As Few Words as Possible Sarah Cameron Sunde on Jon Fosse
I first met Sarah Cameron Sunde in 2004 at 45 Bleecker just prior to a performance of the Night Sings Its Songs by Jon Fosse, Norway’s leading contemporary playwright. Although Fosse had already been produced around the world and translated into more than 40 languages, this production marked the first in the United States, translated and directed by Sunde and produced by Oslo Elsewhere— a company Sunde founded with her collaborator Anna Gutto. Sunde has directed and translated all of Fosse’s New York productions to date including deathvariations in 2006. Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with her between rehearsals to talk about her work on Fosse’s newest play, Sa Ka La, produced by Oslo Elsewhere and running this month at the Theatres at 45 Bleecker.
Paul Willis (Rail): What does Sa Ka La mean?
Sarah Cameron Sunde: Sa Ka La is um, well, it doesn't—it doesn't necessarily mean anything in Norwegian—it's not a translated piece of text.
Rail: It’s an unusual title.
Sunde: It’s an unusual title, it is, it's true. Well, in the play it functions as the syllables and sounds that come out of the mother's mouth, when she has lost her capability of lang—of speaking, or lost her ability to speak language. She's lost her language. And, it—Sa Ka La appears twice in the play and, you know, it's very open as to exactly what it means or what it's doing or how it's functioning. I have my specific theory but I wouldn't want to share it. (laughs)
Sunde: Or I could share it…if you really wanted me to.
Rail: I would like to hear it, actually.
Rail: Yeah, I'm interested in why you think it was used as the title.
Sunde: Fosse's titles are always kind of simple and somewhat poetic. It makes sense to me because the play revolves around Mom and she says “Sa Ka La” twice—once to the daughters and then once to the son, and…it sounds good. (laughter) I want the audience to decide what they think it actually means, if they think it means anything. So I can’t reveal all my secrets.
Rail: In terms of the language, on the page the text is laid out in a verse form. One or two words to a line—broken lines. How do you approach that as a director?
Sunde: I think the text dictates everything. I'm very loyal to what he says because I think he gives us so many great clues and I think he's a genius. If you follow the rhythm of the text—and of course in translating it I try to hold that rhythm—whether there's a capital letter or a lowercase letter at the beginning of the line, that tells you a lot. In terms of the line breaks you know there are minor shifts—sometimes there's a major shift, but if he has something on a separate line you know there's a tiny little shift at least. He writes in “New Norwegian” and it's such a poetic language — the rhythm plays so much how the words go down on paper. I hear it very clearly and of course actors sometimes give me something that I’m not hearing...and sometimes they surprise me of course...but it's usually pretty clear. And if we follow his rhythms then we'll usually be successful.
Rail: Fosse is an extremely language-oriented playwright—in all of his plays that I’ve read there’s a lot of experimentation going on with language. As someone who speaks Norwegian can you talk about what he’s up to? What’s the experiment?
Sunde: I think his language experiment—which is really a great way of putting it—I think it kind of comes back to the fact that he's playing with the very simple, everyday things people say. He uses really normal things that people say and repeats them and then sometimes he throws in something kind of weird about that. He's using as few words as possible to tell the most complex story possible.
Rail: That's nice. I haven't heard you describe it that succinctly before.
Sunde: Oh really? Oh good. Maybe I should write that down and tell it to my actors.
Rail: One of the things you notice immediately with Fosse’s work is the usage of the Norwegian sound ‘ja’ (pronounced ‘ya’). Can you give me a basic breakdown of how you have approached that sound as a director?
Sunde: Okay. So the word ‘yah’ in Norwegian means ‘yes’. At its most basic level it means yes. But it also means—if you were going to translate it into English, especially with Fosse since he uses so many Jas, it can mean something more like 'um’, 'huh', 'well,' ‘argh,’ ‘uh,’ 'ah,' etc. It can give you a hesitation or a stumble...it can be an affirmative, but it's also a filler thing that's just there. Part of the texture.
Rail: Notates a thought without actually dictating what the thought is?
