Actor Sesede Terziyan on the theatre
Interview: Arno Widmann
AW: I’m asking you in your role as a member of the older generation …
ST: Is that where I am now?
You still learned acting in the old-fashioned way, so characters and empathy. That’s what I want to get to eventually. But first, how did you hit upon the idea of becoming an actor?
It was in year 11 at school, I was 16 years old. I was in art class, concentrating fully on drawing my hands. My teacher came by and thought the way I was doing it was good. I was surprised myself at how good I was at drawing. Then we had a long conversation. »I am not«, I explained to him, »what I appear to be. My body is a prison. It is not enough for me«. I don’t know why I talked about that with that teacher in that moment. I had never talked about it with anyone before. Not even with myself.
You spoke about drawing. From that starting point you were able to talk about yourself. The body is a wonderful, living instrument.
We can draw ourselves. We can dance, sing. We can see, smell, taste ourselves. We can express ourselves. We can understand our bodies. We can work with them. That seemed amazing to me. In that conversation and thinking about it later, that became clear to me.
That the self can be hidden in the body as well?
What was the path from this drawing class to the theatre?
There was so much energy in me, it wanted out. It needed to express itself. In BACKNANG there was a clown school, EADS Nögge Atelier Theater. That’s where I started. I tore tickets, worked at the bar, in the office. Frieder Nögge, a famous clown at the time, had founded it together with Nina Haun. I went for a three-week internship and then stayed for three years. It was very good for me.
I come from a strict family. For my parents – they had lived as Armenians in Turkey – it was important to avoid attracting attention at all costs. At home we talk about everything. In the outside world we’re cautious. You must be five times as good as the others.
It was about control?
About self-control primarily. My father said: »You must review every word. Every word that you say, and every word said to you. Do not simply accept everything. Think about it for yourself«. That’s already how he was talking to me as a child. It was stressful. Smart, but also restrictive, nevertheless. Being together in a playful way at the theatre was a sigh of relief for me.
Your parents were against it?
No, not at all. My parents always supported artistic pursuits. »They will get you further«, they said. They supported me when they could. When I wanted to learn the clarinet, I got one: »It is nice to know how to play an instrument. Everyone should be able to play at least one instrument«, they explained. How I ended up at the theatre, that was your question. I discovered it as a space in which I could express myself.
Terrible. The world divided into individual subjects. Every 45 minutes a new pigeonhole. Unbearable. My whole body revolted against it, but it also did not know what it wanted, and my head did not know either. The theatre, in contrast, was about playing, a person was complete and where one wasn’t, they were searching for that wholeness. That was where I could try things out. Amazing. I stayed there until my A-levels. At the same time, I did internships: at the theatre in Stuttgart, the festival in Ludwigsburg, etc.
And school on the side?
Without the theatre I wouldn’t have finished it. I was in a literature study group as well. Three of us sat together and read Fontane. That was great. The school choir as well. But the normal day to day at school? No. But I was also lucky there. The right teachers always showed up at the right time, the ones who supported me in my interests and lack thereof. They pushed me forward. Sometimes it was just one sentence.
In the admin office at the clown school, I worked with Nina Haun. One day she said to me: »Sesede, you have to get out of the office, up onto the stage!« I needed that sentence. The entire time I was in the theatre, I was sneaking around the theatre. Without Nina Haun – who knows how much longer I would have done that. Today she’s a very successful casting director!
You were already doing internships?
In Stuttgart I had a directing internship with Samuel Weiss. His assistant was Kevin Rittberger, a very successful playwright today. That’s how I got into the theatre. I applied to the Ernst Busch Academy. Just because. I thought, if it works out, then it works out. If it doesn’t, then I’ll go to Nepal for a while. I had met a theologist who had founded a leprosy clinic there. When I do something, I do it the best I can. If it doesn’t work out, I do something else and do that the best I can. Just like my parents taught me.
You were accepted into the Ernst Busch Academy in Berlin. What was it like there?
