The Language of Theatre

Unlocking the meaning of TNO's cultural productions

Photo - A reception, such as this one organized in a private home, provides theatre goers with a plot outline so they can enjoy and understand an upcoming play.

A reception, such as this one organized in a private home, provides theatre goers with a plot outline so they can enjoy and understand an upcoming play.

Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario, or TNO as it is commonly known, is embracing technology to expand its audience by making French shows more accessible to English-speaking people. The move, one of many for the theatre, is also helping increase box office sales.

SURTITLES™, a technology developed by the Canadian Opera Company, are a condensed, translated version of a production projected onto a screen during a live performance. The system was introduced in 1983 with a single goal in mind: to make opera more accessible by translating lyrics into the audience's language.

TNO is embracing the technology for select shows as part of its growth strategy. Based in Sudbury, TNO has been offering award-winning French language live theatre for more than 40 years. However, several years ago it recognized the need to expand its audience to ensure its long-term viability.

"We think we put on great theatre and we want as many people as possible to have access to it and to allow our existing audience to attend French theatre with a spouse or partner whose first language is not French," explained Martin Lajeunesse, Administrative Director, Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario.

SURTITLES™ are not designed to provide a word-for-word translation of a production but rather to help the audience understand the essence of a play so that they can laugh or cry along with everyone else in attendance.

"It's important to give the audience a very concise tool so they understand what's going on," added Lajeunesse. "They're not meant to be reading a play; they're meant to experience it."

Thanks to a FedNor investment of approximately $240,000 from its Economic Development Initiative for Official Language Minority Communities in Northern Ontario, TNO has implemented a number of other measures to promote linguistic duality to help the theatre expand its market. Key initiatives include a fully translated website that offers online ticket sales in both official languages. At first, it wasn't a service – full translation, that is – that TNO had invested heavily in because Lajeunesse said it hadn't occurred to them that it was important.

"When patrons call the box office to say they couldn't figure out our website and ask if they could buy a ticket over the phone because they were having trouble filling out their billing/credit card information in French, it was a lesson learned for us," revealed Lajeunesse. "We will never know how many people simply gave up and didn't call."

Another important component of the FedNor-funded initiative included hiring an outreach officer to break down barriers for the theatre-going public. Lajeunesse says it's more than a question of language; it's the recognition that TNO is selling cultural products.

"We want people to leave at the end of the show thinking about what they just saw, with questions about their place in the world, and not leave wondering what the show was all about."

By anticipating what might prevent theater goers from fully understanding and enjoying a play, the outreach officer organizes a variety of activities to bridge the cultural divide, such as inviting guest speakers or organizing a reception weeks before a play opens, to pique interest.

"For example, with the theatre adaptation of Tolstoy's War and Peace, we organized a reception with a Russian-style menu. The fun event included a talk that roughly outlined the novel, providing just enough information so that the adaptation would make sense, as well as quell the fears of those who hadn't read the book."

To date, the new measures have been effective. Attendance for the TNO's regular programming (excluding youth programming) has risen from 78% during the 2014-2015 season to 85% in 2016-2017.

The Northern Ontario Economic Development Initiative (EDI) for Official Language Minority Communities provides funding for projects that encourage economic growth in the region's Francophone communities and that capitalize on economic opportunities made possible through the use of both official languages. To learn more about FedNor's programs and services, please visit: and follow us on Twitter @FedNor.