Talk with dramaturg and translator Birgit Schreyer Duarte about German and Canadian Stage Culture
Birgit Schreyer Duarte studied dramaturgy at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. 15 years ago, after several visits and work stays in Canada, her love for the country grew stronger than her homesickness, and she decided to stay to pursue a doctoral degree in Toronto. Today she still lives and works here.
Enlarge image Dramaturg Birgit Schreyer Duarte at the Canadian Stage rehearsal hall (© German Consulate Toronto) Q: You work a lot with texts of German authors, preparing their works for Toronto stages. What are the challenges, what are the cultural subtleties that you need to bridge?
Canadian writers and actors are still relatively attached to a realistic, naturalistic style on stage, whereas contemporary German writers generally moved further away from that quite a while ago, and are more comfortable in the style of what we call "post-dramatic" writing, which means there are often very few stage directions, and less of a linear plot development. There are often not even character names; sometimes you even have to divide up who speaks what. Much of it is up to the director to decide. There is a lot more fluidity and fragmentation in German texts that needs to be communicated in a way that makes sense to artistis and audiences here.
I don't change the text in my translation to bridge that leap. I am not re-writing the text. But I often include some dramaturgy, some annotations. And I work directly with the director who will be using this text. I often stay on during the rehearsal process if the director prefers it. Because often there are cultural specificities that just don't explain themselves in a different culture.
- "You cannot separate the translator from the dramaturg, because every decision you make as a translator is also interpretative."
One of my favorite examples is class distinction: working on a text that is concerned around social classes and their implications. They just don't translate directly to a Canadian society. For example “Bourgeoisie“ - Bürgerlichkeit, Bürgertum, Spießertum – these are typical examples where we always get stuck. You always have to find a way of transplanting that into a context that has the same implications and associations here. And that is the funnest part, where you really have to get to the nitty gritty of the text, and explore together what you think the playwright wanted to say by choosing these characters or contexts, and how can we replicate that in the most truthful way, so that it does not just sound like a foreign text.
This is the part where you cannot separate the translator from the dramaturg, because every decision you make as a translator is also interpretative. This is what I like best in terms of translating texts.
Enlarge image Q: Was this also a big aspect of your upcoming project for Canadian Stage: “Das Ding“?
(laughs) Yes, indeed!
This was probably the longest adaptation, translation and adjustment process I have ever worked on in terms of a German text being prepared for a Canadian audience - for several reasons, one of them being that the play is very Euro-centric, but intentionally so. Because it is about a European vision of the rest of the world, and of globalized trade in particular. But part of it is told from a very specific narrative standpoint, by a German couple. And there are other narratives that get crossed over with that story. And it is also told by “Das Ding“ itself, which is a cotton flock. The “Thing“ - the cotton flock - is supposedly neutral and has no cultural connotations or assumptions on its own.
However because the playwright is German, his “German“ assumptions still come through in the text, in the reactions of that cotton ball, who becomes a personified observer of the world.
This is why we had to decide if the setting had to stay Euro-centric to retain a clashing of different points of view. A big part of the discussion was whether we would have to change the text to sound more neutral and not too specific or even offensive to the more politically correct Canadian ears. For this I collaborated closely with director Ashlie Corcoran and writer Philipp Löhle. In the end we changed the German setting of the play and turned it into a Toronto setting.
By transplanting the whole conflict from a Euro-centric view to a Canadian view, we are hoping to achieve the same thing here that the playwright hoped to achieve in his language.
Q: Will it still be a German play?
Very much so. The structure is very fragmented, it is not a linear dramaturgy at all. It feels very German in that sense.
The jumps in times and places, any moment, Philipp’s particular sense of humor – that still feels rather foreign here. Even the idea that the cotton flock is being used as a narrator. It's always described in third person; it never speaks in the first person. Which is of course a non-dramatic tool.
So I think it will be a stretch – a good stretch!
- "I like Toronto's multiculturalism. I like how natural it seems to everybody to meet people from other cultures and engage with each other without necessarily knowing their background. And I like that many people come here with that idea to start something new. They don't see the limitations first; they see the possibilities first."
Q: What are the biggest differences between the German and Canadian stage landscapes?
I would say the biggest one is the funding difference. Public funding in Germany is still many times more than in Canada.
And it is guaranteed. Whereas here you have to re-apply and re-apply, even for operating grants, which are longer-term funds, even for large companies like Canadian Stage. This keeps people in a much more precarious situation.
Enlarge image Birgit Schreyer Duarte directing at Storefront Theatre (© Amanda Wong) But the more interesting difference for me is that the tradition of the “Regie-Theater” (director’s theatre) in Germany is still relatively new here.
The tendency here is to take into account the writer's vision. The director has been seen for the longest time as someone who is executing rather than interpreting the written text. Usually the text remains complete and unchanged. Whereas in the German Regie-Theater the director contributes to the project with a vision, and the text is seen as material to be worked with.
But there is a slow transition happening now. There is a lot more emphasis on the talent and interest and vision of the director than it used to be. You can see it now in productions here, where a director really has a signature. This approach has a long tradition in Germany, and it is still fairly novel here.
Enlarge image What I love about the Canadian theatre world is that crossing over between disciplines is much more common than in Germany: most writers are also actors, many directors come from a writing, acting or dramaturgical background. I find that refreshing and enriching, artistically and personally.
Q: Let's speak about your immigrant experience. What do you like about Toronto?
I like its multiculturalism. I like how natural it seems to everybody to meet people from other cultures and engage with eachother without necessarily knowing their background. I like how everyone who comes here has a story and a rich history that they come with, and they are mostly different from mine. And I like that many people come here with that idea to start something new, or that it's a land of opportunity, even though it sounds very cliché. They don't see the limitations first; they see the possibilities first.
Enlarge image Dramaturg Birgit Schreyer Duarte at the Canadian Stage rehearsal hall (© German Consulate Toronto) Q: What is the most difficult thing about living here?
That's easy, actually: Home sickness. Living apart from my twin sister Annette. And the few things I just don't have here, like good bread. Those cliché things that all Germans miss (laughs). Or the infrastructure: I don't understand when a streetcar comes. I 'd like to know exactly when the streetcar comes!
And I don't like that there is not a real city center, no natural public meeting place. I hate Yonge-Dundas Square; it's very artificial. I miss market squares. I miss church bells.
And sometimes I prefer the German directness to the Canadian politeness, but that’s a whole other topic!
Q: How has the experience of changing country changed you?
Of course it has hugely changed me. It made me so much more aware of what my home country is like and what is unique and precious and problematic about it.
Of course it also opened my eyes to so many different ways of living and seeing the world.
I remember that distinct moment when, a long time ago, I went to an English class in Toronto, and I saw a map of the world on the wall, and it had America in the middle. And I did not even quite recognize it first. If even something as “absolute” as a map of the world can look different depending on the perspective you are using - what is the rest of my experience going to be like? Little did I know that so many things I would be encountering later were to be about switching perspectives.
Birgit Schreyer Duarte is a dramaturg and artistic associate at Canadian Stage, where she works in season planning with artistic director Matthew Jocelyn and producer Sherrie Johnson.
Her recent translation of German playwright Philipp Löhle's "Das Ding" will be presented by Canadian Stage and Theatre Smash from April 12 - May 1, 2016.
She also works as a director. Her upcoming project is Shakespeare in High Park this summer, where she will be directing “Hamlet” for Canadian Stage.