I wanted, and was supposed to, become an actress. But I ended up in the lectures by Wolfgang Engler. All at once I thought the »sociology of culture« was much more exciting than acting. Then the theatre grabbed hold of me again. I learned what a text is. I learned to take it up into my body. Learned about its rhythm, about diction. I learned a text level by level and to understand it bit by bit, and I learned how I could bring forth all of that, every single thing I had grasped one after the other, in one moment. As something comprehended, understood, fulfilled.
The text was the starting point?
The polyphony of the text. At Ernst Busch it was never about what I feel when faced with a text. That was completely beside the point. It was about what feelings the text itself articulates. How does a text produce what images, what thoughts, through its rhythm? From excellent teachers I learned very different ways to familiarize myself with a character, an idea. How do the people speak in the texts? How do they move in spaces? We read Norbert Elias on The Court Society. Not only to understand classical European theatre, but also to comprehend that the world in which we live isn’t the way it is naturally. It came out of other circumstances, and it will pass over into others. We learned a lot and very different things at Ernst Busch.
Afterwards the boring normality of the theatre set in?
It was and is still very exciting. For example, when I started at the Deutsches Theater in Göttingen in Arthur Miller‘s The Crucible, a colleague explained that she needed to rehearse with her tights rolled down to get into her character. I thought that was absurd. »I need this«, she said, with her tights under her knees. Interesting, I thought. There are many roads that lead to Rome. That was one way I hadn’t learned at Ernst Busch. The approach there was: Go into your text first. What is the idea? What is it about? How is it said? What is left unsaid? At Ernst Busch I was here, and the text was there. It was never about the text getting closer to me, rather I needed to get closer to the text.
It was about the great roles, the great texts?
It was about good texts. They are characterised by their complexity. You can always discover something new in them. Those are the texts, they will still be, when I have long since reached the age that you are now, fresh as the spring dew. There are texts, they grow with me. I bite into them, swallow them, retch them back up again, taste them, start over again. A good text abducts me. Into heights and depths of myself that I did not know before.
I just rediscovered Faust. It is actually very spiritual. There is knowledge there and, within that, secret knowledge and within that another. And that’s how it keeps going. But of course, I also enjoy the metre. The pauses and the silence within it. I discover new qualities in it again and again. Being able to engage with texts in this way, I have my studies to thank for that.
Do you remember moments from it?
Many of them. But right now, I was thinking about my speech coach Monika Schneider. I was afraid of her. Regardless of how well prepared I was, I was never good enough. As soon as she stood on stage with me, she became such a colossus! She always heard it when I cheated, when I, for example, spoke beautifully because I didn’t understand exactly what was going on. She also sensed it when I wasn’t thinking what I was saying. She saw it, she heard it. I learned a lot from her.
You always stood across from each other?
Of course not. I recited Schiller while running around the stage, playing with a ball or jumping like a frog. That’s how I trained my muscles and endurance, learned to keep my voice calm. There were umpteen exercises, and the entire body was always involved. A lot of things were also absorbed. I learned to listen to myself and see myself – and control myself.
I cannot listen to myself, much less watch myself. I don’t look in the mirror when I shave. It will be very difficult for me to type up this interview; I don’t like listening to my voice. I admire people who can watch themselves calmly and say: that is good, that isn’t so good. Here I should do this, here that. I am always simply appalled. It’s a terrible vanity.
That’s why you didn’t become an actor. I turn myself into the object of my work. I am also – formulated in a bureaucratic way – »bound by directives«. I have to be able to observe myself, control myself and correct myself. Acting in the theatre means trying things out. Every word, every step. Anyone who doesn’t like that is lost in this career. Look in the mirror and try to look surprised, shocked or in love. It will be a caricature. If you want to improve that, eventually you won’t see yourself anymore, but critique your expression instead.
Ms Terziyan, you’re coaching me! Thank you.
A bit of counselling in the joy of play. The desire to try things out. Examining texts for situations and ideas again and again, trying to make the ideas in them lean and concrete. The phrase »kind of« appears much too frequently. At Ernst Busch they said, »Kind of doesn’t exist. We don’t need kind of«. No one needs kind of.......
