You can’t please everybody…
… especially not with surtitles.

How did you both end up at Schauspielhaus Zürich?

Sinikka: By Tram.

Yana: Nice. Ecological thinking.

Sinikka: I’m sorry! I’ve studied linguistics. Semantics – I had to.

Yana: I cannot tell you how amazing it is for people who don’t speak German to walk into a German speaking theater, and to be able to see everything they want.

Sinikka: Obviously, I agree, because it created a job for me on the one hand, but also from an emotional stand point: I grew up here in Zürich, but I am bilingual – Swiss German and English – and I know so many people here who up until now haven’t dared to go to the theatre because they think their German isn’t good enough. And knowing that I am the bridge now helping people to be part of something so beautiful and so essential for a culture, means a lot. But it has also created a bit of a stir. Within the theatre, but also according to the reaction from the audience. Some people are absolutely shocked that we have surtitles now and do not enjoy it.

Yana: You can’t please everybody…

Sinikka: … especially not with surtitles. I have realised that literally everybody has an opinion on surtitles.

Yana: Theater is not there to please. And neither are surtitles. It’s a service. But everybody has an opinion. Same with a performance. Reviews come out and so on, and you have to remember the reason why we do this. The reason is not to please or to try and guess what the audience would think. The reason is to be in service of the art. And you are just doing what you are meant to do. And if you feel the work is needed and you feel good about it, that’s one of the reasons to keep doing it.

Sinikka: One of my favourite moments so far was when Suna Gürler staged her opening festival play in Swiss German, and of course we had English surtitles. And because many people of our house do understand German but not Swiss German, they all read the English surtitles. That moment was somehow important for me. That’s when I realised how essential the surtitles are even within our theatre. But it’s been quite hard because it’s all so new for everybody. It’s all very much learning by doing; it’s still very, very wild at times.

Yana: This house is so open and democratic and in a way risk taking. It’s the power of this house that we don’t get hung up on power. That we really take a risk and if it doesn’t work out, it’s not the end of the world.

What about you, Yana, how did you end up at the Schauspielhaus Zürich?

Yana: For me, it was a very logical progression. I have started making theater quite late in my life. Before, I had a career in New York in film and television. But, at some point I decided that I am done with one side of me and that I really wanted to focus on the other. I wanted to leave New York because I really admired the European funding of the arts where, unfortunately, the United States are not very strong at. So, I made a map of countries where I thought that theater was relevant, where I assumed there were strong theater cultures. It was a small map of central and northern Europe. I knew I wanted to go to Germany, to Poland, Sweden, and I wanted to explore these theater cultures. I knew I’d have to transcend language, that I always had to learn enough to get an understanding of how the plays work so that I can follow the script. But still, I don’t speak Swedish, Polish or Norwegian; I understand enough.

In this small map, Zürich seemed always interesting to me. I had seen some productions from Zürich or in my research I would make a connection – oh, Brecht was here, oh, Dürrenmatt’s play opened in Zürich in the 50ies – these flashbacks to the history of theater. In a way, when this call came, it didn’t feel like a big change for me. It’s just expanding my theater family circle.

Sinikka: I’ve tried to run away from theatre for about 10 years. When I was 19, I trained as an actor, but things happened, and I realised that I could not pursue it as a career. I tried to leave it all behind, but about 2 years ago, I realised that I am not done with it yet. I became increasingly interested in dramaturgy but had no idea how to find my way back in, and then the job offer came, and it was clear to me that theatre welcomes me back. Now, I do the translations of the programmes, the leporello, the newsletters, but also the surtitles. And surtitles are an art in themselves.

Could you explain that a little? What is the art of surtiteling?

Sinikka: On the one hand, there are so many departments that are involved with the surtitles: dramaturgy, video and the production itself. I realised very quickly that f.e. video technicians speak a totally different language to people like you. That is a massive challenge for me in my language abilities. But that’s also something I really enjoy.