Rail: In the script you use a 'yah' whenever it comes up.
Sunde: Fosse uses JA all over the place. It's not like every Norwegian playwright uses the word JA in the same way. He's doing something very specific. And that's a prime example of how he writes the way people speak. Not how you're supposed to write. When I first translated Night Sings Its Songs I actually was like, “I have no idea what to do with this right now. I feel like the repetition is important but I don’t know if that will sustain us for the entire play.” So when I did the first reading of my translation, I decided to write Y-A-H as kind of a neutral form. It's kind of like yeah. For some reason I don't like Y-E-A-H because sometimes people think it means yay and sometimes they think it means yeah and it has a kind of nasally sound to me when it's ‘yeah’. So I was trying to find a neutral way of having a new word we all kind of know but also had an openness to it and could be many different things...so I wrote YAH and I gave the actors little slips of paper and I said, "okay, any time you see YAH you can insert any of these numerous things [ah, well, uhm, etc.] into that place and we'll see what happens." Have I told you this story?
Rail: No, no.
Sunde: Okay, so...they did the reading and a few of them inserted different things in a couple different places, but for the most part they stuck to this YAH. I thought it was so fascinating that that's what people chose to do. And what it really showed me in hearing it, was kind of the importance of the YAHs and how it’s this little word that kind of connects all the characters to each other. And it’s very specific. I think that once you really start listening to people, we really do use it a lot, or something that's really close to it. And so I thought, “You know what? The repetition is more important. The repetition of something, whatever it is, is more important than having the difference dictated through the translation.” You lose something if as translator and director, I decide what all of those things are.
Rail: That was a really good answer. I’ve asked you that question so many times. That was the most convincing argument I’ve heard in favor of keeping the YAHs.
Rail: Alright, final question. This is the big one.
Sunde: Uh oh.
Rail: As far as I know you were the first director, in fact the only director, to direct Fosse in the United States, right?
Sunde: Kinda. I think that now there’s been a few smaller productions in Ohio and now out in L.A.
Rail: This is your third production. You've translated all three, and you founded a company, Oslo Elsewhere, with the talented Anna Gutto, that holds Fosse up as its flagship playwright. You've showed an unbelievable amount of dedication and commitment to this playwright. What is it about Fosse that has inspired this amazing amount of work?
Sunde: We feel very lucky to be able to be the first one here to be doing his work. It’s kind of this amazing opportunity that Anna and I found. His work is so...it’s different. And it’s surprising. I just connect to it and I connect to all the possibilities that are in there. There’s something that pulls you through it and it moves you in some way or is satisfying in some way, but you don't actually know everything, when you read it. It requires the life of the actors and vision of the director in order bring it—to make it full. Fosse is so special in how he's created his own theatricality. It’s very open. There’s a lot of space for the director and the actors and the designers. There's space for reflection.
Rail: Is Fosse's world view particularly Norwegian?
Sunde: I think it’s very human. I think that's why people in countries all over the world can relate to it. It’s about, you know, connections to people or trying to connect and not being able to. And in this play it’s about how we’re all really connected whether we like it or not. I think that for some reason in the US we have a tendency to label it as Norwegian, or German or Japanese or whatever, because that's what we are. We’re this melting pot.
Fosse even in Norwegian is doing something that is unique and, of course, his Norwegian culture will be a part of that, but it’s not about him being Norwegian. It’s a particular voice but I don't want it to be a foreign voice. It’s a different theatrical voice. You know? I feel like there's a desire here for something that is....exactly what he's doing.
Sa Ka La, by Jon Fosse, directed and translated by Sarah Cameron-Sunde, runs September 6-27, Thursdays through Mondays at 8pm at The Green Room/ Theatres at 45 Bleecker (45 Bleecker Street at Lafayette). Tickets: $18 at www.Telecharge.com or 212.239.6200 (or in person at the box office). Running time: 75 minutes (no intermission). For more info: www.osloelsewhere.org
Paul Willis is a theater director who lives in Brooklyn.