In rehearsals, individuals’ perceptions collide with one another.
That is the wonderful thing about the theatre. We surprise each other. But that is only possible when I’m prepared. I need to know my text in order to be free enough to react to the impulses from others. There needs to be a certain foundation there in order to play.
I saw you last in Marta Górnicka’s excellent play Still Life: a chorus for animals, people and all other lives. In that performance I didn’t notice anything of what you’ve been talking about.
What? You’re deaf, blind and mad. Chorus work is the top tier. Still Life is not about singular individuals with their own unique biographies. You’re right about that. Still Life is about eight people, who are all individuals of course, finding a collective breath.
»We Germans«, begins one sentence in the play, »have the right to regain our memory«. How does one say this sentence? What is emphasized? What effects do rhythmic shifts have? What meanings do they reveal? That must be tried out, the self must be opened up completely to the text and its rhythm. That must be properly trained – like athletes go about it, with discipline – otherwise the individuals will not turn into a chorus, not into a collective body. It’s only then that a bird’s eye perspective can be taken, and one can begin to see the whole. One sees there is a set of laws in which I move. When I leave this framework, everything collapses. There are no main and supporting roles. Each of us is equally important. Developing an awareness of that, bringing it into the body, also the ability to endure it – I can only do that because I have learned so much of all that which you do not see. Perhaps it disappears within all that. But that is only possible when it’s there in the first place.
That’s why you call the chorus the top tier?
The chorus is a collective consciousness, which absorbs the different sets of knowledge from individuals – in Still Life individual species – into itself like a monster and then reproduces them. First of all, it’s that consciousness that’s overpowering in the space. This monster moves in one direction sometimes, sometimes in the other. With every movement, it picks up new things and reproduces them. It devours everything. The entire world. But it is a chorus, theatre. Perhaps the audience has experienced itself and its knowledge being devoured by the monsters outside. But here they are not devoured. Here they are shown something. In this mirror, they can see themselves. They can use it to correct themselves.
At acting school, you studied roles: Nora, Gretchen, Blanche, Penthesilea etc. When you auditioned you showed that you have a command of these roles. The theatre has largely distanced itself from these roles. Didn’t you learn something that’s now outdated?
The one does not exclude the other. Here at the Maxim Gorki Theatre, first and foremost, we love to tell stories that aren’t told elsewhere. When we do tell well-known stories, we like to deconstruct them to reveal sides of them which, if they were to be performed as they have always been performed, would remain invisible. We also like to take individual characters apart, reconstruct them in a new way. We put them in new contexts. So, we don’t make it easy for ourselves.
Is your knowledge useful for you or does it get in your way?
I am certain that it is useful for me. However, I am no longer a beginner. If I was, it would probably be more difficult for me. As a young actor I wanted to play all of the roles, wanted to discover my femininity. That is so important. But the journey is also important: the individual, the psychology, the emotions, the empathy, the hunger for self-expression – one must experience and do all that, in order to then say: no, I will adopt the bird’s eye view. I bid farewell to myself. That, after all, has been chewed over anew so often. What nutritional value does it have for the theatre today?
Therefore, Still Life?
The »Chorus of Dead Animals«, the great god of transformation arrives and looks at the world. We stand in the chorus and tell of the transformation, but we are – in a way that’s visible to everyone – dependent on the conductor. Without the chorus leader, this newly created individuality of the chorus, falls apart. The collective mass cannot manage without a leader. A contradiction. We make it visible. We present it, we embody it. We the many, who are one body and one text, stand on stage, and in the hall, Marta Górnicka stands alone and conducts us. As if we were puppets on her strings. There are moments when I am, when we are, freer and there are moments when I need, when we need, her one hundred percent, otherwise everything would collapse. At the same time, we speak of transformation, of liberation. This contradiction hasn’t stopped preoccupying me.
We are all living in it.
