies, melodramas and conventional dramas. Therefore:


  • Try to direct a diverse range of plays from your chosen country or countries. Once, I translated four Russian plays which received rehearsed readings at Soho Theatre as part of a week-long festival, they ranged from naturalist dramas to sci-fi thrillers, with a few other genres in-between. This balanced diet is healthy – and it will contribute to breaking down stereotypes about foreign countries. Otherwise, you risk reinforcing those existing stereotypes e.g. that all Russian plays are wild and include scenes of drinking vodka, while all French plays are poetic and revolve around love triangles, etc.


  • Give up.


  • Be realistic. If your current way of doing things isn’t working, try another way. For me, that meant starting a PhD to fund my research and practice for three years. That was a game-changer. It helped me to discover a way of making work which I had never even dreamed of. I am now in a partnership with talented individuals and world-class institutions. This collaboration has enabled me to explore multilingual theatre, in ways which are innovative and potentially trailblazing.

Good luck!

By Noah Birksted-Breen

Noah Birksted-Breen is a Post-doctoral Researcher on our 4th research strand: Languages in the Creative Economy and director of Sputnik Theatre. He is currently working on a hip hop theatre version of Ivan Viripaev’s Oxygen, translated by Sasha Dugdale.

Download a pdf of this guide to directing multilingual theatre.

This post was first published on the Creative Multilingualism site on 4 December 2018.

Read previous blogs in the Languages & Creativity series:

Blog 1: My love affair with eight languages by Alice Sze

Blog 2: A tale of two city guides: multilingual identity, writing, and translation by Heike Krüsemann

Blog 3: How language learning can be inspired by a fictional world by Emma Huber

Blog 4: Do you have butterflies in your stomach or little deers jumping in your heart? by Marianna Bolognesi

Blog 5: Creative translation: bending to rules to keep it personal by Philip Bullock

Blog 6: Why translation matters by Julie Curtis

Blog 7: We are Children of the World

Blog 8: Helping to balance the European argument – John le Carré speakes out for language learning by Katrin Kohl

Blog 9: “Reader, I went through a wedding ceremony with him”: Translating Jane Eyre by Eleni Philippou

Blog 10: How curiosity led me to learn 7 languages by Yulia Polishiuk

Blog 11: How I produced my first-ever (multiligual) school play by Ann Poole

Blog 12: How learning languages can help in a career as a film producer and writer by Jessica Benhamou

Blog 13: ‘Lessons learnt’ by a professional translator – adapting the same play three times over three years by Noah Birksted-Breen

Blog 14: Creative translation in the classroom by Charlotte Ryland and Lucy Christmas

Blog 15: Korean pop – BTS and fan translation by Sowon S Park

Blog 16: Translating a Russian play into Hip-Hop theatre – a conversation by Rajinder Dudrah and Noah Birksted-Breen

Blog 17: Are creative or functional teaching approaches more effective in the language classroom? by Suzanne Graham and Heike Krüsemann

Blog 18: Tracing prismatic rays of translation by Matthew Reynolds

Blog 19: Research update: identity and multilingualism in South Tyrol by Jamie Green

Category: Languages & Creativity


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