Zurich’s famous Schauspielhaus is buzzing. The lights go down. Immediately, the audience falls silent in anticipation. All eyes are fixed on the red curtain, which begins to rise. No one notices the woman up in up in the box to the left of the audience, leaning over her laptop, her finger hovering over the mouse. The actors onstage start speaking and as they do, two small panels to the left and the right of the stage light up, displaying their words in English. Sinikka Weber, inhouse translator and surtitler, keeps pressing the mouse, making the words on the panels change to match the actors’ words in German.
Although the surtitles are designed for non-German speakers, the Schauspielhaus insists that it remains a traditional German-language theatre, catering above all for the people of Zurich.
“It isn’t that special at all: you can say we’re finally ready!” says Barbara Higgs, head of the department for Fundraising & Development at the Schauspielhaus. Zürich is, after all, an international city, with over 170 different nationalities residing there. English is spoken in nearly 40% of workplaces.
Even though the theatre was sure that Zurich was ready for English surtitles, financial constraints meant that they couldn’t be provided for all productions. They could only surtitle selected plays. That’s why in the summer of 2019 the Schauspielhaus made surtitles their top priority and started saving up.
“A theatre by everyone, for everyone.” Sinikka Weber says proudly. “The Schauspielhaus should be a home for international actors from Japan to America, directors, tourists, expats and people from all over the world.”
The theatre invested almost 200,000 Swiss francs on LED lights, panels, software and employees. The money came from foundations.
The idea of the surtitles isn’t new. Two years ago, the Schauspielhaus, which has hosted premieres of plays by many of the German speaking world’s greatest playwrights such as Bertold Brecht, Friedrich Dürenmatt and Max Frisch, staged a series of plays with surtitles in English in a pilot project. The results were encouraging: many people came and enjoyed the opportunity to finally understand classic German plays.
The Schauspielhaus Zurich is one of the first theatres in Europe to use surtitling, along with some of the most prestigious operas and theatres in Europe, such as the Opéra National de Paris or Volksbühne in Berlin, Germany. By expanding their target group, the Schauspielhaus expects their audience numbers to rise.
On the whole, the innovation has been accepted even by those who don’t need the surtitles. A German speaking member of the audience at the current production of Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän said: “The surtitles don’t bother me at all. Unless you need them, you don’t even notice them.”
However, not everybody is so tolerant. Scenery designers complained that it would disturb the visual impact and the aesthetics of the stage, for example when the stage has to be especially dark. The Schauspielhaus wants the surtitles to become part of the stage rather than disturb it and to that end, works creatively with the colour of the text and emojis.
Sinikka Weber says that conserving the poetic language is important to her while translating. Her main priority is not a word for word translation, but rather the rhythm of the language.
“You really have to be incredibly wide awake and incredibly focused for two to three hours. You always have to be listening. You have to breathe with the actors. You have to think like them.” If an actor messes up their lines or slips up, the surtitle operator has to react immediately and see where they are in the script in order to keep up.
The Schauspielhaus uses a surtitle software called Spectitular by Panthea. Sinikka tries to translate as much as possible in close proximity with Panthea. Because the script is constantly being changed, up until the last minute, the surtitle operators only join the last few theatre rehearsals before the premiere.
The job involves cooperation of many different departments. The surtitle team works together with the video department, as well as with the IT, dramaturgy and scenery departments. Cues from the actors and any changes the actors make affect the surtitle department as much as the lighting and sound departments.
“After a two-hour performance, I’m exhausted,” admits Sinikka Weber. “This is work that you have to throw yourself into completely. You’re incredibly close to the production at that moment. You’re with the actors, you’re with the script. You’re really close. I find it really really beautiful.”