We are the sum of our histories, our information, our perceptions. We are always together with others. We move within a large mass. Everyone is their own body, but we move together. In Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti writes: »There is no more obvious expression of power than the performance of a conductor«. While we were working on Still Life, I read Canetti’s pages on the conductor very closely, I committed them to memory: » During a concert, and for the people gathered together in the hall, the conductor is a leader«. The musicians have only their parts, the conductor, in contrast, the entire score. »His attention is everywhere at once, and it is to this that he owes a large part of his authority. He is inside the mind of every player. (…) since, during the performance, nothing is supposed to exist except this work, for so long is the conductor the ruler of the world«.
What does that have to do with Still Life?
We are very focussed on Marta Górnicka in the performances as well. That’s different from the theatre in general. In this piece, it’s like being in an orchestra. It’s fifty-five very stressful minutes. I’m exhausted afterwards. But it is also great that not everyone needs to tell their own story, that that isn’t at all necessary for us to gather together. We get to know ourselves anew. We meet each other in something new. That is also liberation. Eight people stand there, repeating the same sentences over and over again for five minutes, in changing rhythms – it’s like a trip. It pushes me into very different spaces of perception.
The act of being pushed is a liberation?
Yes, it is a liberation from the story, from the self. But that is actually not a liberation at all, because that needs to be one of the self. Right? A massive topic, a gigantic question. We cannot answer it, but we can pose it and pose it once more and pose it again. Every time it will be something else. What is a choice freely made? But that is an entirely different topic.
It is one of the central topics of the theatre. In both plays which present characters trying to liberate themselves – The Robbers, A Doll’s House, Life of Galileo etc. – as well as our attempts to liberate ourselves from these plays by dissecting them and their characters. It is always about the freedom we give ourselves.
Today we are facing, on all levels, something new, and we don’t realise it yet. We analyse the old, take it apart, in the hope that we will be able to glimpse the new that comes out of the destruction of usual constructions – societal or personal as well – whose building blocks are in the process of being put together in a new way. Will I always continue to act in the theatre? Or will I do something new someday?
For example, no longer having the texts of others eat their way into the self, and performing one’s own instead?
That point about the texts of others, that’s true. Perhaps that’s why I don’t go to the theatre or the cinema much anymore, perhaps that’s why I like to be alone more now, because I feel how these other characters, these other rhythms, take possession of me. As beautiful as they can be, they are body eaters. But writing myself? I wouldn’t know how I’m supposed to go about that. At home I have hours of recordings of conversations with my aunts and great aunts, telling me the stories of their lives. Fantastic material. But I don’t know how I would be able to give it a structure. What should it amount to?
If you were to play Kleist’s Penthesilea now, wouldn’t that be a trip as well?
It’s funny that you bring up Penthesilea. During my studies I picked Penthesilea for an audition once. I packed the anger of all women in her, all of their pain. I failed gloriously. It didn’t work at all. Perhaps it wasn’t just my fault. Perhaps that doesn’t work anymore today. But perhaps I ask myself this question today because I went so far into this character, because I worked so hard on her.
That doesn’t appeal to you anymore today?
I am at a different point: how do I enter into something collective with the theatre? How can that be expressed? Would that work with Penthesilea? I can only imagine it working by breaking the character of Penthesilea. Not by experiencing her but demonstrating her as representative for all Penthesileas. Perhaps it’s also because I love to destroy what I build. But it’s also true that, as my colleague Manfred Karge once told me during a joint rehearsal for Thomas Bernhard’s Forellenquintett, »you must never know more than your character.« Play new characters again and again, rediscover yourself again and again – that is acting.
Sesede Terziyan is a key figure in the post-migrant theatre, was already a part of it at the Ballhaus Naunynstrasse – which she also co-invented – and has been a member of the Gorki ensemble since 2013. Terziyan is known to a wider audience as a detective on WaPo Berlin, among other screen roles. Despite many offers in film and television, she has never given up the theatre, it is her passion.
Translation: Summer Banks; Canetti Translation (1962): Carol Stewart