Charlotte has about as many public productions of Spanish-language plays as it does Ethiopian hockey players.
Yet here’s Jay Barron, producing the world premiere this week of a play written and acted by Providence Day School students who speak English in every other class. That ups the rarity level to, say, Ethiopian hockey players named Rupert.
“El amor olímpico” takes place at the 2020 Summer Olympics. (In real life, Madrid is bidding to host.) Mexican, Spanish and American teams intertwine in the one-act, which ends with a wedding.
The language will be simple enough that intermediate-level students who don’t speak fluently will understand it. Will non-Spanish speakers get the point? Claro que sí. Supertitles will project English on screens visible to everyone in the audience at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre. When the American team speaks in English, Spanish supertitles will appear.
The actors attend Barron’s Spanish CCT class, as in “composition, conversation and theater.” He compares the traditional “hear and repeat” style of language instruction to “a tennis lesson where the pro stands on one side of the net and hits all the balls,” he says. “You have to hit the ball yourself.” So he makes sure they do.
Barron, who has taught Spanish at Providence Day for 10 years, learned the old-school way. He took two droning years of Spanish in high school, hated it, quit, then took it up again at Davidson College to meet the language requirement.
At last, its beauty spoke to him. He majored in it, studied in Madrid and spent a year teaching English in Mexico.
Five years ago, he started producing plays in Spanish with supertitles at Providence Day. (He got the idea after seeing Puccini’s opera “Tosca” in New York.). Last year, his class adapted FredericoGarcía Lorca’s “La Casa de Bernarda Alba” in a satirical spoof and, for the first time, faced the public at Spirit Square before doing regular performances for the school.
“It felt more real to be in a theater downtown,” says alumna Neha Kukreja, now a freshman at UNC Chapel Hill. “Every other Spanish class I took was about grammar and conjugating verbs. But for this play, we had to memorize colloquialisms common to the Spanish-speaking world, things we would never say in an ordinary … class. And when one actor forgot his lines, he had to start improvising in Spanish.”
Barron’s students brainstormed ideas among themselves. (They also considered playing exchange students en route to Colombia whose airplane crashes on a deserted island.)
“We invented characters and worked up plot lines,” says senior Alexis Ferrette, who plays Mexican gymnast Fe (Faith). “At first, I had to figure out what the (dialogue) meant: What is Fe trying to say? What are her feelings? Now I think like her, and the emotions come naturally to me when I’m speaking lines in Spanish.”
Senior Nick Gregor, who had no experience writing a script or acting – let alone en español – says Barron has done a good job of guiding students while letting them have their heads: “We’ve made it as realistic as possible. He had native speakers read it over, and a Mexican person told us what his countrymen would say.”
Gregor also notes he and his cast mates have “come out of their comfort zones.” Barron believes that’s a good thing.
“Learning a language is a fundamentally messy process,” he says. “You have to make the mistakes and know that it’s OK. to make them.
“Part of measuring proficiency in a language depends on speaking it in front of people who don’t know you. If someone laughs at your accent, it dings you a bit. You have a little reality check.”
Barron would someday like to get other schools involved in a festival of short plays, original or otherwise, done in Spanish.
“I don’t pretend to be putting on Broadway plays, but my kids surprised me last year,” he says. “They were excited, motivated, proud of something they wanted to share with the public. Logistically, getting other schools involved would be brutal – but it would be a blast.”