Going to the theatre in Paris as a non-French speaker can be tough. Despite two opera houses featuring classic ballet and opera, some 300 theatres cater mostly to a French-speaking audience, doing little to attract English-speaking travellers.
But since spring 2014, start-up company Theatre in Paris has been opening up French theatre to English audiences. Thanks to their system of English captions above the stage, now tourists, business travellers, expats and anyone else with a basic standard of English can appreciate some of France's theatrical masterpieces.
Carl de Poncins, founder and president of Theatre in Paris, wants the company to be a part of the move towards experiential tourism. In the same way that sites like AirBnB or Jogg.in allow outsiders to sleep or run like locals, Poncins wants visitors to be able to enjoy theatre like the French inside some of Paris's most beautiful venues.
For its debut, Theatre in Paris paired up with the century-old Théâtre Michel in the heart of the city for a production of the classic 'Cyrano de Bergerac'. Tickets were €44, making it an accessible experience – and the intimate Théâtre Michel has no lousy seats, with the balcony reserved for English-speakers.
This show is set to be a staple of the company's offerings, along with 'The Magic Flute' and more on the not-so-distant horizon. For spectators, the system is easy. Book tickets through Theatre in Paris and show up before the crowds. Poncins or an associate will give a brief explanation of the theatre and show to be presented, and then the lights go down and the curtain goes up. Behind the scenes, a lot of preparation goes on for a seamless audience experience. The company works with bilingual theatre specialists to provide the most accurate translations of each show. While translating poetic 19th century French into comprehensible English might be a daunting task, the English is clear enough to capture much of the imagery and the most important plot points.
They also work with the theatre to reserve the best seats with optimal viewing of the surtitles above the stage – so there's no uncomfortable craning of necks required. The subtitles are projected in real time, so English audiences are laughing or crying at the same time as their French counterparts.
For those wanting to branch away from the English-speaking musicals at the Châtelet, sung classics at the Opéra Garnier or the wordless beauty of the ballet, Theatre in Paris is making it possible. It's a great way to enjoy a bit of French culture without even the slightest temptation to nod off after the first act...