das onlinemagazin der rg-woche

The Zurich theatre speaking a new language

in Foreign Correspondents by

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.”

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