Game Library: “Subtitles”

A personal favorite option amongst the cadre of games that feature Gibberish as an element, Subtitles encourages heightened physicality and well-defined relationships as improvisers work together to craft a playful and clear screenplay.

The Basics

Two players serves as the “actors” in the movie performing in the original (read gibberish) language. Each actor is partnered with an offstage translator who converts each line of dialogue into English (or your native language.) The scene unfolds alternating between the gibberish actors and their translating counterparts. Action is typically inspired by an invented movie title such as a country and an occupation, as in “The French Accountant.”


Player A and B serve as the actors while C and D translate and situate themselves to the side of the stage. The scene is inspired by “The Antarctic Optometrist.”

Player B begins by lying on the ground wriggling in pain. Player A rushes in…

Player A: “Karnardin peesh shalookie ka deenaw!”

Player C: (translating from the side of the stage) “I came as soon as I heard!”

Player B looks up to A with a sense of panic as they gesture wildly towards their eyes.

Player B: “Jaloopida neeva! Jaloopida neeva!”

Player D: (translating from the other side of the stage) “The snow blindness! The snow blindness.”

Player A tries to calm B as they reach into their bag…

Player A: “Jaloopida neeva? Sheepa ka nervadda, Kayshee.”

Player C: (translating) “Snow blindness? This is the third case I’ve seen today, Kayshee.”

Player A begins the examination as B becomes more concerned…

The Focus

In addition to the more obvious areas of focus, such as physicality and the crafting of effective and scene-specific gibberish, this scene will typically center on one relationship so make sure to sufficiently invest in this central dynamic. The language restriction needn’t serve as a barrier for portraying a story and character connection that displays care and detail. An overtly broad or almost pantomimic performance style can greatly reduce the likelihood of discovering a story with depth and significance: consider erring on the side of a more realistic tone and energy.

Traps and Tips

1.) Use the gibberish. This game is partnered with my earlier consideration of gibberish so I’d recommend that you review those pointers here if you’ve just stumbled across this game and don’t have much experience with the technique. The plus of acquiring a country or region to inspire the action is that it can jump start you out of bad gibberish habits and encourage the team to really listen to each other and build a unique vocabulary. If you happen to know the language in question, this can actually put you at a bit of a disadvantage: it can be surprisingly difficult not to just use the words you know (rather than the more generic sounds) which will generally feel like a bit of a cheat. My major gibberish advice which bears repeating here is to repeat. Part of the magic is for some words or phrases to actually start carrying meaning, such as “snow blindness” or the invented character name “Kayshee” above. When we erroneously think of gibberish as random sound we often neglect to infuse our verbal choices with deliberateness and subtext, and we miss the opportunity to create these joyful language patterns.

2.) Establish a rhythm. As is the case with other scenic games where you are balancing contributions between on- and off-stage players, it can take a little while to get into this groove of give and take, especially at the top of the scene or if players haven’t workshopped this particular dynamic together before. So in addition to the obvious advice of workshopping this dynamic (!) I’d also offer that you’ll want to default to letting a little more air into the top of the scene to allow sufficient time for translators to insert their choices at the appropriate moments. Players working as the actors should be mindful to give clear ending punctuation and avoid long-winded diatribes as the scene begins; those in the translator positions should leap into the fray on cue regardless of whether or not they have “figured out” what the original line means. Part of the fun is also seeing this process unfold in real time.

3.) Earnestly translate (at least initially). There are a lot of inherited bits and gimmicks that can burden the elegant core of this game which consists of actors speaking and translators doing their best to interpret the intent as quickly as they can. I ardently believe that this dynamic alone is more than enough to present a surprising and entertaining scene. Much of the joy and humor comes from when the audience and players view a translation as impeccably executed or in the moments when clearly a disparity has occurred in spite of everyone’s efforts to the contrary. In the introductory moments of the scene, in particular, it can be disheartening or outright frustrating for the actors if they are making strong and connected choices that are then undermined deliberately by their offstage partners. This can also reduce the scene to little more than a gag or pimping fest. If your venue enjoys the playfulness of shivving there are certainly opportunities to surprise the actors with revelatory or unexpected translations or to mischievously thwart a clear character intent or desire. But I’d still advise that such moments should emerge organically and that this approach should not become a substitute for collaborative story telling.

4.) Lean into emotion and activity. It’s generally strong advice when working with gibberish to lean a little more heavily into your physical and emotional choices than you might in an unrestricted scene. As noted above, this can result in a more stylized or pantomimic tone of play which is by no means inappropriate; but, there is also value in maintaining a strong sense of realism while gently heightening how physicality can deepen the relationship and story. A talking heads scene is certainly a trap to be avoided, especially if it involves monotonous or nonspecific gibberish use. Remember that you still want to avoid vague choices as the actors: translators shouldn’t be expected to invent content to make up for a general lack of decisiveness. A large part of the fun is seeing a well-etched choice soar or become bunted by a well-intended teammate who experienced and has named a different specific than you had pitched. I personally find these delightfully honest miscommunications much more entertaining than those that are obviously manufactured with the express aim of eliciting an audience response. An added advantage of creating a strong environment and physical activities is that you can make these your focus in those potentially awkward silences as you await your translations.

5.) Start in the middle. I’d also offer that simply in a mathematical sense these scenes have about half as much room as a regular scene for shaping and presenting a story as each line or choice takes twice as long to express by the time both the actor and translator have participated. If too much of the scene is spent in a state of balance or preamble it can prove daunting to build to a climax or discovery that doesn’t feel approximated or unearned. Jump into a moment of interest and dynamism. You generally only have the two characters to develop so make sure this relationship is interesting and important. In the event that a third or fourth character is needed, have another company member also join as a new translator if you have the numbers, or one of the two established translators can just take on this new vocal role as well.

In Performance

The conceit of seeking inspiration from a foreign country can prove problematic and potentially offensive if it is not executed with care and awareness. Make sure you’re punching up if you elect to utilize this frame or at least exercise mindfulness of how your onstage company demographic may contextualize the scene. My heritage, for example, is of colonizers not the colonized so I will generally take countries in the former rather than the latter category. It is also more than appropriate to use a more “universal” gibberish that doesn’t replicate the sounds of any given region or country if a more satiric approach makes you or your audience uncomfortable.

There is a version of this game when the translating players literally run across the front of the stage as they speak as if their bodies were the subtitles showing on the bottom of the screen: flashing jazz hands adds to the effect. This certainly enhances playfulness but I’ve found that it generally becomes clumsy in spaces that do not have sufficient room and, frankly, the burden of this energy investment increases as you gain decades as a player. This staging variant invariably pulls content towards sillier hues as well, which may or may not be in keeping with your greater goals.

Speaking of foreigners chatting about improv – if you want to find out what happens when a Kiwi and a Canadian walk into a podcast, check out my guest spot on Michael Dargie’s award-winning RebelRebel series here.

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Gibberish

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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