Yana: It’s amazing to have a sense – it makes sense now that I know that you have been trained as an actor – for the rhythm of the performance. It’s a kind of mathematical and artistic position. Because I have toured with many performances in the past: every time you land on a big festival, it’s always the question of how professional this festival would be with the surtitles, and it depends on the translator, who has to have this magic, this talent of feeling the rhythm. Sometimes, you just know it’s too much information, you don’t need every single word, or you’d lose the audience because they are looking at the titles too much…

Sinikka: That’s something I find particularly challenging right now because I have studied literature for 10 years and I am a literary person…

Yana: … the agony to cut the words, right?

Sinikka: It’s horrendous because what I’ve learned quite quickly is that it is a disservice for the audience when you try to reproduce a written experience of the play. But that means I have to cut, cut, cut… which I find extremely hard and challenging, but it has to be done. It is still fascinating to me to see how much you can reduce a sentence and it still conveys meaning.

Yana, you just staged a play in German which was originally written in Russian, and you were working with a team where at least five languages were spoken. How does a multilinguistic process like that still find the specific language and tone the play needs?

Yana: I think it’s something like a certain muscle in your body, somewhere between a physical muscle and the brain, that is activated. I think it really comes alive in the process of rehearsals. You are starting to use this appendix to synthesize physical language and three other working languages. Of course, if I can read the play in the original language, I would go to the original. So, I had an original Russian copy, then I had a very good English translation – since my days in the New York theater, I’ve always used the ones by Paul Schmidt, one of our great teachers; at least to see what he was thinking – and then I would look at some very recent translations. Also, we had about five or six German translation where I had to trust the ones Fadrina, my dramaturge, gave me. Still, with my rudimentary Reading-German, I could notice the small differences in the construction of a sentence, in the liberty the translator is taking. In rehearsals, we ended up using the one of Elina Finkel to base our text development on.

The attention span is really short in this type of work, it’s an extreme focus of concentration, but somehow, paradoxically, not just leaning to one language brings you very, very close to the essence of the dramatization. Because you are not stuck in just one possibility but you have always three or four. And you are constantly scanning and double checking. You are doubting every choice you are making until you test it through the actors who’ll give you a fifth language: the language of improvisation. They give you their own interpretation of everything you put in the pot. When this comes out, the essence of what they deliver often is very, very precise to the original. They don’t use the exact words, but they use the exact meaning of the scene.

In the play, you are using three languages – German, English, Polish – how do you decide, what language fits which moment?

Yana: We knew from the beginning we’d use the Polish language as an asset not as a handicap. Danuta is a Polish actress and we knew that German is difficult for her. She can pronounce it, but it was not realistic to hide her Polish identity. So, we wanted to make it clear to the audience from the beginning: in one of the first scenes of the play, Polish and English are used so the audience can identify that she is a foreigner with some knowledge of German.

Sinikka: This scene was very interesting also for us working on the surtitles: at first, we hadn’t surtitled the scene where Ljuba enters, because Swiss people in general understand English and it’s more of an atmosphere you need to understand. But then I realised that the second we introduce more languages on stage, we need to introduce them on the screens as well; otherwise the German speaking audience might not realise where they’ll get the information from later in the play. From the second we had a different language on stage, we knew we’ll need surtitles, no matter what.

Yana: It’s a great frame. As an audience, you feel like your back is covered. It doesn’t matter what language is happening. You have this possibility.

As the performance progresses, we leave the foreign language behind and use more German so we could get very close to the audience so they don’t have to think about it in their head. It happened quite naturally. But then in the end when she is alone, she regresses into pure Polish. This was not so easy to decide, and I also had to trust Fadrina because she’s Swiss and kind of represents the original audience. When she heard it in Polish, it felt right to her. And because we have surtitles, it’s not a problem.

Sinikka: I already told you this after the premiere: my grandmother was from England and married a Swiss man and moved here. Language has always been such a pivotal and yet weird topic in my life and within my family. I have never been so aware of it than I have since I’ve started working here; and especially since I have seen Kirschgarten. Your take on it has helped me to get in touch with my own language: my identity only works when I can communicate using both my languages. And that’s what I’ve observed in your production as well: bilingualism needs to be embraced. When it’s there, it constitutes the identity of a person. When I speak, I need both languages to express myself, and it comes instinctively whichever language I chose that moment. This is also what I think works so beautifully in your production: it’s the instinct of the actors that shows what language is needed in which moment.

Yana: This gives me goosebumps.